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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Are we all frogs in a pan?

21 September 2017

There is an old parable which talks about a frog in a pan.

According to the story, if you throw a frog into a pan of boiling water, it will jump out immediately -- however, if you put the frog in a pan of cold water, then slowly raise the temperature to boiling-point, the frog will not notice the slow change until it's too late to escape the heat.

Sadly, I have a fear that we are all frogs in a pan and climate change is the slowly rising temperature that will eventually cause us a huge amount of pain.

Now personally, I'll let the various factions over exactly what is behind the very obvious changes in climate we've been seeing of late. Perhaps it's man-made, perhaps it's down to changes in the energy cycles of the sun, perhaps it's both, maybe it's neither. I'm not arrogant enough to suggest I know exactly what the cause is.

And to be honest, it doesn't really matter any more.

The reality is that our climate is changing and that change would appear to be accelerating at a startling rate.

I'm sure that most Aardvark readers will be aware that climate change doesn't necessarily just produce higher temperatures -- in fact it can do exactly the opposite in some cases.

What the current bout of climate change *is* doing, is pouring more energy into the weather events that have been a part of world ever since life formed here.

In effect, with more energy behind it, *everything* weather-related becomes more extreme.

Hurricanes and cyclones become stronger, droughts become drier and more protracted, floods become more commonplace and more severe. In short, we get a whole lot more weather than we used to.

So how can it be that some places actually seem to be getting colder?

Well that's simple... as the total energy in the ecosphere increases, this changes the patterns of temperature distribution. If for every degree that the hot bits get hotter, the cold bits can get colder by 0,9 degrees then we're still warming by 0.1 degrees.

As airstreams and ocean currents change in response to the altering temperature gradients, heat is transferred from one place to another more aggressively -- thus producing the extremes of highs and lows that we are now witnessing.

But back to the frog.

Climate is like a huge, incredibly heavy wheel. It's damn hard to change its rotational velocity so such changes tend to occur very slowly and only after the input of massive amounts of energy. However, once the wheel speeds up or slows down, it is also incredibly hard to return it to its original pace. And that's how it is with the climate changes we're seeing right now.

Sadly, we are only just noticing the effects of something that has been changing for quite a long time. We've been sitting in the pan over a hot flame for many years now but we've only just realised that our arse is being boiled and it may already be too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Some studies suggest that even if we completely eliminated all our greenhouse gas emissions, we may be too late. These studies suggest that we have already passed a "tipping point" where "global warming" enters a runaway phase that occurs at a near exponential rate.

How does this happen even if we've stopped emitting those evil gases?

Well there are huge amounts of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) that have been sequestered in ice-form in frozen tundra and cold oceans around the world. We're already seeing signs that this gas is now being released as a result of higher temperatures in those regions and so it will compound the effect very quickly.

So what do we do?

Well even if this climate change isn't produced by man and isn't a side-effect of our industrialisation, we can still slow the pace of change by significantly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. No, it may not solve the problem... but it could buy us a little time. It's also worth remembering that when you're dealing with exponential functions, small changes made near the origin of the X-axis have a huge effect as we move along that axis. To put it another way, the changes we make *today* will have far more effect in 50 years time than the changes we might make next year.

So, not only do we have to address our emissions but we have to do so immediately.

Forget all this crap about emission-trading, that's just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic and is simply a palliative measure.

Sadly, even though I suspect that many who read this column will be aware of the seriousness of this problem, those who are in a position to actually bring about change remain unaware that the water is reaching boiling point in our pan.

Or am I just scaremongering?

You tell me.

Is it just coincidence that we're seeing massively increased frequency and severity of weather events such as floods, hurricanes, droughts, etc? Or is our arse well and truly in hot water already?

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