Ground control to Uncle Bob: What to say to climate ‘do-nothingism’


Looking forward to Christmas with family debates about the climate crisis? Maybe you have an Uncle Bob: someone who really wants to say no.

These days, not many people deny climate change outright. The scientific consensus is now very strong and with all the cyclones, droughts, floods and wildfires, it’s obvious to everyone the weather is going badly wrong.

But the debate comes alive over what we should do. Denialism has been replaced by do-nothingism: the idea that we can’t, or shouldn’t address the climate crisis. Or we shouldn’t do it yet, or we shouldn’t do it if it will cost too much or change the way we live.

The idea has many arguments. Here are seven of them – and some of the things you can say about them to good ol’ Uncle Bob.

Before we begin

A billion animals were killed or displaced in the wildfires in Australia last summer and the smoke drifted all the way to Chile. The “megadrought” in the American southwest is now 20 years old. Wars in northern Africa, partly caused by drought, have sent hundreds of thousands of refugees a year pouring into Europe.

We can see all this and more on TV. What we don’t see so often are some of the deeper effects of the changing climate. Here is a couple.

Insects are dying out. A German study in 2017 found that 75 per cent of the biomass of flying insects had disappeared over the previous 25 years. Other studies have had similar results.

Insects are a vital component of the Earth’s food chains: they pollinate flowers, including some crops; they provide food for larger animals; they control pests and recycle nutrients by helping with decomposition. Without insects, scientists warn, the entire ecosystem will collapse.

Insect species are becoming extinct eight times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles and the causes include industrial agriculture and climate change. Bucking the trend, flies and cockroaches appear to be on the up.

It’s not scientific, but ask Uncle Bob: Are there as many bugs squashed on the windscreen as there used to be?

The permafrost is melting. Permafrost is ground that stays completely frozen for at least two years straight. It’s not just at the North and South Pole: almost a quarter of the landmass of the Northern Hemisphere has permafrost underneath.

There are enormous quantities of plant material locked up in permafrost. As it melts, the material decomposes and that releases carbon into the atmosphere.

Permafrost has also locked up ancient bacteria and viruses: some of those discovered already have been more than 400,000 years old. As it melts, these microbes are released, threatening the health of humans and animals.

Ask Uncle Bob: It might be fun to find a mammoth under the permafrost, but what about the disease that killed it?

But still, we should do nothing now? For one of the reasons below, perhaps?

1. Little old New Zealand makes no difference at all

New Zealand contributes a ridiculously small 0.17 per cent of global emissions. Eliminating any or all of that will not make the slightest bit of difference to global warming. Except . . . there are lots of things to say about this.

No one ever seems to make the same argument when we’re called on to join a war effort. Every contribution counts. If you believe in the cause, you do your bit.

At the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP) in 2015, it was even smaller countries than us that drove the adoption of the 1.5C target. They could do that because they had enormous moral force behind them: they were not polluters and they were drowning.

But New Zealand lacks that moral force. Despite our low total, our per person emissions are the fifth highest in the OECD (the top four are Australia, US, Canada and Luxembourg). We have no right to expect anything from any other country unless we do more ourselves.

Besides, New Zealand has a bigger impact on the world stage than you might think. In 1948 we were influential in setting up the United Nations. In 2019 our Prime Minister modelled a world-leading response to terror.

And imagine it: if we can transition to a clean, green, productive hi-tech economy it will be good for the country and everyone in it. We should do it anyway.

And if we do become that country, it will be the greatest contribution we can make. We will model it for the world.

Still not convinced? Don’t think about climate action as something that happens at the national level. Much of it is at the city level: think transport. Much is smaller scale again: think village microgrids.

We all live in a range of units of different sizes: the household, the street, the suburb, the city, the region, the country and so on. In those terms, “being too small” doesn’t make a lot of sense: we all live in small units at some level.

New Zealand is the size of Nairobi, Sydney, Ankara and Hanoi. Should none of them accept responsibility for cleaning up their act? Auckland is the size of Glasgow, Stockholm and Philadelphia: are they exempt because they’re not as big as Tokyo or New York?

If India has to reduce its carbon emissions, is every Indian village or factory exempt because, on its own, it’s not very big?

