Scientists warn of climate future shock
Sat, 04 Dec 2010 9:00a.m.
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."
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7/12/2010 12:54:07 a.m.
Kevin Hearle wrote:
Climate Changing yes it is. Are we having an effect yes we are but the issues are ill defined in quantity and quality. The solutions especially the political responses are not targeted to a real solution if in fact we need a solution. Politically we have put in place an ETS that is neither passed the test of a Cost Benefit analysis, nor tested by a process of comparitive choice with an alternative spend on health, education or environmental quality of life to name but a few. To achieve any of the "Solutions" we need to make a fundamental change in attitude from development and increasing population to quality of life and stable population. The farmers know how it works when the grass gets low shut the gate and move to the next paddock and make sure you don't run out of padocks. Our ETS was born in Labour party ignorance gestated in sellect committees who were ignorant of the outcomes it would produce or not produce, birthed into legislation that few if any had read or understood and dumped on an ususpecting public who have to pay and pay dearly for a non solution to whatever is the problem. There are solutions to the issues unfortunately we haven't chosen the right one. When you break all the rules of good policy development you will pay both politically,financially and in quality of life for the people you govern. We need to untangle our country from the UN IPCC band wagon and focus on a New Zealand solution to whatever we percieve to be the "climate problem" if there is one. In the process we need to educate the public to see both sides of the very complex issue of climate and the costs, benefits and alternatives to investing in climate insurance as opposed to investing in some other benefit. Then both the politicians and the public might be able vote in full knowledge not in ignorance as has been the case thus far.Unfortunately Gluckman has been captured by the political and scientific UN gravy train. The ETS is Think Big 2010
5/12/2010 3:50:32 a.m.
"..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." Oh really? I think Gluckman is confused. He isn't a 'climate scientist' after all. He's a medical scientist.
5/12/2010 1:34:36 a.m.
Neil Craig wrote:
The claims to “scientific consensus” on warming are & always have benn, wholly dishonest.Or perhaps the author can prove otherwise?I have asked journalists, politicians & alarmist lobbyists now totalling in the tens of thousands worldwide to name 2 prominent scientists, not funded by government or an alarmist lobby who have said that we are seeing a catastrophic degree of warming. None of them have yet been able to do so. I extend this same invitation yet again. There is not & never was a genuine scientific consensus on this, though scientists seeking government funds have been understandably reluctant to speak. If there were anything approaching a consensus it with over 31,000 scientists having signed the Oregon petition saying it is bunk, it would be easy to find a similar number of independent scientists saying it was true, let alone 2. The whole thing depends on a very small number of people & a massive government publicity machine, both very well funded by the innocent taxpayer. Because, to quote Mencken “the practical purpose of politics is to keep the polulace frightened & anxious to be led to safety by threatening them with an endless series of hobgoblins – all of them imaginary.”Or course if the author provides names it could be different?
4/12/2010 9:50:24 p.m.
What a joke these people never cease to amaze me, I could tell from just the headline this was some more rhetoric coming from the supposed know it all's. I did not bother to read the whole article as ahh boring.Here come the New World Order freaks again "gradually" brainwashing people with there "spin". I just knew after a few lines of reading they would bring up "world population issue".You see this is just part of there agenda, too "de-populate" the earth to 1/2 a billion people as written on the "Georga Guide Stones" which they adhere to.Now this earth that God made is well able to handle mega populations, the major problem is selfishness of man and his quest to dominate,to be greedy,to not love his neighbour etc. Man it's a no brainer you stupid scientists who can't see the obvious. Anyway bring it on, "more signs of the times".
4/12/2010 4:40:27 p.m.
Fred: Nobody here is denying that climate changes exist. We contest the idea that excess CO2 content in the atmosphere is the primary driver of such changes. You're a reality denier, where's that sharp uptick in temperatures mate? We've only warmed roughly 1 degree over 150 years. So when will the temperatures soar up the 2-3 degrees needed for your doomer predictions (6+degrees) to come true? Oh it's in the pipeline huh, just you wait they say.
4/12/2010 4:36:36 p.m.
Name one source that says this excess CO2 will be a problem. No don't quote the IPCC, everyone knows they're all crooks with their own political agendas. Here's a very credible source stating that the excess CO2 added to the atmosphere by human activity will not be a problem: Lindzen, R. S., and Y-S. (2009) On the determination of climate feedbacks from ERBE data, Geophysical Research Letters, in press. This was determined by experiment, not a computer model and the imagination of a doom merchant programmer
4/12/2010 1:02:54 p.m.
Tell you what; why don't all you climate change deniers start quoting from credible sources.Name one credible source that suggests that man has made no contribution to excessive greenhouse gases?
4/12/2010 11:54:55 a.m.
Wow, like flies to the honey, here come the climate change deniers... idiots.
4/12/2010 11:43:16 a.m.
Richard Cumming wrote:
As long as there are people in the world with an education and critical thinking ability, they will not have the wool pulled over their eyes by the likes of Prof Lowe and Sir Peter Gluckman.
Not all of us indulge in the group-think mentality of the man-made climate change proponents.
We know the science - we're not fooled.
4/12/2010 11:35:03 a.m.
John W wrote:
What they're really opposed to is "domination of nature, consumerism and individualism" as stated in the article. Basically, the American Way for a couple of centuries. Sustainability is just the new term for those that called for a "low entropy" society 50 years ago, it didn't make sense then and it doesn't make sense now. Only through living an "unsustainable” way of life will we ever have the motivation to spread beyond this planet; thereby ensuring not only our own survival but hosts of other species as well. Sooner or later something really bad will happen to this planet and we don't want it to be our only home when it does. Man-made global warming is falling apart so they have to "sell" something else: sustainability. Who could argue with that?
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