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Climate Change and Governance Conference

 
Note - this has been reviewed by Tony Maturin in 2014 - his comment:
"All that's changed is that the news is all so much worse now and things are happening faster than was anticipated in 2006. Perhaps best thing now is to encourage people to do some searching for themselves, starting with the IPCC website. But not stopping there!" 
 
Report by Margaret Glover in 2006 for QPS Futures Link
 
This is a subjective account rather than a detailed report on the scientific facts given at the conference, many of which may be obtained elsewhere.
 
Quaker Peace and Service Aotearoa-NZ has to be aware of global and regional issues which may affect peace and development, and there is no doubt global warming is affecting both, and will do so increasingly. Conflicts arising from water shortages and millions of refugees from drought and sea-level rise are bound to occur. Hence my presence at the Wellington conference, where indeed Lord Oxburgh, former chairman of Shell, spoke of the inevitability of ‘mass migration from Central Africa and the Indian sub-continent on a scale we can scarcely imagine’ and of the need for governments to lay down policy ‘as if we are fighting a war’.
 
Most experienced climate scientists come from the northern hemisphere, which co-incidentally is suffering greater from climate warming than is the southern. European governments have consequently been able to take public opinion with them in making changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and plan for adaptation, changes which in New Zealand have not been possible because a general lack of information has encouraged disbelief in the seriousness of the issues.Good democratic governments lead, but cannot be too far ahead of the understanding and will of the general populace. Because of New Zealand’s geographical position it has escaped many extreme events which have woken up other nations, and the main importance of thid conference (organised by Victoria University) was that a large home audience, including the media, heard first-hand from international scientists about recent research evidence, and from overseas lobbying groups and decision-makers including Tony Blair about practical steps other nations have made at national or local level.
 
Around 450 people attended and there was sometimes standing room only. It was said from the platform that three years ago there might have been an audience of 50, so it is clear the mood in New Zealand is changing. And it wasn’t just any old audience, including as it did figures such as Jeanette Fitzsimons MP and Jim Sallinger of NIWA, silently taking in the immense array of scientific facts and ideas about how to halt the present rapid slide into a future beyond our imagination.
 
The first nations signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 at Rio. Climate computer-modelling was not as advanced as it is today but all the major predictions with regard to global warming - extreme weather events, floods, droughts, sea-level rise - have been happening even faster than envisaged then. In the summer of 2003, at least 30,000 people died in Britain and France from heat (I emigrated that September) and at the conference it was stated that history may look on those deaths as the first definitely attributable to climate change. They also proved that rich countries were at risk as much as poor.
 
Even allowing for uncertainties, today’s computer-modelling, based on practical research evidence, shows that ‘Humanity is facing the greatest challenge it ever has’, as stated at Wellington. The amount of CO² in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years (as revealed by ice cores inter al) and will soon be higher than any time in the last 20 million. Without massive changes in human behaviour and a world-wide pooling of technology and finance, global temperature is on course to rise to a level not seen for 35 million years; ie. during the dinosaur age, before any ice ages, before humans existed. How quickly this could happen is uncertain, but we are on course for a 3˚C rise and a 4˚C rise is thought to be a catastrophic tipping point which may happen in our children’s lifetime if not in ours. Some areas are heating up much quicker than others, and feed-back warming loops between sea and atmosphere have made time predictions even more alarming.
 
Regional ‘Unexpected Events’ include the ability of massive polar ice sheets to slide into the sea over a layer of melting water, causing glacial earthquakes and hastening global warming and sea-level rise; and the rapid melting of frozen Siberian tundra releasing greenhouse gases. It has been discovered that man-made CFCs in the atmosphere (responsible for enlarging the ozone hole and now largely banned), have been masking the greenhouse effect and once they have disappeared there will be a consequent unknown increase in temperature. More rain is now falling over the sea, rather than on land. The oceans absorb 40% of global emissions, and sea chemistry is changing, affecting life in the sea. The polar regions are warming more rapidly than anywhere else with potentially disastrous feed-back loops and sea-level rise. It does seem ‘unexpecteds’ exacerbate rather than mitigate our situation. Careful, moderate and dispassionate as the scientists were during their presentations, there was no good news and an overall impression of global warming happening much faster than anyone had expected it to.
 