2. Climate action is a luxury right now

We’re in crisis, ain’t that the truth. But the Covid pandemic is related to the climate crisis. Countries that don’t deal with them together are worsening the outcomes on both fronts.

Think of it this way. That thick grey air in Kanpur, where the Black Caps just drew their first test with India, is typical on many parts of the planet: 90 per cent of the world’s population breathes unsafe air.

In a Spanish-led study of 10,000 people published last month, those exposed to “moderately above-average levels of small particle pollution in the two years before the pandemic” were 51 per cent more likely to suffer Covid-19 severely enough to be hospitalised.

Earlier studies had similar results: significant links between small particle pollution and death from Covid in Mexico, and hospitalisation in the US.

Small particle pollution typically comes from the carbon and other industrial emissions that also cause climate change.

As the planet warms, the impact of pandemics will be worse.

3. It's a population problem

The climate crisis was caused by the industrialisation of the Global North, but its emissions have slowed now, compared to the growth in the Global South. And that growth in the South is accompanied by fast-growing populations. Slow the population growth and we’ll slow climate change.

Or so the argument goes. In fact, there’s no easy correlation between population growth and emissions.

The birth rate in China is low: 1.7 births per woman. That’s the same as in the US. The global average is 2.4, and India is also below this, with 2.2.

And the Global North has higher emissions per capita than the Global South. In the US, it’s 18.4 tonnes of CO2e per person, compared with China’s 8.8 tonnes and India’s 2.5 tonnes.

That means, despite the Indian population growing faster than America’s, it takes more than seven Indians to warm the planet as much as a single American.

Population isn’t the issue. It’s growing at 1 per cent a year globally, but consumption, before the pandemic, was growing at 3 per cent.

It is true that poor people tend to have more children. But as environmental writer George Monbiot says, “The strongest determinant of falling birth rates is female emancipation and education. The major obstacle to female empowerment is extreme poverty.”

Question for Uncle Bob: If you’re worried about population growth, do you support campaigns against structural poverty?

That would include preventing corporates from wealthy countries extracting resources from poor countries, paying little or no tax, and leaving nothing behind. Shell’s record in Nigeria is a good example.

The population argument deflects attention away from high-emitting consumption in largely white countries, by blaming low-emitting non-white people who live in poverty. There’s a word for that.

It’s also utopian, because it won’t happen, which makes it an argument for doing nothing. And it’s hideous, because actually there is a way it could happen: we suffer a series of unthinkably catastrophic global events.

Say, Uncle Bob, you haven’t got your hand up for any of that, have you?

4. Even so, the problem is China and India

That smog during the cricket in India is caused mainly by coal-fired energy used in manufacturing, and also by petrol and diesel emissions. Fourteen of the 15 cities in the world with the worst air pollution are in India. After them, the list is dominated by cities in China and Pakistan.

China is the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter: it produces 10.4 billion tonnes of emissions a year, more than twice the US, which is second on the list with 5 billion tonnes. India is third, with 2.5 billion.

But India has refused to accept it should close its coal-fired plants and China has said it may not even start to wind down coal-fired energy until the next decade.

Yet despite all that, both China and India have taken major steps to reduce their emissions, especially through the development of alternative energy sources. There’s a lot of sunshine to harness in India.

Their goals are lower than those of the EU, true, but they have committed to travelling further. Europe dealt with its smog-filled cities a long time ago. India and China will do it now.

But for India especially, the Global North holds them back. After Paris in 2015, developed countries agreed to provide $100 billion a year in funds to help developing countries transition to low-emissions economies. Despite much talk at Glasgow about it, that commitment has still not been honoured.

5. Technology will save us

Humanity is resourceful and will invent remarkable things. It’s true and it’s happening now: wind farms and electric vehicles are two of the most obvious ways in which technology is being harnessed to fight climate change, and there are thousands more.

But it’s more than 30 years since Nasa scientist James Hansen warned Congress about climate change. His testimony in 1988 provides a useful date for the moment the world had no excuse for ignoring the crisis. And in that time technology has done far less than was expected.

There are several reasons. Technological progress is unpredictable and rarely linear. Also, those with the money have focused tech investment in other areas. Vested interests have made sure of it.

