TDB today: The Big Crunch

My column at The Daily Blog this week looks at last week’s call from the Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere (a cross-disciplinary group of hundreds of top scientists) for urgent action to address climate change, extinctions, loss of ecosystem diversity, pollution, and human population growth and resource consumption. To call it a big challenge would be an understatement… Comments over there please.

The year the earth bit back: top climate stories of 2012

2012Amidst the blizzard of year-end roundups, here’s one you have to read in full — a joint effort put together by a diverse group of bloggers and scientists: Angela Fritz, Eli Rabett, Emilee Pierce, Greg Laden, Joe Romm, John Abraham, Laurence Lewis, Leo Hickman, Michael Mann, Michael Tobis, Paul Douglas, Scott Mandia, Scott Brophy, Stephan Lewandowsky, Tenney Naumer and yours truly. Lead author Greg Laden explains:

A group of us, all interested in climate science, put together a list of the most notable, often, most worrying, climate-related stories of the year, along with a few links that will allow you to explore the stories in more detail. We did not try to make this a “top ten” list, because it is rather silly to fit the news, or the science, or the stuff the Earth does in a given year into an arbitrary number of events. (What if we had 12 fingers, and “10” was equal to 6+6? Then there would always be 12 things, not 10, on everyone’s list. Makes no sense.) We ended up with 18 items, but note that some of these things are related to each other in a way that would allow us to lump them or split them in different ways. See this post by Joe Romm for a more integrated approach to the year’s events. Also, see what Jeff Masters did here. We only included one non-climate (but related) item to illustrate the larger number of social, cultural, and political things that happened this year. For instance, because of some of the things on this list, Americans are more likely than they were in previous years to accept the possibility that science has something to say about the Earth’s climate and the changes we have experienced or that may be in the future; journalists are starting to take a new look at their own misplaced “objective” stance as well. Also, more politicians are starting to run for office on a pro-science pro-environment platform than has been the case for quite some time.

A failing of this list is that although non-US based people contributed, and it is somewhat global in its scope, it is a bit American based. This is partly because a few of the big stories happened here this year, but also, because the underlying theme really is the realisation that climate change is not something of the future, but rather, something of the present, and key lessons learned in that important area of study happened in the American West (fires) the South and Midwest (droughts, crop failures, closing of river ways) and Northeast (Sandy). But many of the items listed here were indeed global, such as extreme heat and extreme cold caused by meteorological changes linked to warming, and of course, drought is widespread.

Continue reading “The year the earth bit back: top climate stories of 2012”

Seven keys to green growth in NZ: Pure Advantage’s new economic analysis

Last week business lobby group Pure Advantage launched [Herald, Stuff] a specially commissioned report, Green Growth: Opportunities for New Zealand, which presents, they say, “an exhaustive, objective economic argument for embracing green growth”. The report was produced by a London-based economics consultancy in conjunction with the University of Auckland Business School, and is the culmination of two years work to identify the most effective ways of implementing green growth business strategies in NZ.

Launching the report, Pure Advantage (PA) chairman Rob Morrison said:

We firmly believe on the basis of this significant macroeconomic report that New Zealand has the potential to generate billions of dollars in new high-value economic growth, whilst at the same time improving New Zealand’s environmental performance.

Morrison said that PA intends to use the report as “a basis to establish, in consultation with industry, seven industry-specific green growth programmes”. The seven key ‘advantages’ are (links go to PA web explanations):

  1. Home Advantage: Retrofitting an efficient building environment;
  2. Geothermal Advantage: Creating a significant geothermal export industry
  3. Agricultural Advantage:
    Investing in sustainable and efficient agricultural technologies
  4. Waste-to-Energy Advantage: Installing bio-energy and waste-to-energy infrastructure
  5. Biofuel Advantage: Establishing a woody mass biofuel and bio-products industry
  6. Smart Grid Advantage: Installing the building blocks of a smart grid
  7. Biodiversity Advantage: Establishing a world-class biodiversity driven ecotourism and conservation education programme.

