With world leaders failing and New Zealand ranked in the bottom five of the world's worst emitters for climate policy response, conservation campaigners have to think differently about ways to help nature weather the coming storm

The IPCC synthesis report is in and, hopes Bill McKibben:

“At this point, the scientists who run the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must feel like it’s time to trade their satellites, their carefully calibrated thermometers and spectrometers, their finely tuned computer models – all of them for a thesaurus. Surely, somewhere, there must be words that will prompt the world’s leaders to act.”

The report’s predictions will be underestimating the likely severity regarding sea level rise in particular, and yet “severe, widespread, and irreversible” is the experts’ verdict on what we can expect if effective action isn't taken now.

Climate Negotiations Minister Tim Groser thinks it’s under control, and Groser will be feeling pleased with himself, as New Zealand is the architect of a new proposal talked up in a recent speech by US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern as the "most interesting proposal on the table". The NZ Herald reported it with what seemed a sort of tragic, servile eagerness (NZ wins approval!) but might be no worse than not much critical thought.

The proposal is that the successor to the now defunct Kyoto protocol would be a schedule of voluntary commitments: countries would set domestic emissions targets of their choosing, then face legal obligations to tell the UN when those cuts will happen and submit to review measures; but the targets themselves would not be legally binding, nor need they be sufficient to reach the (likely insufficient) but internationally agreed target of no more than 2°C warming.

So to sum up: the extent of any remaining ambition, for 2015 anyway, is to get developing as well as developed countries to say what they will (or might) do, and write it down. And then mumble… something something… success! (or not) like a rabbit out of a hat: this sort of magical thinking is what we call progress now.

Truly, it is a victory for recycling: recycling of the media statements of everything said five years ago at the 2009 collapse of Copenhagen and the unveiling of the Copenhagen Accord (“a historic step forward”), in which we understood that agreement on 2°C as the threshold probably wasn't enough but accepted it as the compromise, with some pledges that collectively weren't enough to remain within that target, no binding obligations to adhere to the pledges, and subsequent domestic and international failures to even halt let alone reverse emissions' rise. Because all of the things said then, as those talks fell apart and we tried to console ourselves, seem equally true and applicable now. I can't see how Groser's idea moves us forward. It is, approximately, the entrenchment of the inadequate Accord with a new status and no exit route. In five years - five years, it will be six years in 2015 - is all that we're left with hot air?

Current climate action is taking us, at best, to a 3.7°C warmer world, New Zealand and Mr Groser among the leaders in the race to the bottom. The synthesis report, conservative as it is, predicts 3.7 degrees at best and up to 4.8.

As a person looking on with helplessness, growing incredulity, bitterness: what can anyone do? Civil disobedience? A salute to Mr Groser? - on beaches on December 7 we’ll be sticking our heads in the sand. Please come and join that event! Do not accept political inaction and equivocation, these failures and these lies.

But away from the rooms filled with men in suits, and milling crowds of activists and lobbyists now gathering for another set of talks, some whom have flown for many miles, I need to believe there’s a way to stop talking and start to act; to not rely and count too much on a process that may fail us - has already failed us - although it is necessary to keep the faith. I cannot bear to watch it. I cannot sit and hear it without erupting into bitter laughter. I want to go away. 

It is time for environment campaigners, local government, gardeners, farmers, caretakers of public land, communities, to open up another front. One of the places for that to happen is out in the forests and the fields.

These are not either-or strategies. No local adaptation can cope with the recurring drought, fire, sea-level rise, flood, and seasonal disruption that will follow warming of 5, 6, 7 degrees or more - remembering that real-world outcomes have been consistently tracking at the high end of modelled projections, and emissions continue to riseWe need the climate campaigners, and inspired courageous diplomats; we need to fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground; we need to keep exposing self-serving lies and telling the truth; and what we also need more than ever now is people focused on land and habitat - land use and habitat protection, together, at local and landscape scale.

New Zealand ecologists Matt McGlone and Susan Walker say that although the greatest short-term climate threats for NZ nature would lie in poorly chosen mitigation and adaptation efforts (like irrigation, hydro damming, and using exotic forestry for carbon sequestration), climate change is nevertheless a significant biodiversity risk within 50 years: pests, weeds and disease, species movement, temperature sensitivity (eg, sex selection of tuatara - there may be no males above 2C), inability to translocate in some species’ cases.

Former president of the NZ Ecological Society Wren Green, in a recent DOC paper, notes that with relatively little variability in NZ's climate, NZ species and ecosystems are poorly adapted to even small amounts of change. Coastal and freshwater ecosystems would both be at high risk; more generally, we need riparian planting and joined-up habitat - and these are opportunities, not costs.

