Tuesday, June 28, 2005

It's the Environment, Stupid

Heh, yeah, forget it. Thirty seconds on Google told me where Quentin is now: on the Alliance list.

Okay. Issue one for me, this and every election, is the environment. Everything else is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Any sensible and responsible government should be planning right now for the consequences of global warming and peak oil, if only because those who are prepared have a head start economically. Denmark makes £45m a year from exporting wind technologies they bought from Britain.

When it comes to being green, New Zealand is rather like the US when it comes to democracy. We talk big, as a substitute for actually doing. Auckland has the same rate of public transport usage as Los Angeles. Trouble is, as a country, we've grown up in plenty as far as natural resources, so we're conditioned to waste. Because our population is low by international standards, we're only just starting to hit the real problems that stem from excessive consumption. We've had plenty of opportunity to learn from overseas experience, and we're not doing it.

And of course, I live in Christchurch, and sometimes I go outside at night in winter. In fact, these days you don't even have to go outside to chew the smog. Tackling air pollution has basically been left to local government, and here that means the council whining because the 'new' protocols mean they may have to shut down the coal-fired furnace they use to heat their own offices. Yes, coal fires are banned, but only for private individuals.

One thing Christchurch does have right is curbside recycling. But the thing is, strategies like that really have to be implemented nationally, not just patchwork by large urban areas than happen to currently have a lefty council. And there's no point in picking the stuff up if you don't encourage businesses that actually USE it.

In a way I'm kind of interested by the intellectual exercise of trying to work out what is going to happen to New Zealand as a result of global warming. I mean, ignoring the people still faffing around saying, We don't know enough, and what we want to do about that is not find out anything. We do know. We know what's happening, we know what causes it, the only surprise has been how fast it's happening. Trying to plan for the future by debating first principles of global warming is a bit like trying to plan a circumnavigation of the globe with the Flat Earth Society.

Wellington. Higher sea levels and increased precipitation, snow as well as rain. That means more days like we've had occasionally over the last couple of years, when you can't actually get into or out of Wellington because of the weather. It's time, right now, to start thinking about what happens if you can't actually use both the road and rail lines into Wellington that run right along the shore. Is it time for sea walls?

Energy efficiency. It's kind of interesting watching the debate on the 'energy crisis' in New Zealand, because it goes like this. Well, people should conserve energy. Oh, absolutely they should, now here's what we want to do when they don't. And that's it for conservation. Last year, it seemed to be awfully important to slow down the housing market. Surely that would have been the perfect time for the government to say okay, every new house built has to have solar hot water, and has to reach a certain standard of energy efficiency. Yes, that would make new houses more expensive. Wasn't that the point? This year's British White Paper on alternative energy said, among other things, that if you put solar panels on every roof in Britain (previously entirely wasted space), they'd become net producers of energy. It would satisfy all of Britain's energy needs and then some, entirely cleanly. Why yes, it would be expensive. All energy solutions are expensive. Yes, I'm aware solar panels have to be replaced every decade or so. I don't know how many solar panels you could make for the price of a hydro dam, but I'm thinking it's somewhere around 'fuckloads'.

There's only one way to change human behaviour when it comes to the environment. It's rather like smoking: we know what we do is bad, for us, for the people around us, just in general, but we like it, so we're not going to stop. What it takes is a combination of financial incentives and disincentives, (if you're going to increase the price of petrol, then you have to have public transport alternatives in place and subsidies for hybrid cars, for instance), and government regulation.

And we need to have centralised planning (Commies! Commies commies commies!) in place to deal with the forseeable consequences of environmental change. New Zealand, for instance, is going to be one of the countries hit with environmental refugees, as Pacific Islands start literally disappearing. When your whole country is half a mile wide and less than a metre above sea level and the tide comes two metres further up the beach than it did last year, global warming is more than an interesting theory.

This'll be followed at some stage by 'why I'm reluctant to vote for the Greens'.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Zvanoizu said...

Fascinating and well said and you know... not a thing you've said there can I disagree about. I'm a little wild about the environment myself, and I wish I could communicate my thoughts about recycling, conservation and planning ahead as concisely and clearly as you have. I am rather glad to have move to a more progressive state. Nevada was like stepping back several decades when it comes to recycling, but you might remember some of my old blogs that expressed disbelief over how things are run there.

Anyway. I'm just studiously reading all your blog entries here rather than doing anything else I ought to be doing. :-D

3:48 am  
Anonymous Morgane said...

Shoot. Can we vote for YOU?

7:45 am  
Blogger Weekend_Viking said...

Sigh. Apocalyptic Catastrophism. I blame Revelations, myself. Something in the human hindbrain seems to increase every possibility of a problem into a catastrophe.