PA note that the report was “not driven by environmental idealism or fear of climate change”, yet the recommendations look a lot like the sort of joined up thinking on environment and emissions policy that has been so lacking from the present government. By making the business case for green growth, perhaps PA can start a bottom-up change of economic direction that will do for NZ what the government will not. It’s certainly a worthwhile effort, but while there are other lobby groups out there promoting rampant population growth as the way to stop economic decline, it will continue to be an uphill struggle.

Gambling with nature’s tolerance

Al Morrison, the director general of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation — the government body that manages about one-third of the country’s land area, from World Heritage temperate rainforest in the south to kauri forests in the north (not to mention running world-class efforts to conserve endangered native species such as the kakapo and tuatara) — gave a remarkable speech to Lincoln University last week. It was brave, far-sighted and touched so many right notes that it brought a bright little melody to my weekend reading.

Morrison was giving the university’s 12th annual State of the Nation’s Environment Address, and took the opportunity to discuss the pursuit of economic growth above all else in a country where conservation is a major contributor to that economy. Here are some of the highlights, but the whole thing is well worth a read:

Morrison considers the message from the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment:

We are degrading ecosystems and destroying species to a point where the services that nature provides, that we rely on for our sustenance, and that determine our prosperity, are being run down and out.

If we are to save ourselves from ourselves, then appealing to the intrinsic value of nature is not enough. It is not a matter of giving up that sense of awesome wonder, but rather adding to that, an argument designed to compel the uncommitted.

He explores the case for business to play a role in conservation in its widest sense.

It may seem crass to say that climate change and it’s big cousin, biodiversity loss, create a potential competitive advantage for New Zealand. But connecting the ethics and the self-interest; intrinsic value and economic benefits, helps us better understand that sustainable management of natural resources is not just about nice things to do when time and discretionary resources are available.

It is a necessary investment in the natural capital that sits at the base of our economy. Water, soil, air, nutrient cycles, climate regulation, pollination…these and other services are the natural capital we need to survive and prosper. That reality turns on its head the received wisdom that only rich counties can afford clean environments.

The way we measure economic progress is broken:

When the current recession revealed a collapsing financial system, some 12 trillion dollars was found in quick time across the globe to prop it up. But when nations met at Copenhagen to try and restore a collapsing environmental system, the cupboard was apparently all but bare.

Therein lies the nub of the problem.

The way we conventionally describe and measure economic progress is an incentive to ignore the impacts of unsustainable natural resource use and management, and capture the benefits and subsidies from that with a clear conscience.

We need to move beyond GDP as the measure of the real economy, and beyond growth as the only goal:

If GDP is failing as a measure of environmental sustainability then surely that is a powerful incentive to find a new construct that measures true progress.

It is no easy task to build one. First base is to balance economic, social and environmental considerations and reach a pragmatic compromise. But that’s far from a home run. Living in harmony with nature’s systems; living sustainably, is not apart from the economy, it is a key component of it. Nature’s systems lie at the base of any economy. If they are not functioning efficiently, then the economy cannot function efficiently. If we destroy them, we destroy the economy.

So like or not, our future is inextricably linked to how we tread on our land and oceans, and manage the natural resources that are the key to our surviving and thriving.

And finally:

But there is a lot of work to do to make this a prosperous path for New Zealand. It will require radical change in public policy and management, economic thinking, and business practice. I see enough activity to make me optimistic, but no real sense of urgency. We are still gambling with nature’s tolerance.

It was a brave speech by a senior civil servant who reports to a government committed to growing New Zealand’s by all means possible — including more exploration for oil and mineral resources in the conservation estate. It shows an awareness of the real issues that confront New Zealand and the world, something that seems to be all too uncommon in government anywhere. If you read nothing else today, read Morrison’s speech.

Morrison quoted poet Brian Turner at the beginning of his address, but the Otago poet’s words also make a fitting conclusion.

Under Mt St Bathans

There is majesty in the mass

Light moves, tints the snow;

The wind shakes the sparse grasses;

Water runs, stones rattle unexpectedly

And the land speaks;

None of us are greatly different,

We’re ordinary more than extraordinary

Most of the time. And if there’s one word

For what the sun highlights on the hills,

One word that we should apprehend

And make our own, it is

Decency: and, what’s ever implacable,

And what stone has irreducibly,


From: Into The Wider World by Brian Turner

For some reactions to Morrison’s speech, see this piece by David Williams in The Press.