Just as a revolution in our energy supply is all win, with big, proven economic and social benefits for anyone not invested in big oil and the status quo, things that will help nature and people in a warmer world are things that are needed anyway. Healthy, beautiful, useful living places can be the same places, and the same actions, that offer our best short- and long-term outcomes for conservation, biodiversity, freshwater quality and climate resilience. They might be our only shot.

It is a big philosophical shift, that potentially poses some quite profound dilemmas for conservationists. Typically, we conserve looking backwards. We stop some things and kill some things, and we leave some places to nature, relatively alone. The Conservation Act deals with historic places protection, as well as natural heritage. Which direction is conservation trying to travel in: is it towards the future, or back to the past? 

Can it be both?

The first frontline tasks are bread-and-butter business-as-usual tasks as we know them: protect what fragments of habitat we already have from development and invasive weeds and pests, halt the biodiversity decline. This is climate change response work, as well, now. It helps to strengthen and brace nature to weather the coming storm, by removing or minimising other stresses.

But crucially, a campaign for living landscapes needs to strengthen and connect by joining up broken and scattered dots. I'm talking about

  • how we use road verges and create wildlife crossings; 
  • riparian planting along rivers and streams to keep them shady and cool and the life in them alive; 
  • corridors (of adequate size and shape) connecting private covenants to each other and with public conservation land; 
  • forested food gardens that are also 'gardens for wildlife'; 
  • making public land in parks and schools habitat-rich living places. 

In such a landscape species can move, if they need to and are able, but more importantly, it has some critical mass that an ecosystem needs.

This is not a fight between the land that people need and use, and what we give nature back. It is the opposite. It is a true eco-system, where production and protection happen in the same place: where nature thrives, and so do we. 

It is a task of decades. To meet climate change impacts in the coming 40 years, we need to start today.

But can we conservationists handle it - celebrate it - when it's willows and poplars and tree lucerne, perhaps for forage in times of drought, that a farmer wants to plant? Does a kereru care, when it rests in a sycamore or feeds on a plum, rather than a miro tree? By what criteria will we, as conservationists, judge the rights and wrongs of different species if they can help in any way at all?

The objective here is not to assume we're going to fail on the climate change front. Win or lose at the climate talks, it's making New Zealand a living place, where man [human] lives in harmony with nature, which is all that Aldo Leopold defined conservation to be.

Comments (16)

by John Small on November 05, 2014
John Small

Great post and a great plan! 

I'd add that there is a huge opportunity for NZ farmers to get on board this train - out in the paddocks.

Biological soil life has been ignored and (inadvertently) killed by what we now think of as our "traditional" farming system, which basically means taking all our agronomy advice from merchants of seed, fertiliser and poison. This is how a market-led system works: you tend to mainly hear from people with stuff to sell. We've bought the package and now most farmers know nothing else.

As soil biology died, so did its incredibly valuable nutrient recycling services such as harvesting and storing atmospheric N, sequestering C  (massive climate change effect right here), releasing locked-up P to plants, etc. We buy this in bags now, because that's what we're sold.

The biological farming community has really only started to understand how soil critters to do this stuff over the last decade or so and most farmers have no idea. I suspect there is a big business opportunity here, just in producing the same animal products more cost effectively. 

by Lee Churchman on November 05, 2014
Lee Churchman

That's all very well, but, even if we do all this, how are we going to keep climate refugees out? 

by Claire Browning on November 06, 2014
Claire Browning

I rest my case.

We aren't, Lee, are we.

by Lee Churchman on November 06, 2014
Lee Churchman

We aren't, Lee, are we.

Doesn't it depend on how many there are? I'm reminded of Garrett Hardin's famous paper.

by Claire Browning on November 06, 2014
Claire Browning

Cranks and climate deniers: please go somewhere else. Commenting here is a waste of time. I will delete them.

