Your Nuclear-Free Moment

The nuclear free movement in New Zealand did not begin with a government declaration.

— Tim Jones, Coal/Transport activist and writer.



There are so many graphs you could look at, and so many arguments possible around them. But perhaps you only need one:

This graph is the one climate scientists stare at in wonder. Homo Sapiens appeared around the 200,000 mark. The start of the graph marks Homo Erectus departure from Africa. A little before the earliest use of fire and long before the Neanderthal.

Since the invention of the steam engine (1775) humans have found that the more energy they obtain, the more they get to do. And we’re a very energetic species. The sharp rise at the end of that graph could be used to show the escalations in the use of coal and oil, the expansions of agriculture or colonialism or the increase in the use of cars, computers or cell phones. It could also describe the increase in extinction events, pollution levels, deforestation rates or population. Climate scientist Will Steffen combines a stack of these ‘hockey-stick’ graphs to demonstrate that humanity is on a run-away course that may prove uncontrollable. Its very hard to deny.

Look at the line labelled 350 parts per million. This was the level in 1988 and was said to be the point beyond which unsafe changes would start to occur. It’s worth noting that in no year since that point was the global average temperature below the previous average. When you get into an argument about global warming remember that CO2’s affect as a greenhouse gas is seldom contested. It’s been understood for more than a century and is simple to demonstrate. They did it on Mythbusters.

It’s also worth noting that climate changes have occured in our history plenty of times but they were always to lower temperatures, not higher. Humans survived the Ice Ages just fine (as did significant parts of the coral reefs), but when a human approaches 41°C cell death begins to occur. We can’t cool ourselves as easily as we can stay warm. And we can’t cool the habitats providing our food. In the last few weeks we saw reports of overheated bats falling from the sky and fish dying in rivers. I’m trying very hard not to be alarmist here but that’s just creepy.

If the Earth were a magician, it would be dying on the stage. Every set it tries – two month winters, eight month fire seasons and hurricanes that line up like city buses – gets met with blank stares.  Did you know hurricanes are named in alphabetical order (Gert, Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, Lee, Maria, Nate and Ophelia)? 2017 was the year to notice that. The Great Barrier Reef was just thrown down like a bad dinner. And that took half a million years to make.

Obviously there must be another side to this since, as Bill English rightly pointed out during the last election, “Kiwis don’t wake up thinking about climate change.” There are a few reasons. The first is that people in general don’t seem to know the basics about the effects of carbon in the atmosphere and that enables some wishful thinking. In addition, the government and the media have remained equivocal on the subject for the last 15 years, and especially during elections. I suspect that this is part of the ratings/polls feedback loop that keeps them away from things no one is comfortable talking about. If we’re being candid.

In 2003 National MP Shane Ardern mounted the steps of Parliament riding Myrtle the tractor to demonstrate his doubt that a cow’s wind could contribute to global warming. To many, it seemed like an open and shut case. Myrtle returned to re-state the point in Morrinsville during the 2017 election, and while National did not make a statement at the time, the end of their successful ‘tax’ ad included a farting cow. So climate change was obviously still a joke. It may represent the first time in our country’s history when the government had a ministerial portfolio for something it clearly assumed to be a wind-up.

Taking global warming seriously has been an uphill battle in this country. It’s a tall ask for anyone with a ruminant. There has also been a long history of scientists refuting the basic tenets from the IPCC. Some have enjoyed significant fame, one being a key figure in the Soon and Baliunas controversy – this became an important moment in climate change history since it provided a seed of doubt to the US Senate at a vital time, and the result of this study are still repeated in different forms any time an argument on Global Warming gets technical.

