Simon Cunliffe: Climate change here to stay

Last updated 05:00 06/01/2013
simon cunliffe
Sunday Star-Times columnist Simon Cunliffe.

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Two nights ago, the bach, in which I sit writing, was battered by a weather bomb. So was most of the west coast of the South Island.

Within hours, languid, blue-green rivers snaking peacefully through flowering rata forests were engorged with broiling torrents of mud-coloured water. Bridges were washed away, roads flooded.

Holidaymakers were stranded or had to retrace their steps. Here, the ferocious westerlies howling in across the estuary bent the manuka strands almost to breaking point. They knotted the pliant flax into unruly dreadlocks and hammered the rain horizontally against the tin walls. We slept fitfully to nature's percussive frenzy.

Today, peace has broken out. There is barely a cloud in the sky. It is early morning and already the heat is rising off the wooden deck. A mere whisper of a breeze tickles the wetland scrub, gently swaying the fantail's perch atop a rickety flax stamen. How the weather and the world change.

Nature is, of course, the title of a New Zealand song consistently voted among this country's most popular. It was written in 1969 by Wayne Mason and the Fourmyula and repopularised by the Mutton Birds in the early 1990s. Crowded House chimed in with Weather With You.

We always take the weather with us, especially at this time of year. Strangers and foreigners remark on our obsession with the elements. A River Rules My Life might be one of the classics of early New Zealand literature, but it is the forecasters and meteorologists who are the household names. People such as Jim Hickey occupy pride of place in popular culture, rather than our Janet Frames.

We, of all cultures, are cognisant in our daily lives of climate and its rambunctious, unpredictable offspring, the weather.

Almost a month ago, as the world's nations met in Doha to try to thrash out an agreement on a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, the Philippines representative, whose country was being battered mercilessly by a cyclone, pleaded with developed nations to take the lead in committing to climate change reduction and mitigation.

Notwithstanding the devilishly complex relationship between weather and climate, and the simplistic and too readily aligned causal connectedness between them, it was an emotional cry from a country, among many others in our hemisphere, more subject than others to the vagaries of climate and weather.

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Are weather patterns getting worse? To what extent can superstorms such as Sandy, which struck the eastern seaboard of the United States late last year, be related to the consensus - held by an overwhelming majority of meteorological scientists - that human society is contributing to a change in the world's climate?

The jury may still be out on the degree of reciprocity, but it would be a brave or foolhardy person to suggest there was no connection at all or that we need pay nothing more than lip service to the notion that we are changing climate in a potentially catastrophic and irreversible manner.

Which, unfortunately, is the underlying tenor of the current Government's position on such matters. As the Doha talks wound up, New Zealand refused to renew a binding commitment, pulling out with Canada to join the likes of Japan and Russia.

Kyoto, its provisions, the price of carbon and the impact of any of it on global climate are indeed questions to be debated legitimately. But, at a stroke, a country that has always been intimately aware of climate and weather has seemingly turned its back on the consensus and international solidarity.

At a stroke, we have gone from potential leaders at the forefront of efforts to wrestle with the almost overwhelming implications of anthropogenic climate change, to shamefaced and self-interested naysayers at the back of the queue.

It is a position mirrored in our watered-down Emissions Trading Scheme from which the biggest single emitter - the agricultural sector - has been absolved from assuming any significant responsibility for years to come.

Early on in his Parliamentary career, John Key - perhaps before the image consultants and spin doctors got hold of him - confessed to being a climate change sceptic.

Within the ranks of the prime minister's party and its supporters in the business and industrial sectors, he would hardly be alone.

There remain many gaps in our knowledge about climate change, weather and the various schemes to moderate human effects upon them. But is difficult to see this Government's retreat from serious engagement as anything other than a cynical sop to its own.

- Sunday Star Times


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