We all stand to lose by delaying action on climate

We were more than a little dismayed to read Garth George (Who stands to gain?) on these pages last Friday week, write Otago University researchers Doug Mackie, Hugh Doyle and Christina McGraw.

We appreciate that few readers will have that issue of the ODT to hand and so, rather than a line-by-line rejoinder, we confine ourselves to generalities.

We have recently submitted a paper (to a leading journal) that analyses the science in all 547 submissions (6662 pages) made to both the New Zealand select committees considering the ETS (the original Bill and the review).

We found that 86 submissions denied the truth of human-induced climate change and made a total of 562 science-based claims (an average of seven claims per submission).

However, there were just 19 unique types of claim.

Garth George uses the fourth most popular: what we called the "not since" argument.

Here, climate is confused with weather and the claimant says something like the slight warming that occurred between 1979 and 1998 has been followed by stasis and, since 2002, cooling (this quote is from the submission made by a source cited by George).

So what does this mean? Well, climate is long-term weather.

It is not valid to look at weather data for just a few years and make such claims in the context of climate.

Look at the graph on the left for 1979-2008.

Sure enough, temperature is up and down but overall there hasn't been much change.

Now look at the graph on the right for 1850-2008.

Here it is obvious that temperature has little wiggles but these wiggles are superimposed upon an inexorable upward trend.

This last week has been colder than it was in mid-September, but that does not mean I expect it to be colder still in February.

Want to know something really scary? Lags in the system mean we have yet to experience the increase in temperature (and other impacts like ocean acidification) that today's CO2 levels will cause.

However, our main point is that outright deniers are a sideshow.

The real problem is the pernicious fast-follower meme: the idea that we can afford to wait a few more years and then take urgent action.

Imagine a boy-racer buying a modified Skyline turbo for $20,000.

Probably not the wisest purchase in the first place, but positively dumb if done on credit with only minimum repayments being made.

Two words: Compounding interest.

That is where we are at with climate change.

The figures in the graphic present the outcomes (in terms of temperature rise) for three scenarios: a) early and rapid decline starting 2010; b) early but slow decline beginning 2010; and c) slow decline starting 2030 or no action.

Fraud in an ETS or other scheme does not invalidate the scheme.

It simply means we need better regulation at a global level.

Light regulation of the US financial system led us to the brink of disaster.

Parcelling up the risk of climate change and on-selling it to our children (not our grandchildren - climate change will be our children's biggest problem) is subprime.

- Doug Mackie, Hugh Doyle and Christina McGraw are researchers in climate-related disciplines at the University of Otago.

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