John Roughan on climate change: Covid numbers are up but so is the temperature


Climate change certainly has an upside for New Zealand. If this year follows the pattern of the past few, today could be the beginning of summer.

It wasn’t very long ago that Aucklanders were long accustomed to indifferent weather right through to Christmas. The wind and rain of spring would persist through November and make outdoor plans for the festive season a dicey proposition.

But then one fine day – it seems like three years ago but was probably more – summer started at Halloween. We didn’t realise it at the time, of course, brief “Indian summers” were not unknown in our old climate. It was only later, when we were remarking on long that summer was lasting, that we recalled the sun had been shining right through November.

Even then we thought it a freak year, a “marine heatwave”, Niwa called it. The sea temperature largely determines our weather. But the following summer seemed just as long and hot and so did the next. We’re told to expect the same this summer. Niwa forecasts another marine heatwave.

None of this is supposed to be good news, especially on a weekend when governments of the world are meeting in Glasgow for another of those conferences that will agree we face planetary disaster unless they keep pledges to reduce their greenhouse emissions this time.

But I think Aucklanders might be forgiven a glance on the bright side of the subject. Their city has been closed and isolated for 10 weeks by a viral infection the rest of the world is now coping with, and we have been given a higher bar than other countries had to jump to return to normal life.

Auckland needs 90 per cent of its citizens to be fully vaccinated in all three of its health districts. There is no prospect of getting all of them double-dosed and given two further weeks’ clearance before the end of November and not much prospect for a week or two into December. So let us look forward to the very good prospect that the next six weeks will be warm and sunny.

Level 3 has been relaxed enough to allow Aucklanders to travel anywhere in the region and they can make the most of this marine heatwave. Climate change might not be on their minds.

James Shaw, representing us in Glasgow this weekend, is worried that New Zealanders do not make a connection between the warnings of climate science and their own experience. I’m not sure that’s true. We’ve noted floods in Canterbury and at Kumeū this year, and we’ve observed Auckland’s water restrictions that have only now been lifted after a dry spring last year.

The reason we’re unmoved by climate change, I think, is that floods, droughts and bushfires do not seem to warrant giving up things as convenient as cars, gas-heated water and electricity generation, that do not depend on the weather.

And there’s another reason: sometimes the warnings of climate science prove to be a mite overblown. The most alarming climate catastrophe in this part of the world, we’ve often been told, is the likely disappearance of low-lying Pacific islands as melting polar ice raises the sea level.

But when Pacific atolls were eventually measured over several decades, it turned out 14 per cent had shrunk, a couple had disappeared, 43 per cent had not changed and another 43 per cent had become larger. (It’s probably coincidence that those numbers are similar to the recorded illness, death, mild and asymptomatic infection rates of Covid-19.)

The atoll research results were published 10 years ago but somehow I’d missed the news until The Economist reported them in its August 7 edition this year. It said the findings had not stopped a former president of Kiribati touring the world with a film warning his country was going to go under. In 2014 that impoverished little state purchased 20sq km of Fiji in case its population had to move.

The fear persists. This week islanders in Torres Strait were urging the Australian Government to tell Glasgow about the existential threat they think they face.

The Economist, a fairly green journal, excused the Kiribati tale as one that “can help capture international attention and much-needed funding”, noting, “Seven of the world’s 15 most aid-dependent countries are islands in the Pacific.” I’m not sure that justifies it.

I think climate (and epidemiological) modellers should be sure of their facts before they scare people. I can’t help wondering what else in their models would not survive a reality check.

So forgive me for looking forward to warmer weather for the rest of this interminable shutdown. Let me worry about one thing at a time.

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