Climate change emergencies grow, but where is the political will?

The other day Auckland Council became another New Zealand local government body to declare a climate change emergency in the hope that it will bring the focus on the need for urgent action. And as more councils do start considering whether to declare, the spotlight’s glaring vision is focussing on the central Government’s (relative non)response.

Every single elected council in New Zealand could declare a climate emergency. Whilst the symbolism is great and would have impact if all councils actually did declare an emergency, the real leadership must come from central Government.

And such regional leadership appears unlikely. There are still, no doubt, regional, city and district councils around the country who do not believe that climate change justifies an emergency being declared. One of them is West Coast Regional Council, which is dominated by rural councillors. Despite significant storms visiting the West Coast on a more regular basis and despite increasingly large rainfall tallies being racked up, West Coast Regional Councillors have demanded evidence that climate change is occurring.

Six councils around New Zealand have now declared a climate emergency. Whilst their number compared to the total number of elected territorial authority bodies is small, they represent a very substantial chunk of New Zealand’s total population  at more than 2.1 million New Zealanders. Those councils are Auckland Council, Christchurch City Council, Environment Canterbury, Nelson City Council and Dunedin City Council.

This brings me back to the central Government. When it announced it was walking away from oil and gas in the coming decades, the left wing spectrum celebrated. New Zealand was taking a step towards sustainability; there might be hope yet for controlling anthropogenic climate change.

Yes and No. The far fringes of the political spectrum are absolutely convinced beyond a shred of doubt that there will be a catastrophe either way, but for entirely different and irreconcilable reasons.

The concern on the moderate right stems from several notable factors that I have described in greater depth elsewhere such as:

  • The affordability of carbon neutral vehicles
  • Long term transport priorities still based on a carbon heavy thinking
  • Unless there is a major effort to overhaul our transport system New Zealand will continue to need oil and gas
  • Some hospitals, and large public utilities continue to use fossil fuels for purposes such as heating with no plans to change their fuel type
  • Impracticality of having an entirely electric vehicle fleet – to say nothing of the sheer number of batteries that will need highly toxic components recycled

The concern from the moderate left also stems from factors I have already acknowledged.

  • The level of carbon is climbing rapidly and is now at 418 parts per million according to the Mauna Kea atmospheric observatory in Hawaii
  • Massive loss of biodiversity from ecosystem destruction has the potential to end humanity in 100 years or less
  • There is no Planet B within reasonable travelling distance of any space going craft

And then there is perhaps a third group, who have to try to reconcile the two moderate factions and make a case that central Government will listen to. They might include planners in local councils who have to make sense of the Resource Management Act and other pieces of law in determining what the council they work for can reasonably do. Others are scientists who could be looking at the sustainability of large scale biofuel from the waste stream or whether hemp can be used on a large scale as a building material.

It might be this third group that helps to make the case. By gathering the inputs from the left and the right  it can try to reach some sort of compromise. It would be between the need for some sort of economic continuity and need to hurry up and start putting promises into actions, but in a way that the public can buy into.




The need to move against e-waste

Earlier yesterday, I was watching a documentary on Ghana’s electronic waste (e-waste) problem, which explored Abgogbloshie, an e-waste dump near the capital Accra.Situated on the banks of a river the dump takes tons of discarded computers, electronics, electrical parts and arrive there each year from Europe.

In a highly toxic environment, the burning of the plastic around the electronics exposes them to cancer causing dioxins that are released in the toxic smoke plumes. Fine particulate – not reported in the documentary – will most likely be falling down wind of the plume. And at ground level the cadmium, mercury, lead and other highly toxic substances from the crude dismantling of old and unwanted appliances will be accumulating in the ground where it has already reached levels 100x more than United Nations safety recommendations.

Thousands of kilometres away in New Zealand, we generate 90,000 tons of e-waste each year. Only about 1% of which – or about 900 tons – is actually recycled. The rest – computers, smart phones, printers, televisions, washing machines, microwaves among other items – is dumped at refuse stations, on the street and so forth.

I have opined about this before, but I am frustrated with the glacial action in Parliament to enact measures to deal with e-waste here. They could easily be including recycling programmes, product stewardship policies that result in a pathway from manufacture to end use, establishing places where the rare earth minerals can be removed from the devices and reused. The figures from New Zealand alone would support such moves – 600 tons of copper; 600 kilogrammes of gold; amounts of palladium, rhodium, silver and other minerals with economic value.

There are 118 elements in the current version of the Periodic Table of the Elements. 60 of them are used in some form or another of electrical components or electronic devices. Some like Niobium and Argon are not known to be toxic, but others like Cadmium and Tellerium are not only carcinogenic, but tetarogenic (causes defects in babies) as well. Given that the hazards of e-waste dumped in western nations as well, are often not well understood, it is difficult to imagine anyone in a poor country like Ghana wearing personal protection. This would include equipment such as gloves, boots, or taking measures such as washing their hands.

