Creating Tomorrow: Weather

Human living is in the early stages of huge change that will take us well beyond historical experience. In this, the second of a five-part series, business professor and sustainability expert Dr Wayne Cartwright explains what this will mean for energy use, the weather, food, finance - and life in general as we know it.

The spinners of misinformation about climate change will find that history treats them harshly, argues SANZ board member Dr Wayne Cartwright. Photo / Getty Images

Dr Wayne Cartwright. Photo / Supplied

OPINION: Published information about global climate change has been confused by deliberate manipulation and spin, similar to the cynical misinformation about the outlook for oil and gas. Indeed, it seems that the funders and authors of the two sets of propaganda have much in common.

The core aim of these efforts has been to deny that global warming is being caused by the emissions from burning oil and coal, thereby deflecting any serious attempt to reduce usage of these resources. It has to be acknowledged that this campaign has been masterful and has succeeded in sowing doubt in the minds of the public and politicians despite overwhelming contrary evidence from the IPCC and other reputable sources.

The misinformation has had the even broader effect of creating doubt that global warming is even occurring. This will have tragic consequences because it has allowed people, corporate directors, and politicians to maintain their comfortable position that there is nothing to worry about, that 'living as usual' and 'business as usual' can continue indefinitely, and that there is no need to contemplate action.

The spinners of misinformation will find that history treats them harshly. It will observe that protection of the interests of oil and coal producers is quite a different matter to encouraging the public, and their leaders, to ignore the risks of climate change - and weather events that have the potential to create chaos and great loss of life.

I have a simple suggestion: ignore the skulduggery and get on with preparing for a world in which climate change and more frequent severe weather events are real.

Change now versus change later

It is crucial to recognise that we face two quite different buckets of issues. These buckets are usually confused and mixed up.

The first bucket is about actions that can be taken to mitigate or reduce the future rate of global warming and its effects.

These actions are quite distinct from the second bucket. These issues are about the urgent need to adapt and adjust human living, business, and public infrastructure to cope with the climate changes and severe weather events that have already begun and will continue with increasing severity.

No amount of carbon emission reduction in the future will affect these changes and events that are already locked in due to the emissions of past and present.

More frequent extreme weather events will increase the risks of land erosion and inundation. Photo / Getty Images

Time to fix the ETS

Most of the press coverage and political debate has focused on the first bucket. Despite the attention, all initiatives to date have either failed or are dysfunctional.

The international emissions trading scheme (ETS) into which New Zealand has plugged its own ETS legislation has the fatal flaw that efforts are focused on the trading processes and rules and not on the need to actually reduce carbon emissions. In addition, the scheme is impossibly complicated and inherently favours some groups of emitters.

Worse, it has allowed entry of vast volumes of dodgy carbon credits that have originated from defunct Eastern European industries. These have depressed the carbon price to the point that emissions are essentially free.

In a nutshell, the task of reducing atmospheric carbon, which is critical to the survival of human civilization, has been awarded to traders of securities.

These are organisations and people who have very short time horizons, who have no real interest in what is being traded, and who seek profit from the trading process and from speculating about movements in the prices of the traded securities.

They have similar perspectives and methods to the traders of financial derivatives who had a prominent role in the 2008 recession. This is bizarre.

The aim of reform must be to ensure that emitters of carbon from fossil fuels pay the full cost of the resulting environmental degradation in a simple manner that is fiscally neutral.

A changing climate would change the ways in which land can be used to produce food. Photo / Getty Images

Change is happening now - ready or not

The 'living as usual' and 'business as usual 'people have easily taken comfort from the discourse about reducing climate change because it seems to be referring to the quite distant future.

The second bucket of issues offers no such opportunity to take comfort. These are the climate changes and weather patterns that are already 'locked in' and will occur whether humans are ready for them or not.

We must shake ourselves free of this foolishness and apathy. As we prepare, it will help to see that there are two categories of effects.

One is the risk to human habitats, public infrastructure and land from floods, tidal surges, and severe wind. These are risks of damage to the built environment and public infrastructure: houses, schools, hospitals, factories, offices, roads, railways, electricity grids, and the like. They are also risks to land, including erosion and inundation.

The second category of effects is change in the ways in which land can be used to produce food. These will alter forever the capacity of countries and whole regions to produce food. (This is such be discussed separately in next Friday's article.)

Managing risk to the built environment is, in principle, straightforward. For each group of assets, risks must be assessed, decisions made about the extent to which they should be mitigated, and required actions determined and completed.

Most countries already do this for risk from flooding and wind, by assessing the risks on the basis of historical records.

The only rub is that historical records are irrelevant to the risks incurred by global warming because some of its effects will exceed previous recorded experiences.

Most countries seem to be reluctant to accept the reality of this upward shift in risk profiles. This results in assets being unprepared and exposed to damaging events. Witness the major damage to private and public assets along the United States' upper eastern seaboard by storm-driven tidal surges, as well as flooded waterways and wind.

It seems that the authorities responsible for the security of the built environment and public infrastructure in New Zealand are in the same camp.

It looks like ducking the task of managing risk by simply denying its existence until it bites, which is more than a little late.

When risk assessments are eventually done properly, some of the issues that are revealed will be large. It is likely to include decisions to relocate whole communities away from likely inundation, roads and railways that need to be shifted, and electricity power grids that are too vulnerable to extreme weather events.

More frequent extreme weather events will greatly increase the risks of land erosion and inundation. It is likely that it will be necessary to retire whole tracts of land hitherto used for pastoral farming.

The most evident examples are steep hill country that will best be planted in trees, and previously drained river margins and lowlands that should revert to wetlands. Land owners will no doubt seek compensation for such enforced retirement of land.

These issues must be considered and action taken as part of creating tomorrow.

Check out the full series as featured in Element magazine from the NZ Herald:

• Creating Tomorrow: Energy
• Creating Tomorrow: Weather
• Creating Tomorrow: Food
• Creating Tomorrow: Finance
• Creating Tomorrow: Community and Economy

Dr Wayne Cartwright has postgraduate degrees in agricultural science and economics and has served 34 years in tertiary education - including 30 as a professor in the business schools at the Massey and Auckland Universities.

He has consulted widely in business management, international business and governance, and strategic responses to future insight. He has served on several corporate boards of directors.

He is a past chair of Sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand (SANZ) and has been on the Council for Socially Responsible Investment. He co-wrote and edited the 2009 SANZ publication Strong Sustainability for New Zealand: Principles and Scenarios.

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