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Biodiversity continues its steady decline. A team of scientists have this week published a study in Science confirming that fact.  Governments in 2002 at a summit on the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to aim to halt biodiversity loss by the year 2010. When experts meet in Nairobi on May 10 it will be to face the news that they have failed.  For example, since 1970  the world’s animal population has decreased by 30%, mangroves and sea grasses have shrunk in area by 20%, and live-coral coverage has fallen by 40%. “The state of biodiversity is definitely showing a rapid decline,” says Matt Foster, one of the lead authors on the Sciencepaper. “And the pressure just keeps increasing.”

It’s not that governments have made no efforts. The amount of protected land has steadily increased around the world, as has the area of sustainably managed forests. Increased money is being spent on biodiversity aid. But we’re still shouldering other species out of our way. And in doing so we’re attacking our own well-being. “We all benefit from biodiversity and we all hurt when it’s lost,” says Foster.

Climate change is only one of the ways in which humankind is contributing to biodiversity loss.  But it’s worth reminding ourselves that it is seriously exacerbating the process. I’ve been re-reading a fine book by Michael Novacek, Terra, published in 2007. He’s a distinguished paleontologist, Provost of Science at the American Museum of Natural History.  He was involved in the splendid Darwin exhibition put together by the Museum of Natural History which I was fortunate to be able to see when it was brought to the Auckland Museum in 2007.  That’s when I bought his book.  It’s subtitled Our 100-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem –- and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk. I think some points from his chapter on how the current warming is contributing to biodiversity loss are worth recounting here.

He notes changes in the activity of 694 species whose life history data between 1951 and 2001 has been studied.  A 2003 review found on average the species were either breeding, blooming, or doing other seasonally related activities 5.3 days earlier each decade.

The warming trend has also set species in motion. Some move poleward. Other species have moved upslope. Some have simply contracted and their surviving, marginalised populations have been reduced to precariously low levels.

Novacek is interesting on the evolutionary processes at work in the organisms affected by rapid alteration of range. The hardy colonisers which often establish at the leading edge of the shift may have a very low level of gene diversity, leaving them susceptible to further environmental changes. The populations at the trailing edge of the migration may have more genetic diversity, but they will start to fragment as the environmental conditions break up their preferred habitats.  The rate of environmental challenge may determine how a population’s genetic makeup and evolution are transformed. Slow change may be easier for the species to maintain genetic diversity at levels that allow it to persist. Drastic and rapid change make it more vulnerable. Simply moving to a cooler habitat does not guarantee that the genetic composition of the migrating populations will be robust enough to sustain them.

It’s made more complex by the bewildering diversity of examples in nature. Some species, especially in tropical and mountainous regions, may be buffered by the amount of genetic variation already resident in their populations. Other genetic studies suggest that climate change has easily outrun the rate at which a given population can adjust.

Novacek  sees contemporary evidence that climate change in combination with other factors is killing off certain species.  It seems to be the coup de grace for some coral species.  Increasing ocean acidification also plays a part in the demise of coral and threatens the most abundant and ecologically important sea organisms, the coccolithophorids, foraminifera and pteropods which are vitally important food for many fish.

On land, organisms that live in lakes, streams, rivers, and other bodies of freshwater are highly endangered and are especially susceptible to climate change because they cannot escape its effects, being captive in their habitat.

Most threatened are the habitats and species at high latitudes, the northern tundra and polar deserts such as those on the Arctic islands and Antarctica as well as species inhabiting high Alpine or montane habitats at middle to low latitudes.

I liked the last sentence of his chapter. In the preceding sentences he noted what he regarded as encouraging signs of acceptance of the science of global warming.  He recorded, however, still encountering individuals normally open to the discoveries of science who find it beyond belief that humans could disrupt the balance of the planet in such an enormous way. The final sentence: “But science has eventually convinced us before of the unbelievable.”