The end of the world is nigh, and humans are just not computing the facts. CARRIE STEELE on some compelling evidence.
Prince felt that the colour purple symbolized the end of the world. The song ‘Purple Rain’ is supposedly about finding divine guidance during Armageddon. Well, we might not quite be ready to face the end of the human race, but anything seems possible when you turn the world upside down. Last year, we experienced a yellow afternoon – attributable to the Australian bushfires – so it wouldn’t be implausible to see purple pain someday.
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The documentary series A Year To Change The World (available on TVNZ On Demand) follows environmental activist Greta Thunberg as she takes a year off school to explore the science of global warming. Thunberg speaks to world leaders and meets climate scientists to learn about the dramatic changes happening to the planet right now. She also travels to locations like Canada’s Jasper National Park, the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies, and what little is left of California’s fire-razed town of Paradise, where in 2018 residents literally had to drive for their lives to escape the burning. Thunberg meets with miners to discuss how their lives will change if the required actions are taken to limit global warming, and sits down with Sir David Attenborough for a heart-to-heart conversation on how we can find hope in the current situation.
The doco is a riveting watch. On-screen, Thunberg is arresting in her sincerity, and her knowledge and understanding of the issues around climate change and its causes is undeniable and well-founded. Whatever your opinion of Thunberg, this year in her life is more than worthy of your attention. As she repeatedly tells us, “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the science”. This series is undoubtedly backed up by heavyweight scientific research, and the locations Thunberg visits speak for themselves. Climate change is not a future threat, it is here now, and yet we still refuse to look it in the eye.
Last year during lockdown I read Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. It’s all about capitalism vs the climate. First published in 2014 and highly lauded, I was shocked to think that I was reading it several years later and so little had changed. Described by one critic as “a book for those who don’t read climate change books”, Klein surmises that “Climate change seems to be something that’s hard to keep in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right”.
Klein’s book is a big read at 533 pages, but you won’t be falling asleep with it. Be prepared though: what you will learn in this book will not be easy to ignore. But that is good news, because in order for there to be hope, we must all truly absorb the seriousness of what we are facing and then push for the required changes to occur while accepting that life will not look exactly the same. If you only read one book this year, make it this one. It’s readily available to order on most bookseller sites.
Several years ago, I read and was deeply moved by Rachel Carson’s landmark 1960s book on the poisoning of the environment, Silent Spring. I’ve read it a couple of times since and two things always resonate: Firstly, that Carson is indeed a gifted writer whose eloquent use of words paints a candid visual picture, and secondly, that the book was first published in 1962 and became a New York Times bestseller. Did it change much? Sadly not; or at least not enough.
As I’ve quoted Klein saying earlier in this piece, climate change seems to be an issue people can’t keep in their heads for very long. Tragically, Carson died of cancer at the age of 56, after living with the knowledge of it for some years. Silent Spring has often been cited as “The book that launched the environmental movement”. It may have launched it, but sadly, not enough of the people in power took any of it on board. And so, nearly 60 years later, we are now facing an environmental crisis so large that most of us are not able to get our heads around it.
Carson was born in 1907 and grew up in Springdale, USA. Her experiences of the effects of chemicals and toxic substances started early. I’ve read that growing up, from her window she could watch the smoke billow from the stacks of the American Glue Factory, which slaughtered horses. In addition, the fumes of the fertilizer made from horse parts was so stinky that apparently, it made it nigh on impossible for residents of the town to sit on their porches in the evening.
Carson grew up with a fascination and love of the sea, and went on to become a biologist and writer on nature and science, in particular the ocean. Silent Spring was written as a result of her research into environmental concerns stemming from synthetic pesticides. The book focused on the effects of pesticides on people and on the environment. Research has shown that an appreciable percentage of global emissions leading to climate change are attributable to agricultural activities, including pesticide use. Warmer temperatures also result in a larger insect population and thus increased pesticide use. And many of these are fumigants – hazardous and greenhouse gas-producing pesticides.
In time one of the chemicals Carson focused on in her book, DDT, was eventually banned in some places. But the use of it continued long after that in many countries because it was cheap and effective against mosquitos. I spent the first 11 years of my childhood in the Caribbean (1964-1975) where each evening before nightfall we used the Flit can to spray around under the beds and other hiding places where mosquitos might fly in and think of taking up residence. It’s difficult to be sure exactly when the use of DDT was discontinued, but it’s likely that at this time it was still the active ingredient in Flit. Even after use of the chemical had supposedly largely ceased, reportedly there were still vats of it being sold off and used in many countries. we were using.
Fast forward to 2021. Today the news reported that a weather station in Syracuse, Sicily recorded a temperature of 48.8 degrees Celsius on Wednesday. If verified by the World Meteorological Organisation, this will establish a new European heat record. Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, experienced its highest temperature on record this week, soaring to about 120 degrees. The heat is thought to have intensified the wildfires in Algeria that killed 42 people. Heatwaves have affected southern Europe all summer. Earlier this month, many parts of Greece set record highs during its worst heatwave in more than 30 years. The temperatures have helped fuel devastating wildfires that have destroyed tens of thousands of acres in Greece, Italy, Sicily, Tunisia and Turkey.
