Cue Nero (with fiddle)

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When I get up on Sunday morning I make my breakfast and come and sit down at the dining table.  From that table I can look out the window across the valley, where Adelaide Road heads out to Island Bay, and see the green bushy side of Brooklyn hill dotted with houses.  At that time, usually about 6am when my kids get up, the back garden of my house is in shade; the trees and hedges and ferns are soft and green in the shadows and the birds who started their day perhaps half an hour before are busy at work on the lawn, in the branches, and on the power lines.

I sometimes read American self-help books and they often tell you to practice gratitude.  My inner cynic rolls its eyes at such statements, but in fact I am grateful for that view, and the pool of shade in my garden in the morning, and the trees, and the birds, and the rhythm of it all.

There are a few other moments in nature I am grateful for too, and I think that those American self-help books might be right.  We should be grateful a lot more.  Gratitude for your food, and your family, and the parks and bush around your house doesn’t hurt.  It’s certainly better than taking it for granted.  Taking it for granted “works” until all those things you couldn’t be bothered being thankful for begin to disappear.

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The news that life as we know it on Earth will be over within 80 years didn’t really grab the headlines last week.  I think this might partly be because of the name of the report that told us this fact: The IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report.  That’s a god awful name.  It is also not written in a particularly engaging way. Although there is a certain starkness to its message which I find electrifying, there are also a lot of charts I find impenetrable, and a curious hedging after every statement.  Every statement is:

Virtually certain 99–100% probability, very likely 90–100%, likely 66–100%, about as likely as not 33–66%, unlikely 0–33%, very unlikely 0–10%, exceptionally unlikely 0–1%.

Which I think would be a great system for all our politicians to use.  Perhaps Hansard could adopt it?

John Key: I have never spoken to Cameron Slater (exceptionally unlikely).

Regardless, it’s a report that uses the year 2100 as a talking point for cataclysm.  The IPCC wouldn’t use such a scary, emotive word as cataclysm, but you may have noticed that I am not the IPCC, and I like emotive language.  One reason I like scary emotive language is because the IPCC report makes me feel emotional and frightened.  They talk about the year 2100 as a data point in their charts, but if I talk about the year 2100 I am talking about the life of my own children (possibly) and of their children (almost certainly).  If you have young kids now and think you might have grandchildren one day then you are talking about the end of life as we know it when they are middle-aged.  I expect to meet my grandchildren, and help to bring them up, and the thought that their world will be more threatening and damaged than the one I know makes me sad and furious.

All of this quite startling information was the fourth story on TV3’s main news broadcast at six pm on the day the report came out.  By six pm it wasn’t even on the front page of the Stuff or Herald websites.

I decided to make it my civic duty to read the report.  When I saw how long it was I changed my mind and decided it was my civic duty to read the shorter approved version for policy makers.  I have never done this before because my science brain bits are rather puny and  hurt when I think.  It almost goes without saying that I haven’t got the foggiest idea how physics works (a friend of mine just calls physics “magic” and I think she is right), and very little grasp of chemistry.  Like many scientific lightweights I took Biology in Year 12 when I was made to take a science.  It was fine until we had to dissect a dead rat.  Dissecting things is really not something I’m into at all.

So here I am, my Year 12 Biology class 25 years behind me, trying to understand the IPCC climate change report.

  1. Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent emissions of greenhouse gases originating in human activity are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.

The next point is framed in very clear language: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.”

I was surprised by the word unequivocal.  Quite a lot of media conversation gets sucked up with the climate change “debate”.  For these scientists there is no debate.  In fact using the word debate seems irresponsible.  Just because you can find a few fools to say the Holocaust didn’t happen doesn’t mean that journalists need to feel obliged to say the “Holocaust debate” every time they mention Auschwitz.

When scientists say that things are warmer now more than ever they really mean it: “The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years in the Northern Hemisphere.”  “Likely” in this report’s terminology means more than 65% probability.

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For some people the period 1983 to 2012 is quite a concrete time filled with life, people and memories, and not just a period in which we can measure temperature.

I think it was the summer of 1984-5 that we spent a week walking in the Abel Tasman National Park.  The Abel Tasman National Park is extraordinarily beautiful.  In my memory it is a series of inlets, and tidal flats, a set of white sand beaches fringing deep, green bush, and touched by the soft, glistening blue sea.  At some point in the middle of our week-long tramp we pitched our tents just inside the tree line of a small beach, in a cove at the end of small inlet where the inlet’s bush covered arms framed the sea’s horizon line.  The weather was calm, and warm, and the shade of the trees was dappled and cool.  How clean does the air smell in those places?  How soothing is the sound of a calm sea on the shore?  That is where we went to sleep, and when I woke in the morning and stepped outside my tent all of nature’s extraordinary beauty was there and I was there with it, alone and euphoric and full of the wonder of it.  Thirty years later I can still remember that moment.  It acts like a deep pool of replenishment for me that I can mentally return to when I think my world is too manic, and concrete, and mechanised.

