National Party Climate Change Spokesperson questions whether we are really faced with a climate crisis?Read Now
Stuart Smith’s talk to an audience in Ashburton in early August raises an important question for New Zealanders. Where does the National Party really stand on the issue of whether we are facing a climate crisis or not. Should we be concerned about the increasing incidence of extreme weather events? You can read about his talk here -
In my personal dealings with Stuart he’s given me the impression that he believes those who warn we are faced with a serious climate crisis are extremists. It is apparent that Stuart believes that the crisis is not nearly as bad as a large majority of the world’s climate scientists are stating. We have to face up to this crisis before we reach an irrecoverable situation. We may be very close to, or have already passed, climate tipping points. We won’t know for sure until we see the evidence in the rear vision mirror – that will be too late unfortunately.
If Stuart was just another local Marlburian who doesn’t accept we’re faced with a crisis I could easily agree to disagree but he is also the Climate Change spokesperson for the National Party and could conceivably end up being responsible for our countries climate change policies sometime in the future. And that is a worry.
So what is he basing his position on? In the above article he uses as evidence for his claim a report titled “The National climate change risk assessment: A case of science denial?” published in June this year by an outfit called “Tailrisk Economics”. Tailrisk economics is a Wellington economics consultancy. It specialises in the economics of low probability, high impact events including financial crises and natural disasters. Their report sets out to challenge the findings of the first National Climate Change Risk Assessment (NCCRA) released by the Ministry for Environment (MfE) in August last year. The full risk assessment is available on the MfE website here –
I’d point out that this assessment was put together with input from more than 400 people. They were from local government, central government, the private sector, primary sector, financial sector, iwi/Māori and universities/research institutes.
In the Tailrisk report they state - “The central message in the assessment is that the climate change risks are very serious, even in the relatively near term. Eight of the 43 sectoral risk assessments found that the consequences of climate change would be extreme by 2050. It is also argued that many risks need to be addressed urgently if the costs are to be mitigated, and that substantial resources need to be made available for additional adaptation research. Our review of the NCCRA found that for the most part, the assessments were not based on the ‘best available evidence’ and often consisted of little more than a recitation of the ‘five horsemen of the apocalypse’: more extreme weather events, more drought, more river flooding, higher sea levels, and more wildfires, followed by unsubstantiated claims that they will have either major or extreme consequences. Contrary to the picture painted in the assessment the science does not show that wind speeds will increase significantly, and river flood risk might actually fall overall. Droughts are likely to become more likely in drought prone areas, and there might be a few more wildfires, but these effects are likely to be outweighed by the positive impacts of climate change, including warmer weather and more fine days in summer, and the impact of carbon fertilisation on primary sector productivity. Sea level rise is a real issue but here the impacts in the NCCRA are overstated.”
You can see the full report here. It is 269 pages long so there’s a lot of material and I haven’t read it all but the summary gives a good idea of the basic thinking of the author/s of the report. The use of the term “catastrophist narrative” is commonly used in the report to describe the concerns expressed in the NCCRA assessment. I’ve picked out one statement from their report to highlight this difference. “RCP 8.5 is also often described as a ‘business as usual’ scenario, which can also be misleading. For most people business as usual is more likely to be interpreted as something like the current level of emissions not a strong growth in emissions.” For me this statement ignores the obvious. Anyone who honestly analyses the data knows that “business as usual” has seen a steady inexorable growth in emissions for the last hundred years at least. That’s exactly what “business as usual” is! You can check the stats here and here -
Over the past 20 years, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels and industry have been steadily increasing. At the turn of the century, global emissions were roughly 23 billion metric tons, but by 2019 had reached a record high of 36.44 billion metric tons. Projections for 2020 show a reduction of two billion metric tons. The only other time during this period when emissions have dropped was in 2009, which was due to the economic downturn of the global recession.
So, the only time we haven’t had rising emissions this century was a brief flattening off in 2008/09 during the financial crisis and the current drop which took a full scale global pandemic to achieve. Business as usual is rising emissions! And rising emissions is serious cause for concern.
I’m left wondering why the National Party Climate Change spokesperson places so much weight on the Tailrisk report and chooses to place it’s conclusions ahead of those of the majority of reputable climate scientists and the IPCC, all of which are reflected in the NCCRA. Why does the National Party want to associate themselves with this minority viewpoint? I note that Ian Harrison, the Principal of Tailrisk Economic, was criticised in an article published in Newsroom in April last year in the midst of the hard lockdown. Tailrisk had published another report titled “Corona” in which they were highly critical of the Covid modelling being used by the Government. You can view the article here - and the full Tailrisk paper here -
Ian Harrison has used the same approach in both papers, of playing down the threats and criticising and even denigrating those reputable scientists who are voicing their very real concerns.
I have added this information in an attempt to highlight my deep concern about this sort of approach. Playing down the impacts of the climate crisis does not serve the best interests of our community and our country. The pandemic and the climate crisis are both examples of global threats where we are best advised to listen carefully to the scientists who work in those fields and take the contrary advice from economists and politicians with a grain of salt.
How many times have we heard the word unprecedented in the last few months? The European floods, the heat dome in Canada, the fires in Siberia, Turkey and Greece, the drought in Madagascar. Is this all hyperbole and catastrophism or are Stuart and Ian missing what is right in front of them?
This cartoon highlights the central issue. Should we be putting the conclusions of a little known Economics consultancy ahead of the warnings laid out in the National Climate Change Risk Assessment and supported by the findings of the IPCC? I know which view I’ll listen to.
I've also added below the cartoon a short further analysis by Tom Powell of the Tailrisk report. This has some important clarification in it.
Nga mihi, Budyong.
FURTHER ANALYSIS BY TOM POWELL
I’ve figured out how Stuart got so far off the science of climate change induced flooding in his Ashburton talk.
The Tailrisk report he references spends lots of time commenting on a 2019 NIWA report evaluating catchments and river flow in New Zealand. One of the quantities that they looked at was Mean Annual Flood (MAF) which can be estimated for different rivers based upon rainfall and catchment area and is also an output of the climate models. MAF is simply the peak flood flow of a river that can be expected in any one year. It is a statistical quantity that is useful in calculating 50 and 100 year floods, but it is not the same.
Ian Harrison of Tailrisk has confused MAF with flood severity, even though the authors of the NIWA report state that these two are not the same and caution readers about the utility of MAF numbers. They are really only useful to hydrologists who want to calculate flood severity using statistical methods.
The climate modelling in the NIWA report shows that MAF increases for a number of west coast rivers in the coming years (‘the wet get wetter’) but actually decreases in most Canterbury rivers. The decrease is likely due to predicted increasing drought in Canterbury. You can imagine that rivers might undergo a number of years of decreased flow due to drought, lowering their MAF, but still host large floods every few years.
Stuart then carried the misinformation from Tailrisk to the Ashburton meeting. Hopefully, when Stuart questions James Shaw in Parliament about the issue (which, in the article, he said he would do) James will know the mistake Stuart (via Ian Harrison) has made in interpreting the NIWA report. A phone call to a hydrologist would have easily clarified all this!
These newsletters are put together by Budyong Hill in an attempt to help keep Marlborough people informed of issues both global and local. The aim is help raise awareness of the myriad challenges facing the essential life support systems that our amazing planet provides for us every day.