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Old-fashioned climate denial is dying out
Delay tactics are replacing outright denial. Here’s how to combat the new climate scepticism.
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Rejection of basic climate science is on the wane, according to media analyses. Since 2000, outright denial of the existence of climate change, of its human-cased nature, or of its significant impacts, has declined in online media. It’s almost disappeared from mainstream television coverage, but still clings on among right-leaning outlets and pundits (and the odd politician). Increasingly, denial of climate facts is the realm of fringe conspiracy theorists – especially since vaccine mandates aren’t front and centre anymore.
The classic head-in-the-sand approach may be on the way out, but a new form of climate denialism is rearing its ugly head: “discourses of delay”. These are less overt than “climate change isn’t real” but just as insidious, downplaying the urgent need for action. Here’s what to look for, and how to respond.
Whataboutism: ‘New Zealand is too small to matter’
Or: “What’s the point when the US/Russia/China emits so much more?” Yes, there are some hefty carbon belchers with emissions profiles that dwarf New Zealand’s – but that’s a lame excuse for inaction. If all the small emitters across the globe took that attitude, we’d be in trouble: together, small emitting countries add up to 36% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Plus, we have a moral obligation – especially to our Pacific whānau – to do everything we can to mitigate climate change. New Zealand also has the opportunity to be world-leading in areas like reducing methane outputs in agriculture. We pride ourselves on punching above our weight as a nation, and it just feels wrong not to give it a good bash.
‘It will cost too much’
What about the cost of inaction? Deloitte research from last year estimated inaction would cost the world $178 trillion by 2070, while accelerating the net-zero transition would add $43 trillion over the same time period. The New Zealand Treasury estimates the cost of inaction here to be in the billions. What’s more important than pure economics is imagining the better world we’ll kindle with climate action: one that’s fairer, safer and better for people and nature.
‘We can just rely on tech to sort it out’
There’s certainly a lot of tech in development, backed by some big money, that could play a role in our net-zero future. But relying solely on uncertain technology is a gamble, and it’s enabling delay on actions to reduce emissions now. It’s kicking the can down the road, in a similar vein to over-reliance on offsets deflecting from true emissions reduction.
‘It’s too late, climate change is inevitable’
Often accompanied by statements supporting adaptation efforts, but rejecting mitigation (i.e. reducing greenhouse gas emissions) as futile. This doomerism misrepresents the very nature of the climate change problem: as New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer explains, “Climate change isn’t the kind of issue where we either succeed or fail. At every step, we could always make things better.” In other words: every bit of emissions reduction we can achieve will make a difference. It all adds up.
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Indigenous leaders’ ‘green colonialism’ warning
Indigenous communities from the US to Scandinavia to Africa are highlighting the usurping of their rights in the name of sustainability this week, as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues gets underway. For example, thousands of Maasai have been “violently displaced” from their homelands in Tanzania to make way for a private “conservation” game reserve, The Guardian reports. “The issue of climate change and biodiversity cannot be resolved without the real and effective participation of Indigenous peoples,” says Mejía Montalvo, from the Zenú peoples of Colombia. Recent research from Brazil finds that rainforest areas owned and controlled by Indigenous tribes have lower deforestation rates, and higher reforestation too. For Earth Day, The New York Times profiles the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, and the forest they have sustainably logged for 160+ years. Closer to home, The Spinoff’s Sela Jane Hopgood hears from Pacific experts about the need to combine Indigenous knowledge to adapt to rising seas.
Deep sea mining deadline looms
From 9 July this year, companies can start filing applications for deep sea mining operations to collect those mineral-rich nodules we talked about in Future Proof last year. There’s just one problem: the International Seabed Authority (ISA) hasn’t yet decided on the rules governing the controversial practice. While the minerals mined could power green tech, there are concerns about environmental impacts on a largely unknown ecosystem, including giant sediment plumes that will be stirred up. “Because the deep-sea is unknown and unknowable to most of us, there is real concern in some quarters that environmental impacts will be down-played or understated by regulators in the hunt for mineral wealth from the deep sea,” says Professor Jonathan Gardner, a marine biologist. “Not having the research means we don’t have answers to many of the obvious and important questions, which means that making a truly science-based informed decision is going to be very hard for ISA.” Late last year, New Zealand backed a moratorium on deep sea mining until science-based environmental rules are put in place.
Across the ditch, moves to make greener steel
A South Australian steel mill has inked a deal for a new electric arc furnace that won’t need coal to manufacture steel, according to the ABC. Instead of coking coal, the plant will initially rely on a mix of natural gas and “green” hydrogen, before eventually shifting to only hydrogen (as the fuel becomes available at scale). This article in Cosmos magazine explains what “green” steel is, and whether the Whyalla plant will be able to make it. Here in New Zealand, Auckland’s Glenbrook Steel Mill produces around 1-2% of the country’s carbon emissions. Stuff’s Eloise Gibson reported last week that the mill will continue to operate for 25 years without conditions on its greenhouse gas emissions. In 2022, Kiwi researchers and steelmakers announced a small pilot reactor at Glenbrook to make iron from our “unusual” ironsands ore using hydrogen instead of coal.
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Maybe we should think about native forests as public infrastructure – akin to sea walls or stop banks – rather than cash-generating private assets, writes David Hall, climate policy director at Toha
Environment Court overturns decision to allow an open-cast coal mine at Te Kuha on the West Coast, reports Brendon McMahon for RNZ
To finish this issue, researchers attached sensors to northern elephant seals and recorded them sleeping at sea. You might’ve heard that dolphins can rest one half of their brain at a time – the seals don’t do this, so they spiral slowly towards the seafloor as they slumber, like falling leaves. Very chunky falling leaves. One seal was recorded falling 377m, and some woke up as they booped the bottom. The snoozers above are the southern cousins of the study subjects. I encountered them napping in a blubbery pile on subantarctic Macquarie Island in 2018.
Here’s to seal-y good sleeps,
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