Q+A March 17: Corin Dann interviews Dr James Renwick
Sunday 17 March, 2013
TVNZ political editor Corin Dann interviews climate scientist Dr James Renwick
One of the country’s leading climate scientists, Dr James Renwick, has criticised the government for a lack of leadership on adaptation around climate change.
Dr Renwick told TVNZ’s Q+A programme that farmers need prepare for a drier climate in future, adding: “I think the government does have policy around adaptation, but I think, yeah, there could be more political leadership on this issue.”
He also said that New Zealand needed to opt for more sustainability, lower intensity and lower stocking rates in order to cope with the change in weather patterns.
“The present intensification of farming and dairying, in particular, doesn’t look very sustainable, given the way the climate’s likely to change.”
Dr Renwick told the programme that global warming was the only explanation for the drought, saying the average around which temperatures vary is changing and will be hotter over time.
“So what we call a very warm year now will be a cold year in 50 or 60 years’ time. What we’d call a dry summer now will be getting closer to the normal summer in another 50 to 100 years’ time.”
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CORIN DANN INTERVIEWS DR JAMES RENWICK
Good morning, Dr Renwick. How are you?
DR JAMES RENWICK - Climate Scientist
Good morning, Corin. Very well.
CORIN Listen, thanks for coming on the show. I know you’re literally just back off the plane this morning. Tell us what is happening to NZ’s climate. Paint us a picture of what’s going on.
JAMES Well, like the rest of the globe, NZ’s climate is warming up gradually. Temperatures have risen by the best part of a degree in the last century, and they’re set to rise by two or three degrees or maybe even more over the course of the coming century.
CORIN And this isn’t some normal- What is this? Is this climate change at work?
JAMES Yeah, it is. Yeah, climate change, global warming. Put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and things warm up.
CORIN And you’re of no doubt of that.
JAMES Oh, no, no. There’s no other explanation that’s remotely plausible.
CORIN That’s interesting, though, because there is sometimes a perception, and certainly Bill English in Parliament this week was sort of saying, ‘Well, you know, climate changes. It happens. Farmers have been used to it for years.’
JAMES Well, that’s true. The climate varies. It always has and it always will. You know, things go up and down. We have dry years, wet years, cold years. That’ll keep happening, but the average around which things are varying - that’s changing over time. So what we call a very warm year now will be a cold year in 50 or 60 years’ time. What we’d call a dry summer now will be getting closer to the normal summer in another 50 to 100 years’ time.
CORIN I guess the point that I think Bill English and others are making here is should we be panicking just because we’ve got another drought? We’ve had plenty of droughts before.
JAMES Well, no, I don’t think panicking is very helpful.
CORIN But it feels like that with this drought, though, doesn’t it?
JAMES It’s a pretty exceptional event, yeah. It’s probably the first time in 50 years that it’s been this dry over this much of the country. So, sure, it’s exceptional. You know, a farmer would only see this once in a working lifetime.
CORIN But if we’ve only seen it once in 50 years, should we not be that worried? That suggests it’s not going to happen for another 50 years.
JAMES Well, the way the climate’s changing, the likelihood is that summers will become drier, so what’s a one-in-50 year event now will be, say, one in 20, one-in-25 year event by the middle of the century. And in some parts of the country, it might be a one-in-five year event by the end of the century, which means the farming sector’s going to have to adapt to that. We’ve got time - it’s decades we’re talking about, and farmers are very adaptable, but things will have to change.
CORIN The point is, though, that NIWA, and I guess the official advice that the best scientists in NZ can give to our government is that climate change is changing our climate, that farmers need to adapt.
JAMES That’s the bottom line, yeah, and NIWA had led a lot of good research on this through the Ministry for Primary Industries and so on. And there’s some very clear messages out there through the ministry about how farmers can adapt to the changing climate as we go through the century.
CORIN Do you think we are adapting? Are you seeing a strategy? Do you see any urgency around that adaption?
JAMES Yeah, there is adaptation happening in some areas. There are some farming groups that are more on to this than others, so, you know, like all things, it happens in a patchwork kind of way.
CORIN Can we afford to be patchwork, though?
JAMES Ultimately, no. No, we can’t. It is an incredibly big issue. It’s the biggest issue.
CORIN So do we need almost like a government strategy saying, ‘Right, we’ve got a problem here. We have to start adapting now’?
JAMES I think the government does have policy around adaptation, but I think, yeah, there could be more political leadership on this issue.
CORIN It’s interesting, though, because, you know, we’re a country which is making a lot of money from dairy farming. We continue to want to try and push more cows into more paddocks to make more money. If we end up in a dry-farming climate, can we do that?
JAMES No, basically. But the way you respond to that is to go the other way - go for more sustainability, lower intensity, lower stocking rates, that kind of thing. So, no, the present intensification of farming and dairying, in particular, doesn’t look very sustainable, given the way the climate’s likely to change.
CORIN What about water, the issue of water, just in particular for cities? Do you think that New Zealanders in general are going to need to start thinking more about water, conserving water? Perhaps we need to see more of a price signal on water or something to make us use it better.
JAMES Oh, perhaps. That’s one way you could go, but also storing water, storing more water and storing it more efficiently, using it more efficiently. That counts for a lot. Winter times are not likely to become drier, so I think it’s going to come down to storing the water when it falls or when it flows in the rivers and using it.
CORIN So the issue of sort of incentivising people to be a bit more frugal with the water, that’s not such a biggie, in your mind?
JAMES Oh, that’s part of it, for sure. You know, being efficient with resources is definitely the way of the future - water, energy, everything.
CORIN Dr James Renwick, thank you very much for your time.