This is not sexy in the sense of getting public interest, but it is necessary, and when one thinks about how we source minerals a case for linking to climate change can actually be made. As with a lot of elements, many of the rare earth minerals come from mines in Africa, South America and Asia where environmental laws are lax and there is no requirement to remediate the land after mining. To create these mines vast tracts of potentially healthy forest are going to have to be wrecked and the flora and fauna in them displaced.

As with other forms of waste New Zealand needs to own its e-waste and deal with it. Expecting other countries to clean up our mess is simply not an option.


Dead by 2050? We shall see!

So, humanity might now have a known year in which it is expected to be finished by, according to a report from an Australian institute called Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration. The report, which suggested that humanity will be finished as early as 2050 seems to have caught the media out. It comes in the same week as another report indicated that the level of carbon in the atmosphere is the highest it has been in millions of years.

I find the idea that we now have a definitive year by which we will have a humanity destroying climate change emergency interesting. It is interest not because , but because nature does not care for human concepts such as time and space. A natural event happens because the necessary physical parameters for it were triggered.

This is not to say I think we are not running out of time. The damage being caused by the destruction of the natural ecosystem is catching up rapidly. There will come a time at this rate, and quite possibly within a few decades where ecosystem collapse simply does not permit the human race to continue functioning in the way it currently is. The food supply will implode and a massive wipe out of insects will crash basic biological functions such as the natural breaking down of dung, the pollenation of plants and cause a chain reaction of events that work their way through the food chain – larvae in aquatic systems will no longer exist, depriving amphibians of their food, and ultimately depriving fish of their food supply.

But perhaps there should be a date – that human condition of procrastination springs to mind, as without a time stamp it is hard to install a sense of urgency when it is needed. We see this in the Government, which despite declaring a climate change emergency is still ambling along like a walk in the park with the dog. A call in the media the other day to be on a war footing in dealing with climate change is laudable, but meaningless when nobody seems to know what it should look like or how to make it happen.

It might not be climate change that kills us humans though. The consumption rates of resources and the huge impact it is having on the ecosystem scares me far more. The eventual collapse of the ecosystem will spare no one including the humans who made it collapse, because it will crash the food chain. The demise of insect life will cause massive scale failure of biological functions such as decaying excrement, the cross pollenation of plants and the natural transfer of bacteria. The massive use of resources and the complete failure to recycle minerals used such as gold, silver, palladium, copper and so forth means more mines will be needed, which will involve vast tracts of landscape being opened up. And in doing so tracts of ecosystem that we cannot afford to lose are being torn up.

It might also be too late to recover anyway. The industrial revolution was in the 1700’s and since then particles of carbon per million has reached 415, which has not been seen in millions of years. Humans have existed for about 3 million years – if you compress the geologic record into a day, humans have been around about 60 seconds – but in that time, we have seen 1/2 of known species wiped out. We cannot sustain that rate of destruction without wiping ourselves out too.

I have stated numerous times we should be pulling out the stops with things like waste to energy plants, a recycling programme for aluminium so that our energy needs are reduced among other ideas. But I am an advocate, not a industrialist, politician, planner or otherwise. I cannot pull the strings that make these things happen, but I can advocate.

The Hikurangi Trench: New Zealand’s biggest tsunami hazard

Last night on the Seven Sharp programme, the hosts had a flat of young people in Napier City conduct and earthquake and tsunami evacuation drill. The earthquake, a fictional magnitude 8.9 on the Hikurangi Trench has triggered a tsunami and the occupants have 20 minutes to reach ground, with 60 seconds to get what they need and get out of the house. The objective immediately post earthquake was to get to Hospital Hill in a set period of time before a tsunami arrived.

The participants in the Seven Sharp drill did not quite make it. 2 young ladies and a young man had 60 seconds to decide what to take and get out of the house. They had to reach Hospital Hill about 2 kilometres away in the estimated 20 minutes they would have. They were out the door in a minute and were pretty sensible about what they took with them – something to stay warm, water and so forth and they had to carry it. Speed was of the essence, and at times despite the foot wear they were wearing, the ladies were running where they could.

One day there will be a substantial earthquake on the Hikurangi subduction zone. It will be anywhere between magnitude 8.5 and 8.9. It will last between 4-5 minutes and be felt the length and breadth of New Zealand. The above drill was aimed at Hawkes Bay, which will feel the full effect of the earthquake and be one of the first places to be hit by the tsunami – Gisborne and Wairarapa being next.

The biggest problem will not necessarily be the earthquake, although that will in itself be a massive event. Rather it is the tsunami risk that should cause people the most concern. From the subduction zone boundary to coastal Hawkes Bay is 110 kilometres. In the travel time of a tsunami that is about 20 minutes, possibly less.

