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One thing from the symposium that I reflected on was how much climate change is going to impact our communities, businesses and people. Let’s look at some scenarios ...
You run a small business in a coastal community. Your staff live locally, which is near the coast and a river running out to sea. Flooding in the area since climate change has become 1-2 times more likely and the floods up to 10% larger than in the past. As such, your staff, who live locally, are experiencing increased and more regular flooding on their properties. Your staff require more time off work to deal with the impacts of flooding. In addition, staff are stressed about the flood-risk - which is now noted on their LIMs — negatively impacting the value of their properties, just as insurance premiums are rising. They worry that insurance companies might soon retreat from providing coverage at all. You are asking yourself, "How will my staff live? How will they get to work? How will my business operate with staff who are constantly dealing with disruption in their lives?".
A key question from NIWA researcher Dr Emily Lane was, how are we going to live with floods when flooding is getting worse?
Your business relies on natural resources to operate and tourist visitors. Over time, these resources are declining and tourism has proved to a have a risky customer base. The long term prognosis is not looking certain. You decide to close up and move on. Your staff vary in age, ethnicity and educational background but mostly live locally. You have to let them go. You’ve lost your business and your staff have lost their jobs. How are your employees going to find more work? What re-skilling are you going to help with?
A key question from Dr Shaun Awatere’s talk that I was left pondering on is, how do we start building resilience in our people to build economies of the future? What are the skills and knowledges that people are going to need?
The final talk was a webinar from Prof Kevin Anderson, presented in the UK. Being a professor of physics he explained the idea of carbon budgets and the amount of carbon that we are able to emit before we hit 1.5degC or 2degC of warming. In Aotearoa New Zealand this represents 8-14 years of emissions at current rates before we need to drop to zero. That’s not long!
Prof Anderson discussed carbon budgets through a global pie example, the pie representing the total amount of carbon we can emit until we reach the 1.5degC-2degC threshold. Countries can each have a piece of that pie. However, the size of slice is a source of debate, as we’ve just seen at Cop26 in Glasgow. Questions are raised about what is a fair slice for developing and developed countries - remembering that 80% of the world’s population live in developing countries.
A critical question for Aotearoa New Zealand is, what part of the pie should our country be allocated, if we are to have a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5degC? Using carbon budgets, our slice of the pie is about 100-150 million tonnes of CO2e in total. That equates to 2-5 years of current emissions. Or if we want to stay well below 2degC, and dramatically reduce our emissions, this budget will last for 4-8 years.
This data points to the need for immediate and profound system-level change. But so far there is little action to do this. Sadly, this passes the burden of either achieving tough carbon budgets or living with the burden of climate impacts on to future generations.
We heard from our rangatahi too during the symposium and how "terrifying" the lack of progress at Cop26 was to them. Our young people are fighting, around the globe, for us to change and to create a more sustainable world for them.
So ... we came to the end of the symposium and I was left with the thought that either we have a world in which our experiences are severely affected by the impacts of climate change and businesses and the people who work in them are constantly disrupted, or we transition society, people and economies to meet carbon budgets. Both of these options represent what Kevin Anderson has called "a no non-radical future".
Therefore, the key question from Prof Anderson was: "Controlled radical change or uncontrolled chaotic change - which would you prefer?".
- Sara Walton is associate professor of sustainability and business at the Otago Business School, University of Otago. Each week in this column, writers addresses issues of sustainability.