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Pacific Ecologist

10 years to change direction - or drift to catastrophe

Editorial from Pacific Ecologist issue 11 summer 2005/2006 by KAY WEIR

They've been warning us for almost two decades now, tens of thousands of scientists from all over the world. Atmospheric chemists have watched greenhouse gases rise as meteorologists tracked changing weather patterns, and glaciologists reported temperate glaciers shrinking and polar sea ice retreating. They have studied, meticulously researched, checked and rechecked data as scientists do, written many hundreds of reports, telling us the earth's climate is beginning a great change. Life scientists of many disciplines have drawn our attention to the unsustainable pressures on ecosystems globally. The warming gases are already affecting birds, fish, oceans, animals, plants, the crop foods we eat (see p 23), the very seasons of nature, affecting when plants grow, the flowers and trees we love, the numbers of severe storms and hurricanes, and causing king tides in small island countries (see p 17).

Warming is bringing increasing drought and famine in Africa (see p 25) and if insufficient is done, millions more will suffer the horror of famine. With increasingly urgent reports, scientists have urged governments and societies to reduce global warming emissions to avoid causing catastrophic damage to life on earth, see p 14 etc.

Palaeontologists and geologists with their panoramic view of earth history over millions of years have a deeper insight into what just a few degrees of global warming means. As Peter Barrett explains, by the end of this century, if we continue to increase warming emissions unchecked, temperatures will exceed levels last experienced on earth long before our human ancestors evolved, and will approach those of an era when there were no ice sheets and sea level was 70 m higher. Can human civilisation leap into such a different world?

In 2005, using new satellite monitoring systems, scientists have discovered that glaciers in West Antarctica are melting much faster than expected, (p. 15) increasing concerns about rising sea levels, especially for small island states, like the Pacific Islands. In the Arctic, if summer sea ice continues to melt at the rate it is now, perennial ice will vanish by the end of this century, polar bears will become extinct and the world of the Inuit people will disappear. Another 2005 study (see p 9) reports oceans are not only warming but becoming more acidic, with disastrous results for marine life, if carbon emissions are not significantly reduced as well, as for subsistence fisher people, and the fishing and tourist industries.

The joint United Nations-World Meterological Organisation's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has over the last 17 years organised the most exhaustive studies of any issue in the history of science. There has never been such a strong scientific consensus about any issue as there is about climate change. Governments have listened, many have said they would cut back emissions, but found substantive action difficult in the face of threats and disinformation from powerful financial interests. Many corporate leaders and some short-sighted economists within governments say reducing emissions would hurt their country's "economy." It appears economists, financial experts and many government officials do not understand our "economy" depends, as we do, on a planet with all its ecosystems functioning sustainably, bountifully providing the very wealth we assume as our own.

But it's good news that in December countries ratifying the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty agreed to set new targets on greenhouse gas emissions when the treaty expires in 2012, despite efforts by the US Administration to derail the talks. It's also good news that former U.S. president Bill Clinton said Bush's argument that ratifying the Kyoto Protocol would damage the U.S. economy was "flat wrong." If the US "had a serious, disciplined effort to apply on a large scale existing clean energy and energy conservation technologies ... we could meet and surpass Kyoto targets easily in a way that would strengthen, not weaken, our economies."

So too could all countries, including New Zealand and Australia. Warming emissions could be markedly reduced with energy conservation and rapid development of renewable energy, as explained by Peter Bunyard. Denmark already has 20% of its electricity generated by wind energy and reaching 50% is economically and technically feasible. But governments worldwide are still largely held in thrall to the religion of the free market. The profit god is a jealous god, madly demanding in sacrifice even the environment on which all life depends. To break the vicious cycle, and encourage governments to stronger action we need to take action ourselves.

New Year Resolutions for a better world: Save up for solar panels and solar water heating; support wind farm developments; insulate your home for energy efficiency; use energy efficient light bulbs; buy locally made clothes and other goods to help reduce global warming emissions from transport; support local organic agriculture which protects the earth, vital in a time of climate change; Create a home garden for food and trees using compost from household food scraps, thus recycling valuable organic material, cutting emissions in landfills and developing a degree of food self-sufficiency. Use public transport more; walk to local shops rather than drive. Turn off the TV for a day, week or year. Consult your local Greenhouse Office for ideas. Write to Members of Parliament and newspapers in support of strong targets to make incentives for energy conservation and rapid, large-scale introduction of renewable energy technologies. Become a pioneer, like Ted Trainer, Charmaine Watts and Norman Petereit (see inside). Happy New Year!

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