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Scientists warn of climate future shock

Friday 3 Dec 2010 3:50 p.m.

Rising temperatures melt ice, which releases methane, which raises the temperature in a feedback loop

Rising temperatures melt ice, which releases methane, which raises the temperature in a feedback loop

By Dan Satherley

Top scientists and engineers from around the world gathered in Auckland this week to share ideas on how to prepare the world for a sustainable future.

The Transitions to Sustainability conference, which ended yesterday, was held at the University of Auckland and hosted by the New Zealand Society for Sustainability Engineering and Science.

Speakers came from a wide range of fields, including local government, architecture, health and engineering.

Director Dr Carol Boyle says a theme that kept coming up in the various presentations was that changing society wasn't going to be easy.

"How fast do we have to move?" she asks. "How are we going to get there? What are the risks we're facing? What are the things we actually have to understand, and the changes we're going to have to make to get to that point?"

Most estimates place the world's population in 2050 at around 9 billion – a number which is unsustainable at current consumption rates, according to Prof Ian Lowe of Griffith University, Queensland.

He told 3 News the world is already operating at 130 percent of its sustainable capacity, and we must radically change what society values.

"The fundamental problem is not technology – although some of our technology is clearly not sustainable, because they don't use resources very efficiently – and the key problem is not a specific environmental problem like climate change or the loss of biodiversity; these are actually symptoms of the fact that we're not living sustainably.

"The underlying problem is our community values that see growth in population and growth in the economy as ends in themselves, and see social and environmental problems as optional extras that we can solve if we have the time and energy after we manage the economy."

He says these values are domination of nature, consumerism and individualism.

"These have actually been quite successful in giving us a much better material life than any previous generation, and a much better material life than most people on the planet have now – but they're now an obstacle to our success."

According to Prof Lowe, technology alone won't be able to overcome ecological and population pressures because natural systems – such as the environment and climate – have "critical limits", or thresholds.

"If you push natural systems beyond those critical limits, they can change rapidly and irreversibly, into a state that would be much less suitable for human civilisation," he says.

An obvious example is climate change, a major focus of the conference. Mr Lowe explains that as the world's temperature creeps up, melting Arctic ice releases methane, a greenhouse gas – causing more warming. As the ice caps get smaller and more of the world's surface becomes ocean, less solar radiation is reflected back into space, and more of it is absorbed – causing further warming, and so on.

Scientists refer to such sequences as 'feedback loops', and the particular complexity of the world's weather systems – with its thresholds, feedback loops and global scale – can easily confuse those who are not climate scientists.

Prof Sir Peter Gluckman, chief science advisor to Prime Minister John Key, says this complexity is contributing to a public misunderstanding of climate change.

"A lot of the scientific criticism has come from people who have not necessarily worked in complex systems, and have come from a different domain, trying to take something apart."

Sir Peter says the blogosphere, and the traditional media – which in its pursuit of 'balance' can be flawed in its presentation of scientific consensus – is also fuelling a debate which shouldn't really exist.

"There is no way for people to filter what is informed from uninformed information," he says.

"If you go back to the role of the mainstream media 30 years ago – broadsheets in particular, but also some of the famous Walter Cronkite-type fellows in the early electronic media – they took very seriously their role as journalists in trying to identify what was, and transmitting consensus of information to the public.

"That role has disappeared… You can go on the net and find something to support any position on anything you want to take. If you are even a scientist, outside their field, it's very difficult to make assessments, and we've seen that in the climate change debate."

Also contributing to a lack of public confidence in climate science is that in addition to its complexity, it is also fundamentally different to other scientific branches. 

"Nobody in climate science believes they know everything about climate," says Sir Peter.

"The difference with climate science is we are using the past and the present to predict the future, when there's no replicate. That doesn't really occur in other areas of science.

"We've only got one planet, which we live on."

The simple message from this week's conference is that we need to find a way to adapt to a future on this one planet that is going to be very different to the immediate past.

Prof Lowe is one of many who stress the need for urgency.

"We're now booked on the Titanic and steering for the ecological iceberg. Technology could slow down the rate at which we're going there, but if we don't change direction, it can only delay the impact of the iceberg."

3 News asked whether technology really couldn't overcome the problems caused by our "domination of nature, consumerism and individualism"; to be rid of the iceberg, so to speak.

His response was unequivocal: "You cannot destroy the iceberg."

Sir Peter likened the situation not to ice, but perhaps more appropriately, to fire.

"Governments have the responsibility of protecting their citizens, and just like it would be irresponsible for a person to own a house and not have insurance against fire… it would be irresponsible for governments not to be considering how to respond to a challenge which the bulk of the world's climate models suggest will lead to unsustainable levels of global warming within a generation or so.

"No scientist can put their hand on their heart and say what the temperature of the planet will be in 2050 or 2070. They can put their hand on their heart and say – and the bulk of scientists do – on the evidence we have now, the risk of warming to an unsustainable level is very, very high, and therefore the world must take action now, in terms of mitigation and adaptation."

3 News

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