Sunday, 9 August 2015
How real is the threat of climate change?
We are sleeping beauty. A society lost in a peaceful slumber immune to the sewer for greenhouse gases above our heads. A system where the input I the fossil fuel industry and the output is rising temperatures, sea levels, rates of glacial recession and a spanner in the works of practically every human or natural system in existence. But how real is the threat of climate change? And what does it mean for us? The significance of the threat can be illustrated through its many environmental and social implications.
Sea level rise is one of the most widely quoted implications of climate change, for water expands as it heats up and in a warmer climate snow, ice and glaciers melt more quickly. But sea level rise means more than just more ocean to swim in. If only the most vulnerable part of Western Antarctica was to melt, sea levels would rise 3.3m. 1m alone would swamp 160 million people in coastal areas. As it is the cycleway on the north-western motorway floods every high tide, the renting out of coastal accommodation contributes thousands to the tourism sector and 1.5 million people live in Auckland, an area only 3.1m above sea level. In the next decades I could be delivering this speech in a scuba mask.
But climate change does more than just raise sea levels; the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ends up in carbon sinks, areas that store carbon like fossil fuel deposits, forests and the ocean. With the added carbon in the ocean, it reacts with water molecules and carbonate ions to produce bicarbonate ions. This chemical impedes the calcification of shells in corals, plankton, clam, oysters and sea snails. These species, amongst others, can’t survive without their shells but the acidification of our oceans is happening so fast, adaption is almost out of the question. Since 1970 the acidity in the ocean has increased 30%, in an environment as fragile as the marine environment, this changes the whole functionality of the ecosystem and thus our economic system. There will be no more buying mussels from the supermarket in Tauranga or Taiwan. Mussels alone are worth $181 million to exports and 3 of our top 10 seafood exports have this vulnerable shell. Not only that but if our ecosystems can’t function food chains are interrupted, affecting the 2 billion people who rely on the marine environment.
But climate change doesn’t just stop there, already the mean surface temperature of the globe has risen 1.4 degrees. This doesn’t sound like much but this temperature rise changes the global climate system, altering rainfall, sunlight intensity, drought and floods. This changes the growing season for crops altering our food security. Agriculture is New Zealand’s largest industry contributing $25 billion to the economy and producing 70,000 jobs. One example of this is that in New Zealand there are 15x as many sheep as people. This entire industry relies on nothing more that climate, water for the grass or sunlight for the crops. All of us have seen the recent affects that drought and intense rainfall and snow have had on our pastures. For many it was the worth drought or storm in decades. Then one happened again the year after. But this isn’t just happening in Canterbury or the Hauraki Plains, this is a global issue with crops and farming practices affected from Melbourne to Mongolia.
Therefore I hope you can see that the threat of climate change is very, very real. Climate change is the biggest thing we have done to this planet, but it’s going to take a series of small actions by all of us to contribute to solving the problem. Carpooling with a neighbour to reduce carbon emissions, sending less waste to the landfill and recycling more, buying foods with less packaging because less industry was needed to produce them or even just tell someone about something you learnt during this speech. For we are sleeping beauty, but unlike in her story, we can’t wait for someone else to wake us up and solve our problems, we are living a fairytale we all play a part in ending.
And I'm speaking at the wild things conference for biodiversity loss in NZ and I look foward to sharing that speech and ideas from it with you over the next week.