One should not rely on the authorities to issue a warning in time. The warning system might well have been damaged in the earthquake. The people manning it might have injuries or other more immediate concerns such as making sure their headquarters is safe to occupy and getting the Emergency Operations Centre established in accordance with the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act, 2002. During that time a tsunami heading for nearby coast lines would have a significant head start.

In a real event though, things will be about 10x tougher. We will assume that it is indeed at night time. When the shaking stops different people will react differently to the situation. A lot will be in shock and not thinking coherently. Before one can leave the house or building they are in to go inland they need to be able to safely clear a route and make sure all of their fellow occupants are safe. 1 minute would easily pass in that time – 4-5 minutes to get out might be more realistic. The power will most certainly be out in large parts of the city if not across the region so there will not be any working street lights, traffic lights or other lighting to guide them. There will be constant aftershocks and some might be substantial events in themselves. In a city built on marine sediments, liquefaction will have flooded many roads, which will also be cracked. Downed power lines, foot paths blocked with debris from buildings and trees pointing in crazy directions will also hinder progress. And if all that is not enough, there will most certainly be people who are – semi-understandably – panicking even though that is the worst thing one can do and trying to drive out despite the obstacles and potentially blocking others.

The tsunami will behave differently depending on several physical factors. For example the sea floor topography will help to determine the size and shape of the waves as they approach. Will they slow down gradually as they run up a fairly open and gently grading beach, where the classic waves that most associate with tsunami’s will form? Will they be coming up a narrowing bay that forces the waves to converge and become closely packed with short distances between them?

So, there you have it. Could those of you in a tsunami inundation zone find your way to high ground following a big earthquake?

Is neoliberalism holding New Zealand back?

Recently commentator Tracy Watkins wrote a column about the absence of big bold new policies being announced by the Government. It came after a Fiscal Budget where Treasurer Grant Robertson announced the loosening of expenditure limits, but with a clear lack of ideas as to what the more readily available finances would be used for and why.

Ms Watkins pointed that in today’s world big and bold are the key names of the policy game. The policy needs to be substantial in that fluffy, airy fairy stuff that is loaded with rhetoric but no detail is out, and bold in that new ground is broken and preferably with a vision of what might be the outcome. That does not seem to be happening readily in New Zealand politics.

As a former New Zealand First member I find this disappointing. I note that at N.Z.F.’s annual convention many great ideas would get put forward with an appropriate degree of detail released given the size and nature of the receiving audience, only for much to never see the light of day. The ideas were both internal (ones to do with party structure and governance) and external (policy that would benefit New Zealand).

Perhaps Ms Watkins was thinking also of the absence of direction in New Zealand scientific research, how it contributes to society and where it gets its funding from. Just by chance if she was, another commentator named Peter Griffin has penned a column addressing exactly that. And although Mr Griffin is correct, he is not the first person to bemoan the lack of direction or funding for science. I have written columns about it as I believe that New Zealand has still not developed the “knowledge economy” that Dr Michael Cullen talked about in 1999 or the “a brighter future” that former Prime Minister John Key had in mind for New Zealand when elected Prime Minister in 2008.

Where I think the problems lie are:

  • A war on science – an undeclared one, but ultimately one that parties on both sides of the House of Representatives are jointly waging – has been going on for over a decade, with little new funding or initiatives to encourage researchers to conduct their work here and little effort to encourage science at high schools
  • Declining academic standards – I still think that N.C.E.A. has a part in this, but in fairness the rot had probably started earlier than that and may have more to do with teacher workloads, which have taken a quantum leap in complexity since the “Tomorrow’s Schools” outlook came out in 1989
  • Neoliberalism – the trend towards free market capitalism has had only modest gains at best for New Zealand with a huge increase in socio-economic disparity between the lower and higher income quartiles in terms of quality of life, ability to afford the basics and understanding of their place in society
  • Socio-political messaging about priorities have made environment; poverty; democracy lower priority issues and have combined to create a toxic combination of health, judicial and human rights issues – which in turn have undermined the democratic foundations on which this country is supposed to be built on

New Zealand needs to wean itself off neoliberalism or at least take a really hard look at how it is impacting on New Zealand society. To me ultimately getting off this addictive “Me, me, me; Now, now, now” where short term individualized gains trump long term collective benefits is probably a bit like trying to roll over whilst the body is in a deep slumber – it will take perhaps a couple of Governments to build up enough inertia that the public mood swings against neoliberalism. However in the end the collective gain that makes New Zealanders across the board feel a part of the same society, instead of a multi-tiered one where the elite and lowest echelons are so far removed that the rest of society is being dragged down, will far outweigh any “Me, me, me; Now, now, now” capitalism.

Enabling the flow of big and bold new ideas might actually start with the biggest and probably the boldest idea of them all – changing the system.