Are Recent Weather events Caused by Climate Change?

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Well meaning people (i.e. not climate-denying trolls) have been reasonably questioning whether it’s fair for me to say in this tweet that NZ’s record-breaking floods are caused by climate change.

Yes

The science has been clear for a long time: extreme weather events will become

  1. more frequent, and
  2. more extreme.

I don’t know if it can be determined whether this was one of the extra, “more frequent” events or one of the “normal” events. But the scale of it clearly falls into the category of being “more extreme”.

But here’s the thing: We’ve got common sense and intuition, which are backed up by mountains of scientific data and analysis. Based on all of that, we know that these unprecedented, record-breaking events are unnatural; we know they are the result of weak climate policies, among other things.

If we buy into the narrative that we can’t be sure whether some particular event is caused by climate change, we’re actually buying into the narrative that has been crafted by climate deniers.

And if your science-based intuition is still unsure, sweet. But at least you can fall back on the precautionary principle, which says that a lack of scientific certainty is not a basis for inaction; rather, the burden falls on others to prove why we shouldn’t act cautiously.

On Environmental Guilt

Christmas carols are loathed by many, but I love them. It’s got nothing to do with any musical or religious values. Instead, like the smell of sunscreen, these songs signal the end of the year’s labours: functional, intellectual, social and emotional. No matter how good or awful, Bing Crosby, Band Aid, Michael Bublé and Wham all bring a sense of delightful nothingness; sincere relaxation.

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(Reading by Henri Roger Viollet)

Stress-free time with family and friends deepens this feeling, as do new books and CDs, board games, old episodes of QI, the long summer days, and briefly ignoring my paunch.

In spite of what critics sayincluding my inner, righteous voice (the only part of me that can still appear youthful)Christmas sales shopping is fun, too.

Those of us who understand environmental non-sustainability are often prohibited from such simple pleasures by our own knowledge and principles. But I’m far less imprisoned by these things nowadays.

Logic and ethics are clearly against gratuitous consumerism, but there’s no escaping the fact that it feels nice to buy books and CDs, and to have new clothes and household items, even when we have ample selections already.

How do we reconcile these pleasures against our desire to act in accordance with nature?

Individual Action

There’s a lot going on when we’re implored to make environmentally-conscious spending decisions. We know it’s right and hence we feel empowered when we act consistently with ecological facts. We control certain environmental outcomes, and this satisfies our desires to be persons of ethical integrity and to show our peers that we’re intelligent and principled.

We should remind ourselves of these positive feelings so we can decide in a rigorous way whether or not to mine non-essential goods from the open-cast shops.

Unfortunately for nature and those who are most affected by non-sustainability, those positive feelings of integrity may not be as strong as the pleasures we derive from buying stuff like The Beatles’ back catalogue, as I did on Boxing Day.

Collective Action

However, feeling guilty when we make ecologically impure decisions is counter-productive.

When we claim ownership of environmental problems as individuals, we are at the same time removing responsibility from those who have the greatest powers for minimising the impacts of human beings’ naturally-inclined behaviours: governments and industry.

The decline of all environmental indicators over the 50+ years since Silent Spring* proves that our decisions are doing very little to solve the biodiversity, water and climate crises. They are assisted, slowed down and delayed, but clearly not stopped or reversed.

The potential benefits of centralised decision-making eclipses that of individuals’ collective actions.

Take transport, for example. At a recent meeting of a climate change-focused NGO, a participant suggested that the organisation should look at making everyone use bicycles. I asked, “And how will I get my daughter’s rowing team to regattas?” and the well-meaning young chap slumped back into his chair and said, “I guess I didn’t think of that.”

Whilst walking, cycling and public transport are critical parts of the overall puzzle of sustainable transport, the problems are systemic, not individual. An ethical government could quite easily implement a suite of policies aimed at making our carstechnologies that are absolutely essential for 21st Century urban liferun on sustainable energy, whether renewable electricity (electric cars), renewable liquid fuels (biofuels), or both.

Take electricity as a second example. I’ve written previously on how solar energy does nothing in New Zealand to reduce a home-owner’s carbon footprint and might, in fact, increase the global carbon footprint. The idea of generating your own renewable electricity sounds powerful, but you’re only avoiding the use of centralised renewableshydro, wind and geothermaland therefore saving no greenhouse gas emissions. If New Zealand decides to progress from its current 80 percent renewable electricity to 90 or 100 percent then, again, an ethical government could quite easily implement a suite of policies that make that happen.

In these examples of sustainable transport and electricity, the benefits of individuals’ actions are negligible, at best, and pale in comparison to the potential of government intervention.

That’s not to say that our individual decisions don’t matter. They absolutely do. As much as I enjoy V8 cars, I would never buy one because they are plainly unethical. As much as I enjoy hamburgers, eating beef is plainly unethical. Our individual decisions have some effect on the demand for non-sustainable goods; they satisfy our sense of self; and they help educate the people around us. We should continue to make ethical individual decisions.

At the same time, however, we should be alert to the fact that most causes of our non-sustainability are systemic and, critically, could be solved by the ordinary machinery of government policy-making. Quite easily, in many instances.