You've had your say, the IPCC and 97% of scientists who've established that climate change is happening and is man-made have had theirs: game over.


by Charlie on November 07, 2014

Claire doesn't like dissent. That's a leftie/hippie for you.


by Claire Browning on November 07, 2014
Claire Browning

Morning Charlie,

Bless your persistence, but wrong again. Dissent is what I do! Hoping for more of it.


by Lee Churchman on November 07, 2014
Lee Churchman

Cranks and climate deniers: please go somewhere else

I'm not a climate denier. I accept there's going to be a very serious refugee problem – in fact there already is. Gwynne Dyer's book on climate change goes into detail about this. Just how many people do you think New Zealand will be able to take? 

by Chris Morris on November 08, 2014
Chris Morris

In the deleted post, I quoted directly from AR5 WG1 Technical Summary. I am amused that IPCC is now classified as "climate denier". Where is the Judean People's Front when you need it?

by DeepRed on November 08, 2014

Charlie: I could tell you about the <a href=http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/258512/forty-percent-of-scientists-feel-gagged>40% of NZ scientists who feel afraid to speak out</a>. Or the organised smears against Doug Sellman and other public health figures.

by Charlie on November 09, 2014

I don't like being sloganized as a 'climate change denier', because as a scientist, I recognise that our climate does indeed change. It is inherently unstable and we have a record of that instability going back billions of years.

So, there is climate change. Get used to it.

We humans may also be causing some change although the effects of human activity are, as yet, unknown. Attempts to model climate in recent decades have been largely fruitless because the system we're trying to model is too complex and our assumptions too broad. 

(If you want a good laugh, google 'failed climate predictions')

Now even NASA is scratching its collective head, unable to find the warming that was supposed to be hiding in the deep ocean (because the surface is not warming as predicted)


 Oct. 6, 2014: The cold waters of Earth’s deep ocean have not warmed measurably since 2005, according to a new NASA study, leaving unsolved the mystery of why global warming appears to have slowed in recent years.


So in summary, I'm not saying everything is 'fine & dandy', humans are certainly causing some worrying damage such as habitat destruction, species loss and fish stock depletion. These are real and worrying things.

What I am less concerned about are the evermore shrill claims of the political actors and their media friends who have made alarmist claims which have been shown to be untrue. We had record Antarctic sea ice last winter whilst in the North, the polar bears are multiplying and this winter the sea ice level is only the 6th lowest since records began in the 1980s. In other words, fairly normal. Sea levels are not rising beyond what they've been rising since the last ice age. The Himalayan glaciers have not disappeared.

H.L. Mencken: The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed — and hence clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." And, "The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false face for the urge to rule it.



by Andre Terzaghi on November 09, 2014
Andre Terzaghi

Charlie, you ARE a denier. You're cherry-picking a few very small uncertainties to try to claim the overwhelming big picture is unclear. Your "skepticism" has every appearance of someone with a preconceived notion going out and finding just enough little specks of information to feel comfortable about maintaining that notion, instead of educating yourself about the whole big picture.

If you look at the whole question from the basics of radiative, convective and conductive heat transfer, (as has been done numerous times since around 1850) it is alarmingly obvious that raising the CO2 concentration from 280 ppm to 400+ ppm WILL raise the global average temperature significantly. This doesn't need computer power - look up the likes of Tyndall, Arrhenius among a bunch of others. The physics of greenhouse gases are so simple and well established that there can be no doubt whatsoever that anthropogenic emissions are affecting the climate. So your statement "the effects of human activity are, as yet, unknown" marks you as a denier. Almost all of the non-anthropogenic factors changing the climate  (and even most of the anthropogenic ones such as changing land use changing the reflectivity of earth's surface) would tend to cool the average climate. The only major heating influence is anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

The difficult part comes about in predicting the wheres, whens and how muches of the effects. Yes, this has complexities beyond our abilities to completely model, and is influenced by random events and trends we will never be able to predict. Hell, even trying to predict what anthropogenic emissions will be in five years time is beyond us, given events like Germans reacting to Fukushima by closing nuclear power stations and burning more coal. But you appear to be calling all the climate models failures because they don't meet the standards you expect from them.

And then there's the outright misdirections you're attempting- such as "this winter the sea ice level is only the 6th lowest since records began in the 1980s. In other words, fairly normal." It may be that satellite records only go back to the 80s, but there are other records, and proxies that can be used to infer sea ice coverage. As I understand it, these other records and proxies tell us that Arctic sea ice coverage now is lower than it has been for thousands of years. Increasing Antarctic sea ice coverage is not inconsistent with a warming world either. Sites such as www.skepticalscience.com have explanations.

Then there's all the other indicators of warming - earlier flowering in spring, plant and animal habitats moving to higher altitudes and latitudes (along with diseases), melting glaciers (most glaciers around the world are losing ice rapidly, even if the Himalayan ones haven't disappeared-anyway that howler of a prediction was they would still be around til 2035) and so on and so on.

And now I'll force myself to stop, this is already a bit tl;dr.

by Charlie on November 10, 2014

Andre: As I understand it, these other records and proxies tell us that Arctic sea ice coverage now is lower than it has been for thousands of years

That's what they would have you believe but it's not true.

