Prepare for change, climate scientist urges


Crucial UN climate talks are about to start in Paris. What are the chances of an agreement? David Williams talks to respected climate scientist Blair Fitzharris, of Queenstown

They’re billed as the most important climate talks since Kyoto in 1997. The United Nations climate summit kicks off in France’s capital tomorrow. Despite what’s at stake, it’s hard to talk about Paris without referring to the recent terrorist attacks.

“I love Paris but I wouldn’t like to be there at the moment,” says Otago University professor emeritus Blair Fitzharris.

Climatologist Fitzharris, 72, who has had a house in Queenstown for 25 years and has lived there full-time for 12, will take a keen interest in the talks.

Though he retired from full-time academia in 2004, he’s a scientific heavyweight - a “convening lead author” for four major assessment reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The IPCC was established in 1988 to cut through the crap and give a robust scientific view of the changing climate and its potential impacts.

Fitzharris - who will deliver a talk on climate in Queenstown on Monday - is fairly blunt about UN climate deals.

The Kyoto Protocol was flawed - but a start. The 2009 talks in Copenhagen were “a flop”. He holds out hope for Paris.

“China and the US have come to some agreement - they’re big players. The Europeans have always been keen to do something.

“There will be still some countries who want to drag the chain, particularly the oil-producing countries or some of the developing countries who argue, ‘It shouldn’t be up to us to do anything, we’re not causing the problem’.”

“I think there’s a chance we’ll get a framework in place. That framework won’t satisfy a lot of people because it’s very hard to get a legally binding treaty at a global level.’

Climate Change Issues Minister Tim Groser shares Fitzharris’ optimism.

He told TVNZ’s Q+A programme on Sunday he’ll be surprised if an agreement isn’t reached, considering a “more realistic” proposal’s on the table than what was thrown up at Copenhagen.

“I think, in a paradoxical way, this absolute tragedy in Paris puts very high stakes on the international community coming together on something as important as this.”

NZ is a tiny emitter by world standards - about 0.2 per cent of world emissions.

But our greenhouse gas emissions are growing fast.

By 2013 the country produced 12 per cent more emissions than in 1990 - and a Kiwi’s per capita emissions are nearly twice that of a Briton.

NZ’s energy emissions are helped by huge renewable electricity schemes. But half of the country’s total emissions are from farm animals - making it hard to slash emissions without cutting cows and sheep, which would send shockwaves through huge export industries.

Last year when the IPCC put out its latest assessment report, Prime Minister John Key said NZ can only do so much.

Fitzharris agrees.

“It’s difficult for us to take a very high profile, nor do we need to, we’re only four million people - other countries won’t really care what we say.”

NIWA scientists reckon as the planet warms this country will get hotter, with fewer frosts and more high temperatures. The snow season will be shorter, glaciers will continue to retreat and sea level will creep even higher.

Last week, South Dunedin was identified as the most vulnerable area to sea level rise in the country.

But Queenstown and Wanaka aren’t sitting pretty.

If you crank the temperature up, the atmosphere can hold more water - increasing rainfall intensity.

Fitzharris says that means the lakeside towns are at risk of increased flooding.

As for snow, Fitzharris’ predictions will leave a bitter taste after one of the best seasons in years.

“We’ll still get some good years at the skifields,” he says.

“But the bad years will get more frequent.”

To adapt, the skifields might have to go higher or further west towards the main divide.

That sounds bad, but Australia’s scientists are predicting their mountains will be virtually wiped of snow by the second half of this century.

What can individuals do about climate change? Prepare for change, Fitzharris says. And find out what your council’s policies are to adapt.

“If you’re building a house, your house could be there for 100 years - maybe longer - what will be the effect of climate change on your house?”

Another piece of advice - don’t build it in South Dunedin. “But if you do, put it on stilts,” he says, helpfully.