Relying on technology often equates to putting off change until someone comes along with a “big fix”. But that allows the climate crisis to keep getting worse, while companies keep making profits from emissions.

And it assumes those companies and the countries that support them will one day decide, on their own, that it’s time to stop. If we would only just leave them alone for a while longer. Why would we think that?

Another problem is that people relying on tech are often quite picky about what sort of tech. They want GM crops that can survive pesticides and depleted soil, but they’re not so keen on regenerative agriculture.

And the real kicker: new technology requires a strong economy, because that’s what provides the research funding.

But our economies, worldwide, are still primarily powered by fossil fuels. So if we want to rely on tech, rather than changing the ways we live, we should reinforce all the existing economic strengths. Keep right on with the coal and oil.

Saudi Arabia’s climate action plan makes this explicit. It aims to half domestic emissions by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050, but it will pay for the transition by selling the world more oil.

When people say technology will save us, sometimes it turns out to be code for: “Buy shares in the companies that will build Perspex domes over our cities and colonies on the Moon and Mars.”

Question for Uncle Bob: Looking forward to that?

6. What about carbon capture?

Now, this sounds like a good idea. Why not capture the carbon emissions and use them productively, or bury them where they can never do any harm? Maybe you could even suck carbon out of the atmosphere, compress it and pipe it or transport it to where you want it.

The good news: it can be done. The first plant to capture carbon started in Texas way back in 1972 and, since then, billions have been spent on the technology. There are now 21 large commercial projects doing carbon capture, with at least 40 more planned.

But in July this year, a study by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) delivered the bad news. Carbon capture, it concluded, is “ineffective, uneconomic and unsafe”. Other studies have said the same.

All that money, spent on something they really want to work and, after 50 years, they still don’t know how to make it happen at scale.

Even so, some researchers don’t write it off. Bob Ward, a climate analyst at the London School of Economics, says every little bit helps. “If the fossil fuel companies can help us get to net zero, why wouldn’t we want them to do that?”

The answer is that we should not be allowing the world’s leading carbon emitters to pretend to be part of the solution, when all that does is waste money and prolong the period in which they can continue emitting.

As Carroll Muffett of CIEL says, “In what way is that contributing to the solution, as opposed to diverting time and energy and resources away from the solutions that will work?”

7. EVs will do the job

Most vehicle manufacturers say they will convert to all-electric production by sometime in the 2030s. That’s excellent: EVS are better for the planet than vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

But the EV debate reveals a lot about what’s wrong with relying on tech to solve all the problems.

First, they can’t make enough EVs because they can’t get enough components. The worldwide shortage of semiconductors is so bad, they just had a crisis conference about it. Luca de Meo, CEO of Renault, describes the situation as “a mess”. Renault, which makes the Nissan Leaf, is the world’s largest carmaker and one of the largest EV producers.

The lesson: It’s not easy to pivot a whole industry to something new.

Second, despite the Nissan Leaf, EV production worldwide has become focused on SUVs, utes and other big vehicles. If we’re looking to create cities where the streets are calmer and safer for everyone not in a car, technology is driving us in the wrong direction.

Third, the official target in New Zealand is for 40 per cent of all cars to be EVs by 2035. If that’s the only thing we do to reduce vehicle emissions, it won’t be nearly enough. We will also have to drive the other 60 per cent far less.

Fourth, while the term “EV” gets bandied about, it doesn’t apply to the electric vehicle that really could make a difference for carbon emissions, congestion, public health and road safety. Electric bicycles.

While we debate the merits of the feebate scheme to encourage EVs and discourage fossil-fuel cars, how about getting the Government to make e-bikes freely available to everyone who wants one? Imagine the difference that would make.

The New York Times, no less, has floated the idea for America. You could back it here with a manufacturing scheme. After all, we used to do it. In the 1970s, 90 per cent of all bikes sold in New Zealand were locally made.

Ground Control to Uncle Bob: This is part 1 in a series. Topics to come include: What happened at COP26 in Glasgow, Brazil and the rainforests, methane, meat, the ETS and carbon taxes, greenwash, changing governments, personal responsibility and the nuclear option.

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