Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Climate Change [from EE/EFS perpective] by Dr David Chapman

Climate change

There is a great scene in the film Madagascar that I consider a poignant metaphor for the human condition.  Four slick New York zoo animals, lost in the jungles of Madagascar race for the safety of the beach.  In the process, the giraffe’s head becomes shrouded in a tangle of vines.  As they reach the beach, he screams, “I can’t see, I can’t see!”  At this, the hippo jumps on the trailing vine, which then falls clear of the giraffe’s face.  “I can see, I can see!” yells the giraffe, takes in the vista of endless uninhabited shore, screams again, and immediately buries his head in the sand.

The metaphor echoes our response to environmental issues in general and climate change in particular.  The latter has risen in profile in the public and political consciousness to that point where action of some sort is required as an inevitable consequence of a considerable period of rhetoric.  Sadly though, as politicians in election year actually try to do something, what is revealed is that our heads are buried in the sand.

Perhaps I am being unkind?  Perhaps what I have uncharitably taken as avoidance is actually complete ignorance about nearly everything to do with climate change.  I refer here to several statements by political leaders on the issue in the last half of May.  One involved a wrangle between the main political parties that, on one hand, resented that responses to climate change were going to cost the consumer, and on the other, tried to pretend that they would not.  Meanwhile, the Minister in charge of the issue was talking in terms of fixing climate change.

I do feel sorry for serious politicians on an issue like this though, and I mean the government here.  As soon as governments attempt to actually do something, the armchair critics have a field day.  Take the rail buy-back for example.  It seems ironic that Robert Muldoon electrified the railways to protect the country from the spiralling oil costs.  Since then, the rail system has been successively pillaged and abandoned by two multi-national companies.  Meanwhile the private road transport option is about the least energy efficient you could have.  An effective electric rail transport system is both more energy efficient and potentially uses renewable energy, a win-win situation.  Parliamentary democracies are not well suited to addressing long-term issues.

The ignorance I mentioned previously stems from a failure to grasp several related key facts.  One is that around 90% of the planet’s commercial energy comes from fossil fuels (2 billion of the worlds poorest people have no access to commercial energy).   The production of practically any manufactured good uses fossil fuels as the energy source, and thus contains the ’embedded energy’ that was used to produce it.  The second point is that coal consumption has been predicted (National Geographic, March 2006) to rise from around 5.4 billion tonnes per year to slightly over 8.2 billion tonnes by 2025, more than 50% increase.  So any thought of ‘fixing’ climate change is an illusion.  So is the notion that you can be carbon neutral by trading carbon credits.  This involves paying someone else to plant or preserve in order to offset your carbon emissions.  Okay, this is better than nothing as a short-term response but that is all it is.  Some figures will illustrate this.

National Geographic’s figures suggest global coal consumption over the next 20 years is close to 140 billion tonnes.  National Geographic data shows a tonne of coal produces nearly two tonnes of carbon dioxide. Thus, something like 250 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide will go up the stacks in the next twenty years.

How many trees would be needed to absorb this carbon dioxide?  Not to stop global warming, just to hold things as they are.  There are some tricks here.  Trees do not absorb much carbon dioxide when they are little, they take time to grow and get going.  When a forest matures though (and you don’t hear people saying this), it is carbon neutral.  Carbon dioxide use for growth is in balance with that released by death and decay.  This is why tree planting is a short-term strategy, even if you could plant enough trees to take in that 250 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.  Unless!  Unless, you cut them down and bury them somewhere where they cannot decay, like the ancient swamps in which the coal beds originally formed.  Trading carbon credits misses the point really.

It is thus obvious that the implication that you can address climate change without  it costing the consumer is simply deceitful.  If you want to have the same ‘stuff’, you will have to find renewable energy sources, which are more expensive.  Alternatively, you can pay the ‘opportunity cost’ of going without.  Either way, there is a cost.   The simple reality is however, that rich people have to use less.

It is amazing that while the cry of the ‘Rogernomic’ revolution of the 80s was the slogan “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, the fundamental assumption behind the growth economy is exactly the opposite.  The environment hosts the lunch.  Despite the evidence though, the giraffes still will not face up to the obvious.  In the meantime, the big superstores will still be banging on every weekend, ” no deposit, no interest and no repayments till the cows come home”.  Another magnificent metaphor for consumer culture…. where there is always the bait of ‘something for nothing’.

But what if we did become genuinely carbon neutral, what would we, as a nation, gain from it?  The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is that if we stop polluting while the big guys party on, we still suffer the consequences.  What we would gain is the moral high ground to work for improvement in the international community.  Such a course requires a deeper sense of nationhood than supporting a footy team.  It demands a proper sense of who we are and what our local and global responsibilities as human beings are.

It requires a sense of citizenship, both of Aotearoa and of planet Earth.  This is not ‘green’, it is simply an inevitable logic.  To protect something, you need to have a sense of belonging.  Climate change is in the end, too big an issue for petty party squabbling.  It needs to be the subject of nation-wide debate and multi-party consensus or the work of one government will be undone by the next, to the detriment of all.

* Dr Chapman is passionate teacher with an acute no-nonsense awareness of the real issues behind our environmental crisis, he clarified issues and guided students to the root cause of the problem. Dave was formerly lecturer on Environmental Education at Massey Univ., NZ. --Thank You David! ['for the Environment']