As a geologist, I'm not fussed about global warming. We've been a lot warmer in the past, and a lot colder, too. We've had higher greenhouse gas levels, and lower. Colder is good for oceans (cold oceans can dissolve more CO2, hence more plant plankton and therefore support more biomass.) Warm is good for humans (big chunks of currently unpleasantly cold bits of Asia, Europe and Canada will become the new breadbaskets of the world).

Scare tactics aside, we've not warmed up much, and the "sinking atolls" thing is just silly. Atolls _grow_ with sea level. The reason low lying coral atolls are barely one metre above sea level is that thats about as high as the average storm surge tide waves can chuck broken coral off the reefs - hence, if sea level rises or falls (which it does all the time) the atolls grow under the storm surge effect and rise with it (or erode and fall with it). Its not an issue, unless you think you can get some aid money out of claiming it is.

We're not even as warm as the little medieval warm period yet, and the atolls didn't sink then. Nor are we as warm as the last interglacial (technically, we're still pretty close to an ice age) and the atolls didn't sink then.

If you're really concerned about global warming, google 'Global Thermohaline Circulation' and see what happens when slight warming causes it to stop, then go an buy a couple of good army greatcoats.

4:17 pm  
Anonymous Seth said...

I agree that global warming is just about the most important issue out there. It probably takes precedence over our local environmental issues, because it's all a bit irrelevant if the atlantic conveyor get shut down. Which looks ever more likely unless there's an outbreak of global sanity, and we have BushCo making that ever less likely. So personally my number one election issue is
electing a government that won't buy shares in BushCo and then start adopting the sort of policies necessary to maximise the value of that investment. I guess on those grounds I would understand if Labour refused to declare a Winston-free-policy. On a local scale, Winston is the greater evil, but on an international scale a Brash led govt would do more damage, because of it's support for BushCo.

5:04 pm  
Blogger Ghet said...

iarni, as someone whose background is in biology, I am concerned. No, atolls don't "sink". They don't have to wait for seawater to wash up over the coasts. It bubbles up through the coral and seeps up through the ground, it's happening now. When this happens, seawater contaminates the groundwater supplies, and poisons the soil so crops can't grow.

Canada is a major food producer now. They grow wheat, which requires cold winters to germinate properly. Also, lack of cold winters means higher insect pest populations and warm wet weather means higher levels of fungal disease. I'm really tired of being told it'll be good for agriculture by people who don't understand the basics of agriculture. Oh, it goes, 'we'll get two growing seasons, if it happened which it won't'.

Ecosystems are fragile. Changes in temperature of one or two degrees ON AVERAGE can be devestating. We don't have to 'warm up much'. I'd argue that the planet is under a lot more stress than it was during the last ice age. We can't just all migrate somewhere else.

5:32 pm  
Blogger Weekend_Viking said...

Um, you said: "When your whole country is half a mile wide and less than a metre above sea level and the tide comes two metres further up the beach than it did last year, global warming is more than an interesting theory."

Then when I called you on it, backed down to saying "No, atolls don't "sink". They don't have to wait for seawater to wash up over the coasts.". I'm sorry, but a little salination of groundwater is not the same as the tide coming two metres further up the beach - You're being alarmist, basically. Sure, 100 years of .5mm/year or even 10mm/year of sea level rise is going to affect atoll groundwater levels, but these are effected by every storm surge anyway, as atolls are not impermeable, just piles of porous coral with heapes of openings for seawater to percolate through.

Canada's not going to lose its cold winters, the growing season will just get a little longer and a little warmer.

Yes, there'll be pest species that enjoy the warm weather too, but thats not a big problem. Look, warm climates are good for humans: every time its warm, humanity has had a great time - getting out of
Africa, inventing agriculture and civilisation, building all those high medieval cathedrals and the great empires of the late roman and mongol era, having the industrial revolution and the tech race of the 20th century; These all correspond with periods of warming. Every time its cold, life sucks (although biologically speaking, the planet carries more biomass during an ice age. Cold oceans are better
for plankton and fish). From the geological point of view, the current interglacial is pushing its last gasps, having gone on about as long as they usually go for, and got about as warm as they get, going by the past half a dozen or so such events. If anything, by pumping up the greenhouse effect, we're staving off another ice age (Maybe. Have you googled the effects of warming on thermohaline circulation yet?)

5:23 pm  
Anonymous Seth said...

When I said "Atlantic Conveyor" and our visiting viking said "thermohaline circulation" we meant the same thing, of course, that's the disaster scenario the Pentagon reserachers labeled a "major threat to American security deserving considerable attention" (I paraphrased there). But I think there are other threats from changing weather patterns and rising oceans that might not make any great impression on our long term geological record, but might have rather dramatic effects on the ~10 billion people who'll be precariously balanced across the biosphere in 50 years or so (unless we've already had a major extinction event or two by then).

4:34 am  
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