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Bringing Climate Change Down to Earth

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

Victor Luca, 26-Aug-19.

Published. The Beacon, 10-Sep-19.

Source: NASA – Black Marble composite image of the earth at night. The lights you see covering much of the land mass have been turned on mostly over the past century.

I am a scientist and like the great philosopher of science, Karl Popper, I believe that scientific knowledge is the best and most important knowledge we have. The high standard of living and prolonged life expectancies we all enjoy relative to past generations is in large measure due to the scientific and technological achievements of dedicated people. This scientific development is however a double edged sword.

The best science we have is telling us that climate change is real and that it is primarily instigated by humans. Science is also telling us that we are making things worse, not better, and maybe faster than we at first thought. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has indicated that we have 12 years to limit warming to below 1.5 oC in order to avert potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity. Unfortunately, we are far from being on track in bringing the situation under control.

The composite image of earth at night produced by NASA speaks volumes about the extent and speed of human development.

The data given below is taken from a publication by one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Dr James Hansen and his collaborators. The main graph shows the warming that has occurred over the past 11,700 years or the holocene period. The blue line shows that the temperature has been 0.5 oC warmer relative to the 1880-1920 period. Whilst these graphs are ostensibly simple, obtaining reliable data has been an extremely complex process that is out of the scope of this article. The steep increase in temperature occurring during modern times is extremely perturbing. The upward moving temperature curve over the 1880-2018 period has the same shape as the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere over time which can be well measured. That is, CO2 concentration correlates well with the temperature increase.

Source: Hansen et al., Young people’s burden: requirement of negative CO2 emissions. Earth System Dynamics 2017, 8, 577.

Looking back in time one can find that assertions that CO2 produced by fossil fuel burning by we humans is affecting the climate are not new. Among the first to make the connection between emissions from fossil fuel burning and climate was the Nobel prize-winning chemist Svante Arrhenius, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903 for his work on chemical reaction kinetics. More than 100 years ago Arrhenius attempted to quantify the contribution of CO2 in the atmosphere to the green-house effect. Whoever penned the article published in The Rodney and Otamatea Times, as long ago as August 14, 1912, also clearly recognized that CO2 from coal burning was going to cause warming. So nothing new under the sun!

In 1992 the Union of Concerned Scientists published an article with the ominous title “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”. Some 1700 leading scientists put their signatures to this ominous warning including the majority of the Nobel laureates in the sciences who were alive at the time. In November 2017, 15,364 scientists signed a follow-up article entitled “World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice”. In this article the authors pointed out that we have made little progress in mitigating the situation and in fact we are making it worse.

If we admit that climate change is real then the obvious follow-on question is what can we New Zealanders do to contribute positively? Since NZ’s emissions contribute only about 0.2% to total global emissions, our contribution to the problem is next-to-nothing. Our efforts to fix things are therefore going to have next-to-no impact. By contrast, China overtook the United States as the largest global emitter only in 2005 (about 30% a piece). Unfortunately, although we as a country have not caused climate change, we will nonetheless also suffer its wrath. So my answer to the question that was posed, is that we can do almost nothing. But almost nothing is not nothing at all.

Rather, we should not criticize the lack of leadership but instead show leadership ourselves so that the major emitters will feel compelled to act. We must set an example!

Our best science is indicating that anthropogenic climate change is real, and since we cannot escape the consequences, the best that we can do is be prepared. We should protect our environment, since it sustains us, and we should do our best to protect ourselves from the environment when the predicted extreme weather hits. In our region we have seen many times the impacts that flooding can have and the lives it ruins. Water scarcity will also severely test us, if we don’t think ahead and prepare. We must be proactive not reactive!

We would all do well to heed the traditions of Tangata Whenua and prioritize and care for our resources of fertile land and clean water. Such resources are priceless and should be cherished and preserved for future generations and not be used to make a quick buck. Allowing foreigners, who don’t even live here, to buy bolt-holes does nothing for the people who call Aotearoa home, or help in any way to ameliorate the environmental or climate situation.

Providing inducements via subsidies for the well-heeled to buy a few expensive electric cars might satisfy some but will do nothing to improve the situation when the contribution that transportation makes to NZ’s already insignificant emissions is only about 17%. The majority of the remaining 85% of emissions come from industry and agriculture.

Whilst there are many good reasons for planting millions of trees, and whilst it might also make for good optics, and make us feel better, this action will do next-to-nothing, especially if those trees are mostly pines. Over many decades we humans have been putting 40 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Since the average tree can absorb about one tonne of CO2 over its lifetime of about 40 years we would need to plant 40 billion trees per year just to counter the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere every year. With this amount of tree planting we would not be eliminating CO2 already up there. Yet the IPCC tells us that we have 12 years to get things under control.

Symbolic declarations of climate emergencies that are not backed by significant deeds might make us feel good but alone, they are futile. We need global scale Manhattan or Moon Shot projects rolled out globally if we are going to make any impact at all.

But as I said before, doing next-to-nothing is not doing nothing. Taking care of our own back yard by building in climate resilience and protecting our environment is just common sense given climate predictions and the declining health of our environment. Setting good examples in an attempt to influence the major emitters is the second action we can and must take!


[1] Popper, K., (author), In Search of a Better World (Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years) 1st Edition. Routledge 1944. “I want to begin by declaring that I regard scientific knowledge as the best and most important kind of knowledge we have – though I am far from regarding it as the only one.”

[2] Cook et al., Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environ. Res. Lett. 2006, 11, 048002.

[3] Arrhenius, S. On the influence of carbonic acid on air temperature – Phil. Mag. & J. Sci. 1896,41, 237.

News Clip Linked Coal to Climate Change - 106 Years Ago Today by Kimberly Hickok, Staff Writer, August 14, 2018 04:37pm ET.

[5] Union of concerned scientists.

[6] Ripple et al., World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. BioScience 2017, 67(12), 1026-1028.

Climate change and the 75% problem, Bill Gates October 17, 2018.

[9] IPCC report.

[11] Daily – Nature’s Services – Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Island Press 1997.

[13] Perkins Marsh, G. Man and Nature – Or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. HUP 1864.

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