Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Pacific nations desperate for climate action

There are reports of houses being swept away on low lying atolls. Photo / iStock
There are reports of houses being swept away on low lying atolls. Photo / iStock

New Zealand climate scientists have echoed desperate cries from small Pacific nations in the firing line of rising seas.

Representatives from 17 Pacific states, including Kiribati President Anote Tong, have been meeting leaders and experts in Wellington this week as part of Victoria University's Pacific Climate Change Conference.

The university's Professor James Renwick said there had been a sense of "alarm and panic" from Pacific delegates, whose low-lying nations were facing between 50cm and 1m of sea level rise by the end of this century.

With it would come higher rainfall variability, fewer but more intense tropical cyclones and further ocean acidification that would harm coral and marine ecosystems.

"We've heard from people in Kiribati that their homes are being washed away as we speak, so it's obviously very real for people in low-lying atolls in the Pacific."

Earlier in the conference, President Tong told delegates how some of his small nation's islands could be gone within decades.

Professor Renwick has joined leading researchers in calling for New Zealand and other First World nations to boost their contributions to climate finance and up their efforts to slash carbon emissions.

The conference comes just two months after the landmark United Nations climate change conference in Paris introduced a new global aspiration -- spurred by pleas from Pacific states -- of limiting warming to another 1.5C while working towards an agreed goal of 2C.

Professor Will Steffen, of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute, said even if the world met the goal of 1.5C -- something that seems unrealistic when measuring actions flagged in the pledges that nearly 200 nations brought to Paris -- metres of sea level rise could still eventually be expected.

"But it's really important that we slow the rate, to give communities and coastal regions time to adapt to this."

Pacific states, he said, were "on the front line".

"That's why Paris was so important ... Even more important is getting on with the job now -- there's not a year to waste in terms of getting emissions down."

Professor Ralph Sims, of Massey University's School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, saw the calls from the Pacific as a "cry for help".

"They know their future is very uncertain and they probably know that 1.5C is almost too late ... but we've got to try."

He said the cost of adaptation -- especially for Pacific countries -- was high, which made climate financing key to the issue.

What the world had so far contributed to its Green Climate Fund -- about $10 billion so far -- fell far short of the $13 trillion that was needed over the next 15 years to adapt and de-carbonise.

While New Zealand had contributed $3 million to the fund, Professor Sims said, this was little compared to its annual fossil fuel subsidies of around $80 million -- something which earned it the first "Fossil of the Day" award to be presented by activists at the Paris conference.

He did add, however, that New Zealand was helping its Pacific neighbours through other means.

In Paris, Prime Minister John Key announced the country would provide up to $200 million for climate-related support over the next four years, most of which would benefit Pacific nations.

This will build on the $65 million New Zealand has already spent over the past three years to help Pacific Nations to secure reliable and clean energy.

But Professor Renwick still saw New Zealand's efforts as lacking.

"It's a matter of political will -- I think New Zealand could give a lot more."

He felt the same was true of other Western countries.

"Just remembering that during the global financial crisis, the US government managed to find the thick end of a trillion dollars to bail out the banks in fairly short order, there is money available," he said.

"And when we think about the potential cost of not investing now, that dwarfs any sum you could come up with in terms of what it would cost to develop green technology."

Professor Renwick was also critical of New Zealand's new target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels and 11 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030 -- a commitment to be met largely through carbon trading mechanisms.

Tomorrow, the Victoria University will sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), an intergovernmental organisation of 26 nations for environmental protection and sustainable development.

The "era of climate change denial" isn't over -- study

Although the vast majority of climate scientists have reached consensus on global warming, arguments against the science of climate change have been on the increase, according to new research conducted by political scientists at Trinity College Dublin and University of Exeter.

Research recently published in the journal Global Environmental Change analysed more than 16,000 publications about climate change. These were produced by 19 major conservative think-tanks in the US from 1998 to 2013. It was the largest study of such material to date.

Using methodological approaches from the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence, the study shed light on the climate change-related material being produced by North American conservative think-tanks.

The study, which involved an examination of 8300 articles, 3000 reports, 100 interview transcripts, 680 press releases and open letters and 3900 "scientific" reviews over the 15-year period, focused on 47 themes.

These ranged from arguments against climate science and scientific integrity to policy-related topics such as emissions reductions and international agreements.

The analysis found that the overall level of material being produced by conservative think-tanks about this topic had grown rapidly over the past decade and a half, reaching a peak between late 2009 and early 2010.

The study authors reported that the era of climate-science denial was not over, with conservative think-tanks having not shifted from questioning the science of climate change to focusing on policy debates.

Instead, the data revealed that challenges to the science of climate change had been on the rise in recent years.

"This is a disturbing trend, as a general acceptance of human-caused global warming is a necessary condition for a comprehensive agreement on climate change mitigation," study co-author Dr Constantine Boussalis said.

Fellow co-author Dr Travis Coan said the vast majority of climate scientists agreed that the Earth was warming and that observed changes in the global climate were predominantly attributable to human activity.

"Nevertheless, a significant segment of the American public and many lawmakers in the US Congress continue to deny this reality," he said.

"With the support of industry groups, fossil fuel interests and conservative foundations, conservative think-tanks have played a crucial role in generating the narrative of climate change scepticism and, by extension, obstructing climate policy in the United States."

A survey of 2200 New Zealanders by economic and public policy research group Motu, published last year, also indicated many Kiwis remained unconvinced climate change was real.

While the majority of respondents were concerned about the potential effect of climate change on themselves, only 53 per cent agreed there was a scientific consensus on climate change.

Only 49 per cent of those polled agreed they were certain that climate change was really happening; 24 per cent were undecided and 28 per cent disagreed.

- NZ Herald

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