January 19, 2015
Why climate karma counts
Over the holidays, a gracious lady from Tonga shared with me the story of Tu’i Malila, the “Little King.” This Madagascar radiated tortoise was presented as a gift to the King of Tonga by Captain Cook in 1777 and he lived until the age of 188, dying in the mid-1960s. This tortoise had bridged the human eras of sea exploration and space exploration. I wondered if Captain Cook had any inkling how long his gift would endure and how much the world would change over that time.
I’ve been reflecting on how the choices we make each day about climate change represent our gift – or our burden – to future generations. They don’t have a say in what they will inherit from us, they can’t vote for today’s visionary leaders and they can’t remind us to change our habits. The collective impact of what we emit now will extend well beyond the typical climate change modelling threshold of 2100, which lies within the lifetime of today’s children.
December 14, 2014
By Mara Ellis | © Xtremesafari | Dreamstime Stock Photo
I read an inspiring story recently about Dr Donald Berwick, former CEO of the US Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). His research showed that hospitals were repeatedly making avoidable mistakes that were costing patients’ lives. Although he only had a tiny staff and limited resources, he decided that things needed to change. At a convention of US hospital administrators in 2004, he set out a challenge: saving 100,000 lives in the next 18 months. He spoke to the heart of why change was needed, identified six clear, manageable interventions and launched a campaign to enrol hospitals in making the necessary changes. He knew it would be hard for hospitals to admit they were routinely making mistakes and change standard practices, but he made it easy for hospitals to join and provided mentoring, information sharing and feedback. Eighteen months later, they had prevented an estimated 122,300 avoidable deaths (Heath and Heath 2010).
How does this story relate to climate change? Collectively our society is repeatedly taking avoidable actions which are changing the climate and causing harm. Like the hospitals at the beginning of the story, we have practical solutions with valuable benefits at our fingertips but we aren’t using them seriously yet. Fundamentally, the challenge of climate change is a challenge of people change. In government departments, businesses and households, our lack of willingness to change is the figurative “elephant in the room.”
November 7, 2014
On 2 November 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Synthesis Report 2014 with the headline “Climate change threatens irreversible and dangerous impacts, but options exist to limit its effects.” The report is a sobering reminder that limiting temperature increases below 2° Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels could entail reducing emissions by 40-70 percent of 2010 levels by 2050, and bringing net emissions near or below zero by 2100. It emphasises the clear benefits of near-term action given the inertia of economic and climate systems.
A White House report issued in July 2014 also highlights the costs of delaying action to reduce emissions. Two key findings were:
- Based on a leading aggregate damage estimate in the climate economics literature, a delay that results in warming of 3° Celsius above preindustrial levels, instead of 2°, could increase economic damages by approximately 0.9 percent of global output… The incremental cost of an additional degree of warming beyond 3° Celsius would be even greater. Moreover, these costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay.
- An analysis of research on the cost of delay for hitting a specified climate target (typically, a given concentration of greenhouse gases) suggests that net mitigation costs increase, on average, by approximately 40 percent for each decade of delay. These costs are higher for more aggressive climate goals: each year of delay means more CO2 emissions, so it becomes increasingly difficult, or even infeasible, to hit a climate target that is likely to yield only moderate temperature increases.
The global case for near-term action is clear. What about the case for near-term action in New Zealand?
This issue has proven challenging for New Zealand so far. In addition to economic and climate inertia, New Zealand has faced a third important dimension: political inertia. This was the subject of Alister Barry’s 2014 documentary “Hot Air”. Using archival footage and retrospective interviews, the film traces New Zealand’s successive attempts to price and reduce greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Across policy cycles from the government’s initial consideration of emission pricing to the choice of voluntary greenhouse agreements, consideration and abandonment of a carbon tax and agricultural emissions research levy, the monumental passage of legislation for the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) and the subsequent decisions that reduced its impact, a similar story was repeated.
Attempts to shift New Zealand toward a lower-emission development pathway were resisted effectively by those with powerful interests in maintaining business as usual.
March 31, 2014
In the international climate change negotiations, countries agreed to the global goal of limiting warming above pre-industrial levels to not more than 2 degrees C. According to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, to maintain a 66% chance of achieving that goal, cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions starting from the period 1861-1880 must remain below about 1 trillion tonnes of carbon (3.67 trillion tonnes of CO2). That drops to an even more restrictive budget when non-CO2 greenhouse gases are taken into account.
How are we tracking so far? By 2011, we had already spent half of the trillion tonne budget.
February 22, 2014
I am a Person Who Does Too Much.
I know I am not alone. There is a whole industry producing self-help books, meditations and page-a-day calendars for people like me. I have them all sitting on my shelf without enough time to read them.
The pattern of overdoing was set very early in life in response to fear which proved very adaptable. In elementary school, my fear was rejection by my teachers. In junior high, my fear became not getting into college. I started studying for college entrance exams years early and stressed over every assignment. By high school, the fear extended to not earning a scholarship. College was then dominated by the fear of losing that scholarship. By the time I graduated, the fear had become job insecurity in a bad economy. As my career has matured, the fear has shifted to failing to make a real difference. Throughout my life, overdoing was supposed to deliver security. Of course, it never has.
Naturally I sought out a career that was custom made for overdoing: climate change policy. Here is a problem of monumental proportions with potentially devastating consequences and practical solutions with obvious co-benefits which society is largely ignoring in a form of global self-sabotage. Overdoing to the rescue! For the past 20 years, my work has been fascinating, rewarding and totally exhausting. I joke that my life would be just fine if only I had an extra twelve hours in the day. But even that would never be enough.
January 19, 2014
Image from NASA 10 April 2013
With climate change in 2013, the more things changed…
‘Tis the season for retrospective assessment of the past year’s news, and climate change certainly made global headlines in 2013. On the science front, we heard about grim prospects under business as usual for projected temperature increases and associated global impacts on water and food security, human health, polar ice, sea level rise and species loss. When it came to extreme weather events, broken records started to sound like, well, broken records accompanied by human tragedy and economic loss.
…the more they stayed the same.
From a New Zealand perspective in 2013, the more the climate changed, the more climate change policy stayed the same. However, action is emerging in other ways, especially from the nation’s youth who are concerned about their future, local governments that want to future-proof urban development, and businesses that recognise the value of positioning New Zealand to compete under carbon constraints in the longer term.
You can download a free Silver Lining report New Zealand and Climate Change in 2013 with selected climate change news highlights from 2013, links to useful resources and some reflections on the coming year.
August 26, 2013
In late 2012, New Zealand declined a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol and opted for a non-binding emission reduction target for 2020 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. On 16 August 2013, the Government finally named its 2020 target: a 5% reduction below 1990 levels.
Not only is the 2020 target weaker than the previous conditional pledge of a 10-20% reduction, but it applies only to a single year, leaving unspecified the responsibility for emissions from 2013 through 2019. The Government has not yet explained how the country will meet this target, how it will count surplus units from the previous period, or whether the Treasury will record target compliance as a financial obligation, as was the case under the Kyoto Protocol. Without this information, it is hard to know what the target actually means. Legally, the only check on New Zealand’s performance will be international reporting and the power of public opinion. Time will tell.
According to its media release, the Government believes it has “carefully balanced the cost to New Zealand households and businesses against taking ambitious action to tackle climate change.” Climate Change Minister Tim Groser was quoted separately in the media as saying, “Unless we get a serious international effort, anything we do with the ETS or subsequent to it is a complete waste of time.”