Covering Climate Now

Climate change: our next ‘moonshot moment’?

While some despair about the fate of our planet, award-winning climate scientist James Renwick says it is never too late to take action - and seizing the moment may require a new “moonshot moment” for the 21st century.

If you find yourself grasped by a sense of fatalism regarding the existential threat posed by climate change, James Renwick has some good news - we can always stop things from getting worse.

In an address to mark the finale of Victoria University of Wellington’s Sustainability Week, Renwick - head of the university’s school of geography, environment and earth sciences who has received the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize for his work on climate change - said it was wrong to assume, as some did, that the Earth would reach the point of no return.

“It’s not the case that we get to two degrees [of global warming] and suddenly everything blows up and the Earth itself takes over and just warms uncontrollably, that is not going to happen - at any point in the future, when we stop emitting greenhouse gases we will stop global warming.”

However, that did not reduce the urgency of taking action now, with every notch up from the 1.5C target set out in the Paris climate agreement carrying an added environmental cost.

“That buys us a bit more time...but the potential for damage is much greater…

“It’s still better than three: at three degrees, we’re really in trouble, and at four degrees, well I don’t want to think about what that kind of world would be.”

The world was entering, or had already entered, what Renwick referred to as “an unprecedented point in human history”.

“On a finite planet, you cannot have growth of anything. Eventually you will use up either space or resources or whatever it is you’re talking about - we have to learn to live in a more static kind of way.”

At current rates of emission, there would be enough carbon dioxide in the air within a decade to guarantee 1.5C of warming - with 2C reached within 20 years, and 3C within 50.

“If we’re thinking about stopping, and stopping at a point that’s relatively safe, we’ve really only got a matter of a few years to get onto this.”

While it was relatively easy to predict environmental changes as a result of global warming, it was much harder to anticipate what humans would do to prevent them from occurring.

Moving towards a more sustainable way of living would require significant action, Renwick said. We would need to decarbonise New Zealand’s and the world’s economy, with our transport fleet a major offender  - “it’s not just about plenty of wind turbines, we need to be powering everything renewably”.

The intensification of dairy farming was also not sustainable, with true sustainability requiring an eventual end to all forms of growth.

“On a finite planet, you cannot have growth of anything. Eventually you will use up either space or resources or whatever it is you’re talking about - we have to learn to live in a more static kind of way.”

Climate scientist James Renwick says New Zealand could be a world leader in green technologies. Photo: Supplied.

He spoke of mātauranga Māori, the sense that people were “of the land, not on the land, it’s about decolonisation, not dominion”. 

But what could any individual do, one audience member asked, when major offenders like corporations did not appear to suffer from the consequences of their environmentally unsustainable actions?

When people raised that with him, Renwick said, he thought of Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who has become the face of climate activism to many.

“Her action has not caused corporations to stop doing what they’re doing, but she’s raised awareness and mobilised a whole lot of people, and that’s ultimately what I think needs to happen.

“Capitalist enterprises are designed to make a profit and not much else, and if we’re going to change that, then people are going to have to stand up and make that happen.”

It was that rise in citizen activism which had given Renwick heart, even if he remained sceptical about whether politicians would respond in the way they needed to.

“If we can’t get change we need fast enough through the processes that exist now, do we need to take some kind of action? I’m not advocating that and I  don't know what that would look like, but I do wonder...I still feel as if our elected representatives don’t quite grasp the gravity of all this.”

"The prime minister talked about [climate change] being our nuclear-free moment: maybe you could call it our moonshot moment, but it really is one that we have to commit to."

New Zealand could be a world leader in reaching carbon zero, he said, with our renewable energy resources giving us the ability to become a centre for green technology.

“If we do all this ourselves and just stop there, that  doesn't help the climate change problem - we have to help other countries to do the same thing.”

Fifty years on from the moon landing, Renwick said, we could do worse than remember John F Kennedy’s words of the United States’ efforts to put man on the moon: “We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

“That’s exactly the attitude I think we need around climate change. The prime minister talked about it being our nuclear-free moment: maybe you could call it our moonshot moment, but it really is one that we have to commit to.

“Nobody is saying it’s easy, but if we can rise to the challenge of doing this it will be a wonderful thing for humanity.”

* Victoria University of Wellington is a supporter and sponsor of Newsroom.

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