COMMENT

Mike Hosking wrote (NZ Herald, July 4) that NZ's total household carbon emissions have gone up, and blames this on the alarmism of "zealots" who turned too many people off with their messages that "the world is ending, we must act now, we have only 20 years left" – none of which, he says, is true.

First, let's acknowledge it's not true that the world is ending. This planet has suffered five major extinction events in past ages, and life recovered. After the worst, the Permian extinction event, wiped out most land-based and marine species, it took many million years before life returned in profusion and diversity. If we succeed in triggering another such event, life will probably flourish again some day.

"We must act now, we have only 20 years left" – the first is certainly true, the second is not, because, as the IPPC scientists warned in their Special Report (released October last year, how time flies), we had only 12 years in which to act to limit climate catastrophe.

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Mike says the climate change message has saturation. I think few people in New Zealand
understand the nature of the risks, because our mass media have given this no coverage.

There has been no explanation of feedbacks ("vicious spiral" effects whereby warming beyond certain levels leads to further warming), even though some of these have now certainly kicked in. This may be why there's now a note of panic emanating from UN sources informed by science.

These feedbacks include the fact that when big forest fires are burning, as we've seen in North America, Eurasia, and Australia in recent years after long dry spells, they release vast quantities of carbon previously stored in those trees back to the atmosphere, causing further warming.

Another feedback is the "albedo effect". Bright white ice and snow in the Earth's polar regions and great mountain chains previously reflected a portion of the sun's energy entering our atmosphere, back into space. Now, as that ice and snow melt away, darker earth or water are left exposed; both these absorb more of that incoming heat.

A third feedback is that warming of the Arctic tundra is leading to the release of methane previously frozen below it – and methane is a much more powerfully warming greenhouse gas in the short term, than CO2. Scientists believe that undersea methane releases may have been responsible for the most destructive phase of the Permian extinction event.

There are vast stores of methane hydrates, in "frozen" form, lying along Earth's major continental shelves, the release of which could be triggered by further ocean warming.

Let's not panic. What we do need to do is to act now to reduce our carbon emissions, which are still the prime driver of warming, before it becomes too late for us to be able to turn things around. That is the "tipping point" which climate scientists (and Mike's "zealots", including me) dread.

There are many solutions, and we need to effect them all as fast as possible. Everyone has a part to play in building an economy and society which preserve the best of our civilisation – our rich abilities in art, music, literature, science, crafts, technology, building, gardening, educating our young ones, caring for our sick and elderly, playing, loving, working together – while learning to live within our planet's capacities and carbon-free.

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Limiting our growing human population is one factor in the equation – fortunately, when women are educated and empowered with choices, they tend to limit the sizes of their families; it's when societies break down and people are very deprived that they "breed like rabbits".

Planting trees is another solution. As we've seen, trees, especially conifers and eucalypts, can burn and release their carbon stores again, so if we're starting a tree planting programme here it would be best to plant native trees and restore native forests, which produce a damper, more fire-resistant ecosystem.

Jill Whitmore. File photo / Steven McNicholl
Jill Whitmore. File photo / Steven McNicholl

The way we use agricultural land can also be part of the solution. We all, especially farmers, need to learn more about regenerative farming – a step on from organic farming – which, amazingly, could return a significant part of the excess carbon in the atmosphere back to enrich the soil, thus also enabling farmers to revive their tired land, produce more food, reduce costs, and earn better incomes. Farmers, you could become the heroes of our story rather than the villains.

Mainly, we all need to open our minds to the fact that things must change - we can't go on like before, because we're heading in the wrong direction.

If we want solutions, then we need to first figure out what they might be and then work and push for them, rather than expecting them to be handed to us on a plate.

* Jill Whitmore is a former businesswoman, a farmer, a grandmother, and a climate activist