I will attempt to avoid using the words ‘sceptic’ and ‘denier’ in this article because they contain within them distinctly anti-science and pro-witchhunt. I will instead use the more science-appropriate terms ‘disproven’, ‘unpublished’, ‘refuted’, ‘flawed’, ‘not-even-peer-reviewed’ and ‘wrong’. So far, the climate science that challenges the basic facts of anthropogenic global warming have all wound up with a collection of these monikers. The scientists that stand on this point are now forced to include a complex narrative within which nearly all of their peers are wrong, science is in the pockets of ‘Big Green’ (whatever that is) and the climate is changing for unknown reasons. Which leaves you nowhere.

It’s not enough to find a single anomaly among the tens of thousands of scientific papers that describe global warming. If someone thinks we ought to ignore global warming the burden of proof now falls to them. The evidence falls on all of us now every day.

According to a 2015 study by research group Motu “Less than half of New Zealanders (49%) feel certain that climate change is really happening”. Of the others, many imagine this change happening on their terms. Herald journalist John Roughan expects it to arrive like a gift that he gets to grade somewhere along the tolerable/sensational spectrum. Whale Oil thinks warming is likely, but remains sanguine about the prospects of growing a Cab Sav in Otago. Even the Flat Earth society accepts anthropogenic global warming providing you are careful with language.


Surely this is the problem with “Our Generation’s Nuclear Free Moment”. We all knew to be terrified at the prospect of Nuclear energy in the 80s. There were people around that remembered Hiroshima. The Cold War was in high gear and we’d seen testing in the Pacific. Uranium was easy to worry about and hard to like.

Oil is the reverse. Of course it seems silly to suggest that the car in your driveway is more hazardous to future generations than plutonium. But that’s what makes Climate Change so inconceivable.  Fossil fuels  have had such a profound effect on the planet that, seen from a suitable distance or time, it would appear that burning them has been humanity’s only purpose.

Since we have been doing this for so long, many imagine that there is time enough to slow things down; that if we stay a reasonable course climate change will stop with a bump at some point a little warmer than now. To think this it to misinterpret the angle of the above graph. Perhaps the best indicator of the current rate of change is a book that wastes little time worrying about CO2.  “The Bottomless Well” points out that over time we consume increasing volumes of energy in the extraction process. Where we once drew from a shallow well in the middle of a Texas plain now oil is extracted from tar sands in Alberta and pumped across the continent. This combined with the more recent contributions from developing nations means the rate of change is not linear. It also points out that our appetite for energy means that adding renewables may only serve to fill the extra demand, leaving coal and gas plants in business.

It is certainly important to understand, at this point, that things really won’t be all right. Any satisfaction you may have felt at knowing we signed the Paris Accord and created a ministerial portfolio for it, will leave once you take a look at what was achieved in the thirty years we’ve had. The Paris Accord can best be described as two hundred people in a boat discussing how much of the hull they can use for firewood. Thus far, we decided to buy firewood from other members of the crew, leaving Mike Hosking to complain about the price.

We’ve done many things to decarbonise our transport and energy infrastructure over the last century. Unfortunately, the lion’s share of that was done before we knew about global warming. And since then we’ve rolled much of it back, including electrified rail freight and electrified public transport. While electric cars and windmills are helpful they currently make up such tiny pieces of the overall picture that they resemble that glass of water an alcoholic might take between shots.

While some climate scientists remain optimistic about our chance of changing, anyone who looks more broadly across the issue soon begins to feel despair. We could make the changes, but we probably won’t.

Philosopher Tim Moreton describes Global Warming as a Hyperobject. This is a very fancy way of describing an elephant in a room. Hyperobjects are viscous; they stick to everything they touch, and they are so broadly distributed in space and time that we can’t see them properly. Global Warming even breaks our notion of ‘World’, since what we used to think of as “the world” is now as tightly bound as a biology experiment in a school science lab.

This renders Climate Change inconceivable. In my experience, most arguments about it wind up at this point. I normally stay in the fight until the other person tires of it. We always wind up at looking at the same impossible point: perhaps its dying coral this time, or maybe it will be the watery Arctic. The same feeling James Renwick experiences when he looks at the graph above. He has no choice but to accept it, but how can it be happening right now, here, in his lifetime.