Recent mudslides in Japan and Germany have devastated communities. New Zealand has seen its share of flooding quite recently, and we’re reporting the warmest winter on record, with some parts of the country seeing temperatures as high as 22 degrees Celsius, even though we’ve had a recent polar blast of weather. As temperatures rise around the world, scientists predict all these types of extreme weather events will become more common.
Stuff science columnist Peter Griffin wrote an excellent piece this week, ‘Climate change: We need a post-growth world’. Griffin comments that “Burgeoning global consumption has canceled out most of the gains technology has made. The United Nations’ International Resource Panel estimates that global material demand for resources will double by 2060 if the current trend continues. We are consuming our way to disaster.”
It would be hard to make a more true and accurate statement on the matter. In recent weeks I’ve read several references to how New Zealand is being perceived to be ‘the best place to survive global societal collapse’. That globally there is even talk of such a collapse occurring and that people are eyeing up destinations to run to, should be terrifying enough for even the most avid consumers to recognise that the time is upon us when quite simply, we need to start turning stuff off, to stop drilling for oil and gas, to stop for the sake of drastically lowering emissions in order to preserve the life of this planet. In that regard, it would be hard to find a more extreme example of destruction than Canada’s Alberta tar sands, a massive site of oil extraction which encompasses an area larger than England and is clearly visible from space as an ugly scar on the landscape. Google it – I think you’ll be blown away by what you see and read.
Despite the gloomy revelations we can no longer choose to ignore, it has recently been revealed that coal use in New Zealand has actually spiked. We’re told this is largely down to the weather – lower lake levels meant hydro dams produced nine percent less power, while still conditions caused wind farms to generate four percent less.
That shouldn’t be read as green energy being a no-goer, but rather that we just need much more of it. More wind farms, more solar plants. In May this year, New Zealand’s largest grid-connected solar farm opened in Taranaki. The Kapuni Solar Power Plant is capable of powering more than 500 homes, and Todd Energy, though they did not reveal how much the plant cost to build, said it was “commercially viable”. That is a good start, 500 homes, but can we please keep building more? No longer can we go forwards talking about green energy as being a complementary adjunct to the status quo. All the stops need to be pulled out to progress to ‘going green‘. That should be the focus, and if it means putting the brakes on ever-increasing consumption for a while, that is definitely preferable to waking up one morning and having to turn off all the lights.
The Level 4 lockdowns we experienced in the Covid year surely brought home to all of us that it is possible for a situation to occur where literally, we are forced to press pause. Pause on life the way we know it. We did it for Covid. Air traffic plummeted; polluting factories closed; normally gridlocked motorways worldwide were clear. There were some unexpected outcomes even in that short time: signs of nature claiming back ground. Coyotes were spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Deer were seen grazing near Washington homes not far from the White House. Dolphins frolicked in the Bosphorus in Istanbul, usually one of the busiest marine routes in the world. In India, the Himalayas emerged from the smog and could be seen from 100 miles away. And Venetian canals had the clearest water for decades.
All that said, the Covid situation is bad timing. Not that there was ever going to be a good time for a pandemic, but because it has served to take the focus off the peril that we face from the dramatic climatic changes that are being experienced globally – right now. Something that the world had just begun to focus on in recent years, though not closely enough. Not many of us would be unaware that we have all but lost many species in the animal kingdom from the face of the planet. And while it is right and fitting to be worried (albeit at this very late stage) about the dwindling numbers of elephants and lions, it is also long overdue to start worrying about humans. Reportedly, the effects of climate change already force 20 million people to flee their homes each year.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – three years’ work by more than 200 scientists from 66 countries, says that “Unprecedented human-made heat is already here, along with floods and other extremes. The window to stay inside 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times, as most countries are aiming to do, is rapidly closing”. And that “Every fraction of a degree of extra warming will lead to more extreme heatwaves, heavy rain, drought and sea level rise. Storms and wildfires are also likely to worsen”.
Our Climate Change Minister responded to the report by re-affirming the Government’s promise to improve its emissions-cutting pledge of a 30 percent reduction from 2005 emissions by 2030. However, that pledge has been ruled incompatible with global efforts to stay inside 1.5C by the Climate Change Commission. Prime Minister Ardern has said that “The Government would begin work to revise the pledge this year”. I hope that they do, as the reality seems to be that New Zealand has achieved very little in the way of cutting emissions: industrial emissions in 2019 were reportedly the highest they’ve been since Statistics NZ started tracking them in 2007.
Please watch Thunberg’s doco series. And Attenborough’s film A Life on our Planet. Then move on to reading Klein’s This Changes Everything. Because we can no longer continue to look at the issues at hand with one eye shut, wanting to believe the good news that “We are cutting emissions”, but not asking “Is it enough”? As Thunberg tells world leaders when she addresses them, “Your children and grandchildren will hold you accountable for the choices that you make today”. This headline recently caught my eye: “Every Child Born Today Will Be Profoundly Affected By Climate Change”. If that is not enough to pull us all up short, then I don’t know what is. What will we tell our children and our grandchildren, that we knew what was coming but did nothing?
Novelist and Playright Victor Hugo once said, “How sad to think that nature speaks, and mankind doesn’t listen”. How tragic it is that we continue to prove that statement to be true. Are we waiting for the purple rain?