I am grateful for that moment.

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As you progress through the IPCC report you come to realise that every single page is spelling out a very, very grim and complicated future.  In some cases the future it describes is in my life time: “a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer sea-ice minimum in September before mid-century is likely.”  I am hoping to be clinging to life at mid-century.

Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise. (2.2) (emphasis added)

Which mentally confirms what it feels like you see on TV every year now.  Bush fires in the tinder dry states of Australia and North America are routine.

The IPCC report delivers so much information in its first ten pages that it becomes almost impossible to summarise.

  • A large fraction of species face increased extinction risk due to climate change during and beyond the 21st century, especially as climate change interacts with other stressors (high confidence).
  • Coral reefs and polar ecosystems are highly vulnerable. Coastal systems and low-lying areas are at risk from sea-level rise, which will continue for centuries even if the global mean temperature is stabilised (high confidence).
  • Climate change is projected to undermine food security (high confidence for food from the sea, medium confidence for food from the land).
  • Throughout the 21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions and especially in developing countries with low income… (high confidence).
  • From a poverty perspective, climate change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger (medium confidence).

This is only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg.  The information in these  first ten pages of the report comes thick and fast, but one of the key messages is that climate change effects those who cannot adapt more than those who can.  If you are a polar ice sheet you are obviously pretty screwed in that case.  If you are a plant or an animal you are also in big trouble.  Only plants and animals that can move pretty rapidly and survive in a range of climates will be able to migrate out of trouble.  In other words, what we largely consider to be pests will be fine, but what we treasure and rely on for diversity will perish.  All of this applies to humans too of course.  Countries with a lot of money will be able to make changes more easily than those without money.  The dystopian world of science fiction where Western countries become fortified against that clambering international masses starving on the outside becomes a reality in this scenario.

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I was lucky enough to go skiing when I was a kid.  Most winters my mother took me down to the South Island and we went to Tekapo or sometimes Dobson or Cardrona.  My mother is from the South Island so going skiing also involved visiting relatives, and seeing Gran.  At the time I didn’t really realise that going skiing at Tekapo was something that my mother had done with my dad before I was born, and must have been an experience full of memories for her.  Looking back now over her old slides the landscape of the South Island seems emptier, and cleaner; less cluttered, and filled with more opportunities for silence.  The trips up to Tekapo in the 1960s were more perilous, and the facilities more basic.  It was more like going on a tramp where you had to bring your own sandwiches and thermos, and the tow ropes ripped your arms out of your sockets as they dragged you to the top of the slopes, and people wore a mish-mash of gear they cobbled together: woolly handmade hats, and a jersey and a jacket, and some waterproof leggings.

By the time I was skiing in the mid 80s conditions on the ski-fields had improved a bit, but it was all still quite basic.  Skiing for me was getting up early and climbing into the back of a diesel truck with a big bunch of other skiers and then grinding our way up into the mountains in first gear  as we bobbed and bumped over the often badly rutted road to the ski-field.  Being on the ski-field was partly about skiing, and partly about taking off your skis at some lonely point high on the mountain and feeling your own smallness.

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Feeling how pitifully small you are against the universe is something we may have lost a little.  It’s hard to remember this fact in a world with a lot more people in it, and where you are able to stay in contact with that world at all times through the phone that is always in your pocket.

In a way the elitism of skiing is not too bad as a metaphor for the future of climate change.  For a lucky few the possibility of skiing will be maintained.  Better roads and shops and cafes and chair lifts and snow machines mean skiing can continue even as the environment that supports it will continue to change in a way that doesn’t support it.  More cars up the slope, more car parks, more equipment to purchase to look stylish and chic, and then throw away and replace, more disposable cups and plates and knives and forks, more toilets and waste and water and generators.  For the societies that can afford to adapt the possibility of carrying on as if nothing is happening will remain possible for much longer (but not forever).  For everyone else the situation is going to be very bad a lot sooner.

I actually feel desperation at the situation.  That the jammed up ski fields of the rich will be out of reach for my kids, and that place I pitched my tent when I was 11 may have disappeared for my grandchildren.  I feel that this is the most pressing matter humanity has ever faced and that we are choosing now to shrug.  We are choosing personal short-term convenience over everything else.  Every species, every place, every one and every thing will be sacrificed in the end so that we could have takeaways, and an iphone 10, and increase our GDP.

First it came for the ice sheets, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not the ice.

Then it came for the sea, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an ocean.

Then it came for life of the land, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not the tree, I was not the bird.

Then it came for the poor, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not poor.

Then it came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

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