The problem is terrifically urgent now because now is, strictly speaking, already too late. Any criticisms produced more than five years ago need to be revised since temperatures and extreme events have escalated sharply since then. We’re around 1.4°C increased now and it’s certain that this will sail past 2°C before long.

It’s also important to avoid wasting time arguing over the precision of the models. If someone ignites 10 litres of petrol in the lounge you know the house is on fire. From the bathroom, given enough data and processing power you could calculate the moment the flames will reach you. But it’s probably not the best use of your time.

Here are some things you really ought to know about global warming:

  • We assume carbon sequestration technology that does not yet work at scale, and very likely won’t for a long time.
  • We simply can not take serious amounts of carbon back once we’ve burnt it.
  • Planting trees buys you a little time. Nothing else.
  • Grass eating livestock participate in the conversion of CO2 to CH4. This massively amplifies the warming intensity of atmospheric Carbon.
  •  There are about two kilos of livestock for every kilo of human on earth.
  • Geo-engineering is what the Morpheus referred to when he said “we know that it was us that scorched the sky“.

There’s a subtle point about Methane that often gets missed. Because it is the only greenhouse gas that degrades in a human timeframe it is the one that suggests a little control. Reducing livestock actually lowers warming, while halting CO2 emissions stops it from increasing. This is a strong reason to treat livestock emissions, which are largely methane, in a different way. It does not make them exempt: any pro-cow arguments about natural cycles or processes ignore the fact that humans dictate the number of livestock and that CH4 packs more than 80 times more heat than CO2 over a twenty year period.

Tim Moreton predicted that Global Warming would usher in a new era of hypocrisy, weakness and lameness. He uses these words in very specific ways to describe the ways people will fail to respond to the problem. For the most part, people feel they are too small to make a difference and that it oughtn’t be up to them to change. It’s worth noting that this appeared to be part of the Government’s defence when Sarah Thomson sued it. In fact, the reverse is true. If you are reading this then it is up to you personally.

If you are ready to do something about climate change here are some suggestions. First and foremost, start talking about it. To everyone. Climate communicator Katharine Hayhoe recently made the point that it is the most important thing people can could do.

Gather some information about it. It is everywhere. Investigate ways to decarbonise your life. Finally, remember that global warming is viscous. It connects to everything you do. Imagine yourself in a zero carbon world and start living that way.

While you are talking try asking the people that were responsible for informing you about this. The scientists and journalists and politicians, and pretty much anyone with the words ‘climate’, ‘environment’, ‘transport’ or ‘energy’ in their job titles. Let them explain to you what they did to educate people about carbon emissions, what they did to lower them or why they didn’t see the need to. List their answers and google each starting with the word ‘is’. Check that your answers come from a variety of sources.

Every tonne of carbon you emit is turning up the heat irrevocably for thousands of years to come. This weird and kind of preachy sentence simply happens to be true. But don’t let it paralyse you. Habits are viscous too, so work on them.

Here are some things that may deter you in your personal attempt to address climate change:

  • You will be ridiculed
  • You will be ignored
  • You will worry
  • You will alienate people and get into arguments
  • You will miss the very recent past
  • You will be pronounced a hypocrite

What should deter you is intractable, agreed-upon, rock solid evidence that the graph above and everything it implies is wrong. So nothing.

This crisis is not like Y2K or the Ozone Layer. You don’t get to wait on the sidelines. You have a position on Climate Change now. You vote on its course every day. From a not-terribly distant point, that position will define you.

Forget the fact that it feels hopeless. All great changes started this way. And forget that our government has a slim mandate and our nation enjoys no high ground on this issue. It doesn’t belong to a political party: mostly they’re still learning about the problem themselves. The changes are huge and they need a mandate. This nuclear free moment belongs to us.


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