What is certain is that, unlike nuclear weapons which in principle can be got rid of overnight, global warming can not be. It takes many miles to stop and reverse an oil tanker, and it will be many decades before the full effect of the greenhouse gases we have already emitted will be certain. Emissions continue to grow and will speed up rapidly as developing nations develop (particularly China and India, who have cheap coal) and developed nations continue their old habits. So anything we globally do today may improve matters generations ahead but cannot improve matters greatly for our children or grandchildren, who will reap what we have sown. Similarly, we will not know if we have succeeded in halting temperature rise until we have done so.
 
No nation caused or can solve the dilemma single-handedly: every nation has to be involved; and every little counts. The in-words are Mitigation (action to halt or reduce global warming) and Adaptation. We can learn much from each other: Australia, the State of California, as well as European countries have introduced strong measures for mitigation that we could copy, and New Zealand could lead the world in researching methane emissions and how to alleviate them. There are business opportunities in many mitigation fields which Kiwi ingenuity could take advantage of.
 
We are a fortunate nation in that we will not run out of wind for energy, or food and water for our population, but we are more vulnerable than many nations because we are so dependant financially on agricultural exports over large distances. Farmers are however generally good at adapting and will have to, as there will be regular droughts in the East.
 
Strong political leadership is needed. There were clear calls from business and other sectors for cross-party climate change working groups, to provide serious long-term planning and a degree of certainty that any laws and regulations made would not be reversed at the next election. Our government is hampered by the election results and Pete Hodgson had taken up the climate change portfolio only days before the conference; additionally, as was stated, Kiwis do not like being told by government what to do. But much can be done and should be done by local authorities, for example to ensure infrastructure such as drains and river dams can withstand storm surges and that town planning takes into account climate change. The Green Party’s latest proposals to address climate change here, Turn Down the Heat, appeared in time for the conference and have been welcomed by the government.
 
Any profound change in group thinking or action requires a certain proportion of people to be convinced – the 100th monkey principle. This applies to small groups such as Friends’ Meetings but even more so to nations. Has the Wellington conference convinced enough people in New Zealand? That remains to be seen, but it was depressing that an article in The National Business Review, 7 April, called the conference ‘unbalanced and alarmist’, while a fairly reasonable article written by a conference attendee was headlined ‘The trouble with climate zealots and politicians’. The same issue’s editorial ‘The end of civilisation as we know it?’ was not about the conference but about new legislation affecting lawyers.
 
I am left with a lot of questions, and few answers. Are there still Quakers who need convincing that global warming is happening? We believe in ‘small circles’, but at Wellington a psychologist reported that people change quickest in response to big ideas. What as Quakers should be our practical responses? There is a clear need to live as simply as possible, but have we the courage to do so? Should we sell our homes and learn to live co-operatively? How can we make our money work? Should we be ensuring that all Quaker trust funds are invested taking into account climate change, so they support sustainable development and do not support anything which harms the atmosphere? Should QPS grants be based on possible mitigation or adaptation to climate change as well as immediate human need? How would our peace testimony respond to thousands of environmental refugees wanting to enter New Zealand and perhaps doing so by force?
 
The spiritual questions are, I am convinced, more urgent than the practical ones, not only to give us courage and hope and strength to change but to enable a total shift in consciousness. How can we individually reach the stage of truly feeling and becoming a part of nature and not apart from nature? Of understanding that of God not only in other living creatures but in the rocks, the water and the air we breathe? How can we feel the pain we are causing the rest of Creation and survive that mystic experience? Other churches and faiths are further ahead than we are. Can we seek out and humbly approach those of other faiths, including indigenous peoples, and ask for their spiritual help and co-operation? Would it be a start if Quakers facilitated ecumenical and inter-faith round tables on Our Faith Response to Global Warming?
 
In the mean time, an easy thing Quakers can do is to individually write by hand to their MP and the Prime Minister asking them to put climate change at the top of their agenda and to instigate cross-party working groups. Ask monthly what progress has been made since your last letter. Repeat at regular intervals. And teach your youngest descendants to grow food.