Rt Hon John Key
Prime Minister of New Zealand
Dear Prime Minister Key,
Encouraged by youth of New Zealand, especially members of the organization 350.org, I write this open letter to inform you of recent advances in understanding of climate change, consequences for young people and nature, and implications for government policies.
I recognize that New Zealanders, blessed with a land of rare beauty, are deeply concerned about threats to their environment. Also New Zealand contributes relatively little to carbon emissions that drive climate change. Per capita fossil fuel emissions from New Zealand are just over 2 tons of carbon per year, while in my country fossil fuel carbon emissions are about 5 tons per person.
However, we are all on the same boat. New Zealand youth, future generations, and all species in your country will be affected by global climate change, as will people and species in all nations.
New Zealand’s actions affecting climate change are important. Your leadership in helping the public understand the facts and the merits of actions to ameliorate climate change will be important, as will New Zealand’s voice in support of effective international actions.
The fact is that we, the older generation, are on the verge of handing young people a dynamically changing climate out of their control, with major consequences for humanity and nature. A path to a healthy, natural, prosperous future is still possible, but not if business-as-usual continues.
The state of Earth’s climate is summarized in the attached paper, whose authorship includes leading world scientists in relevant fields. The bottom line is that Earth is out of energy balance, more energy coming in than going out. Thus more climate change is “in the pipeline”.
Failure to address emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of human-made climate change, will produce increased regional climate extremes, as seen in Australia during the past few years. But young people, quite appropriately, are concerned especially that continued emissions will drive the climate system past tipping points with irreversible consequences during their lifetimes.
Shifting of climate zones accompanying business-as-usual emissions are expected to commit at least 20 percent of the species on our planet to extermination – possibly 40 percent or more. Extermination of species would be irreversible, leaving a more desolate planet for young people. They will also have large effects on New Zealand’s principal export industry, agriculture
Sea level rise is a second irreversible consequence of global warming. Some sea level rise is now inevitable, but with phase down of fossil fuel use it may be kept to a level measured in a few tens of centimeters. Business-as-usual is expected to cause sea level rise exceeding a meter this century and to set ice sheet disintegration in motion guaranteeing multi-meter sea level rise.
Prompt actions are needed to avoid these large effects. Phase-out of coal emissions by 2030 is the principal requirement. Also unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground. These conditions, plus improved agricultural practices and reforestation of lands that are not effective for food production, could stabilize climate.
I have had the opportunity while in your country to meet your science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman and your climate change ministers, Hon Nick Smith and Hon Tim Groser, and discussed these issues with them. If I can be of any help with the science of climate change I am very willing to assist your government. Implications for New Zealand are clear.
First, New Zealand should leave the massive deposits of lignite coal in the ground, instead developing its natural bounty of renewable energies and energy efficiency. If, instead, development of such coal resources proceeds, New Zealand’s portion of resulting species extermination estimated by biological experts would be well over 1000 species. Most New Zealanders, I suspect, would not want to make such ‘contributions’ to global change.
Second, New Zealand should lend its voice to the cause of moving the global community onto a path leading to a healthy, natural, prosperous future. That path requires a flat rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies domestically, with the funds distributed uniformly to citizens, thus moving the world toward carbon-free energies of the future.
Prime Minister Key, the youth of New Zealand are asking you to consider their concerns and exercise your leadership on behalf of their future, indeed on behalf of humankind and nature.
With all best wishes,
James E. Hansen,
Columbia University Earth Institute
Cc Sir Peter Gluckman
Hon Nick Smith
Hon Tim Groser