For example, the decision to subsidise insulation has led to, in just 7 years, nearly 300,000 homes (about 20 percent of all New Zealand households) being warmer and healthier, and demanding less electricity. The impact of this large-scale programme has included reducing New Zealand’s demand for electrcity at peak times (morning and evening), thereby removing any need for new large-scale generation. Without that government intervention, perhaps a few thousand households would have done this on their own accord. Instead, the centralised policy decision created these enormous private and public benefits.

Collective Responsibility, Not Individual Guilt

Instead of feeling guilty about hopping into your car and zipping into town to replace the coffee table you’ve had since you were a student, remember that the question of ecological integrity rests with government and industry far more than it rests with us because of the simple matter of their powers compared to ours.

Balancing our needs for global responsibility and personal pleasure in an informed and ethical way helps us live with integrity, but more happily. And it reminds us that, ultimately, we need to put the onus on governments to intervene scientifically in environmental stewardship.

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Living in harmony with nature is fulfilling as an individual, but essential for the collective powers of governments and industry. (Dreaming of October by Maxfield Parish, 1928)

 

Migration = Assimilation

A great deal of the discussion about relocating people from low-lying atoll countries focuses on migration; a flexible but particular legal mechanism for managing the movement of individuals between countries.

But migration does not need to be the only way of moving from one territory to another. New ways are entirely possible. Ways that keep communities functioning together.

Migration as Assimilation and Colonisation

But the migration paradigm is deeply set. A new report, Tuvalu: Climate Change and Migration, is the latest example. It directly acknowledges the risks posed by migration, saying that:

“A previous study found that many Tuvaluans will not consider migration … as it will lead to a loss of sovereignty and cultural identity.” [p 64]

In spite of these concerns, the authors specifically recommend that:

“migration … should be promoted” [p 64]

The authors attempt to appease the Tuvaluans’ concerns, saying that their “perspectives need to be acknowledged in order to facilitate dignified migration”. [p 64]

First of all, it’s not a mere “perspective”. It is culture, and culture is life.

As the President of the Marshall Islands, Hilde Heine, recently said:

“Marshallese people, culture and land have a symbiotic relationship – one that can’t exist without the other. That’s why moving is not a viable option. As a nation facing cultural extinction due to climate change, we plead to stronger and major polluting countries to spare us the eminent fate of being climate refugees.”

Similarly, in an outstanding case study of the Carteret Islanders’ relocation, Sophie Pascoe found that:

“Leaving the islands is very traumatic for the Carteret Islanders because it means leaving their livelihoods, values, culture and ancestors behind.”

Migration with dignity is a noble idea. But given the scale of loss facing low-lying islanders, the forced relocation of peoples with deep cultural, spiritual and ancestral ties to land and sea is a catastrophic result of carbon pollution, no matter how well their movement is planned and managed.

Forced migration is nothing like lifestyle migration, and it should not be equated with it or confused with it.

Think of it as a kind of inverse colonisation. Instead of the coloniser coming to a peoples and forcing them to assimilate into the coloniser’s culture, they’re now forcing the peoples to come to them and integrate into wider society.

Culture is not a static phenomenon, so cultures change. Also, the people will enjoy a nominal measure of protection in their new country. (For example, in the New Zealand Bill of Rights, minorities have a right to enjoy their culture.) However, within just a couple of generations, the changes for migrant people and families in a new, dominant culture will be massive and inevitable. This is the risk that President Heine is referring to in her comments above.

Relocation: A Long-Term Enterprise with Self-Determination at its Very Core

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Woman on Funafuti, 1900 (source: Wikipedia)

Discussion on migration – despite its good intentions – almost never addresses the fact that Tuvaluans, as a peoples, have a collective right of self-determination in international law. In the new report about Tuvalu and migration, the term “self-determination” does not even appear.

Self-determination is far more than mere dignity, or simply the acknowledgement of a perspective. It is a right to autonomy, governance, and – indeed – continuity of statehood.

The collective right of self-determination is international law of jus cogens* and erga omnes* character and status. It is one of the most fundamental aspects of international law, critical to achieving all other human rights, and a basis for international peace and security.

But relocation discourse rarely entertains the concept and this must change. Focusing on migration is a massive breach of the right of self-determination, and the concomitant right for these sovereign States to continue, and to continue to give effect to the values, cultures and aspirations of their peoples.

Ensuring continued enjoyment of self-determination in the territory of another State is a challenge. But it just requires some innovating thinking.

At the most basic level, the lexicon must change from “migration”, “displaced persons” and “refugee”, to “relocation” or “human mobility”: words and phrases which don’t have particular legal meanings or any existing political baggage, to ensure our minds are open to a more creative range of solutions.

For the nations, cultures, languages, traditions, customs and – therefore – the peoples of low-lying States, relocation must then be considered as an extremely long-term enterprise, that has their collective right of self-determination at its core, along with all the substantive and procedural rights that follow.

Given that low-lying islanders bear absolutely no responsibility for climate change, this is the least we can do. If not, then we’re hitting them twice: once in the territory; once in the nation.