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Why climate change is our nuclear free moment

This week, we woke to the news that Cyclone Gita had smashed directly into our Pacific neighbour, Tonga, destroying much of the island and leaving people to pick up the pieces of their shattered homes.

The category 4 cyclone is the worst storm to hit the country in 60 years, with winds gusting up to almost 280 kilometres an hour. And it looks like it’s now heading our way.

Here in the Pacific, we’re staring down the barrel of a growing onslaught of violent superstorms and rapidly rising seas as climate change worsens.  

Last year, a leaked Ministry for the Environment report provided a hint of the dire social and economic consequences New Zealand faces as a result of the changing climate.

It estimated that property worth $19 billion is at risk, and 130,000 people could be directly affected by sea level rise in the near future. But rising oceans are just one of many symptoms of an unstable climate. Extreme and frequent weather events, like what we’ve just seen in Tonga, will also become more frequent and intense.  

The financial cost of significant weather events in New Zealand last year was $240 million. It was so high that 2017 was named the most expensive year for weather since records began, and when releasing the figures, Insurance Council chief, Tim Grafton, said it was a clear sign of the impact climate change is having on our country.

Over a few short years, we’ve experienced large-scale flooding, fires, long periods of drought, and cyclones – including Cyclone Debbie – which swamped the Bay of Plenty community of Edgecumbe last April.

Over the next century, we’re facing potential rises in global mean temperatures of between 2-4 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and sea level rises of up to 1 metre or more. The numbers seem cold and clinical, but this reality would be catastrophic.

The world’s authority on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says as the climate continues to warm we can expect increasing pressure on access to food and water, greater risks to human health, less ability to deal with poverty, and significant displacement of people.

And without additional efforts beyond those in place today, warming by the end of this century would lead to a “high” or “very high” risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts.

That is science speak for very bad news. The Day After Tomorrow is actually happening today, type news.

There is also much hope. The IPCC also says it’s not too late to avoid a real-life bad action movie ending – there are even multiple climate action pathways we can take. But to do it, we’ve got to be all in, whether we’re big or small.

That means us too.  

Our new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has said some good things, even labelling climate change her generation’s ‘nuclear free moment’. But we’re yet to see these bold words backed up with real action.

Here’s what we know: The world can’t afford to burn the majority of the fossil fuel reserves already discovered if we want to avoid going over the two degree warming mark – the point at which science says we face “extremely dangerous” climate change.

This means that if we value having a future, searching for any new fossil fuels – like oil and gas – is senseless.

As we speak, the Government is deliberating on whether or not to continue with the ‘Block Offer’ process put in place by its predecessors. This annual auction sees multi-decade licenses given out to companies to explore huge areas of our land and sea for oil and gas.

If this Government is really serious about climate change, they have to say no to this, now.

In 1985, going nuclear free meant stopping the nuclear ships. In 2018, taking action on climate must mean stopping the oil exploration ships and ending the search for new oil and gas.

We need to be racing down our climate action pathway as if our lives depended on it – because the lives of future generations do.

This means an immediate commitment to keep fossil fuels in the ground, an end to coal burning, and a halt to new-build thermal plants. It means massive investment in renewables, sustainable transport, and regenerative farming. It means reducing cow numbers, and widespread planting of permanent, indigenous forests.

It means transforming New Zealand into a zero carbon society over the next 30 years by putting climate considerations at the front and centre of our social and economic strategy.

We can do it, but we have to start today. The day after tomorrow will be too late.

  • Sophie Schroder is a communications specialist with Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand, and works predominantly on the campaign to stop deep sea oil drilling.

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