Of course we don't have an accurate map of historic sea ice coverage but as an indicator we do know the North West Passage has been successfully navigated many times back in history, starting with John Cabot in 1497 and later by Capt Larsen (in a wooden boat) in 1940. It was navigated single handed by a yacht (Williwaw) in 1979  http://www.yachtweb.be/yachting/williwaw.pdf

Based on this was can definitely say that Arctic ice is highly variable. Most likely ocean currents dictate coverage from year to year and we'd need a lot longer data series to make a conclusion regarding the overall trend.

The other awkward issue for the 'warmists' is the MWP. (Medieval Warm Period) when Vikings farmed cattle in Greenland for a couple of hundred years before the ice returned. A significant warming, pre-industrial, which demonstrates there are other factors at work here.




by Andre Terzaghi on November 10, 2014
Andre Terzaghi

Charlie, that's just repeating specks of data to support a preconceived notion, while continuing to ignore the overwhelming big picture...

How about you try to persuade us you truly understand greenhouse gases, and then explain how it is in any way plausible we can increase CO2 by 50% without increasing global average temperatures a lot.

Then explain why the other effects of business as usual with fossil fuels aren't a problem. Ocean acidification, pollution, environmental degradation, the way we impoverish our economy and enrich the likes of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Russia..., and the list goes on and on and on.

by Charlie on November 10, 2014

Andre: There's a bit of science behind this so bear with me:

In order to create a climate model where CO2 causes significant increases in temperature we need to assume a positive feedback resulting in a runaway effect. 

Here's an article from the Guardian about it: 


If there is no feedback in the model, the result is a very slight temperature increase and then a new point of stability is reached and no further warming occurs.

Lastly if there is the negative feedback, changes are automatically corrected by natural reactions in the system.

Since we've been delving into the science of climate we've found many, many feedback mechanisms. Some positive some negative. And the more we look, the more we find. Frankly by this time we don't have much of a clue what's feeding back and how much. Such diverse effects as wave shapes changing oceanic albedo, cloud shapes and plant growth are all part of this massively complex scene.

Despite this evident complexity the 'warmists' decided on a feedback gain value years ago and won't deviate from this dogma, despite the fact that the warming they predicted has not occurred. I'm not saying they're absolutely wrong in being concerned about climate but I am saying there is a high degree of uncertainty.

As regards the other environmental issues, I share some of your concerns. But I don't buy the whole package as a matter of blind faith.


by Andre Terzaghi on November 10, 2014
Andre Terzaghi

Charlie, you've persuaded me you can repeat things you read on a website. That you understand greenhouse gases-not at all.

So, try again on greenhouse gases. Tell me things such as greenhouse gas effects I can directly observe. What are the significant feedbacks. And then explain why raising the CO2 concentration 50% isn't going to cause significant heating with major flow-on problems.

I work regularly with positive feedbacks - one example is a product I helped develop where if you mixed and poured the constituents at 22 degrees or less, you got a nice sound product with a peak exotherm of around 80 degrees. Mix at a temperature of 25 or greater, you got a smoking ruin of thousands of dollars in materials and labour, with a peak exotherm over 200 degrees. So the fact we're playing silly buggers with a complex climate system with known big positive feedbacks, a few small negative feedbacks and a lot of unknowns scares the hell out of me.

Now, a whole lot of people a lot smarter than I am have dedicated their careers to studying this, have made some pretty damn good predictions considering the complexity of the problem, and they are nearly unanimous in concluding we've got a huge problem on our hands. Sure, they don't know all the factors, and never will, but they do know the big ones and the unknowns are getting smaller and smaller. Furthermore, the few local observations I can make such as being a regular user of Mt Ruapehu since the mid-70s, 15 years of watching the bush around my house respond to the seasons, and so on, all agree with the bigger picture presented by the experts. The few people with a reasonable claim to expertise that dissent with the consensus, such as Roy Spencer, put up such flawed arguments that even I can spot some of the errors without assistance, and my  personal climate expertise pretty much stops at simple heat transfer considerations. With a bit of digging these "skeptics" also usually turn out to be linked to vested interests such as the Heartland Institute.

So quite frankly, it looks to me like you've fully bought into the smokescreen put out by the vested interests. The old tactic of creating confusion, as pioneered by the tobacco industry and refined by creationists.

One of the things that really rips my shorts about the whole issue is that getting serious about moving beyond fossil fuels is at worst a very small extra expense in the big picture, economically. And there's plenty of good reasons that suggest that it might even be a major economic boost.

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