I’d survived blizzards, white-outs and minus 20°C in Antarctica so there was no way Wellington’s autumn rain was going to stop me venturing outside. The daily walk had become an essential lockdown activity – a change of scene, a bit of relief from the computer screen. On top of my leggings, T-shirt and Scott Base hoodie, I pulled on Antarctic-issue woollen socks and gloves, an oilskin parka and a woolly hat. When we set off on our government-sanctioned ‘local’ walk, a three-kilometre hike up muddy paths on forested slopes, it was 11°C, but with the wind chill – a southerly gale gusting to eighty-seven kilometres per hour – it felt like 8°C. We walked up the hill, travelling fast across grassy clearings and taking our time on sheltered paths, watching the water make little streams through the pine needles. Without the pre-lockdown roar of traffic and whine of jets, we could hear the birds: the peep of a pīwakawaka, the mad warble of a tūī, the primordial screech of a kākā. By the time we reached the iridescent ceramic pyramid of the Byrd Memorial, near the top of Mount Victoria, my legs were sodden, soaked, drenched. My ill-considered medley of inside and Antarctic clothing was great for the cold but not much good in the rain.
The memorial to the American admiral Richard E. Byrd, who used New Zealand as a base for his many Antarctic expeditions, featured a bust surrounded by a patchwork of rocks from Antarctica – granites, diorites, basalts. The ceramic-tiled triangle above him, designed to look like a polar tent, stretched back to a point and was glazed in blues, yellows, pinks and greens to represent the aurora.
We stood beside Admiral Byrd, facing the wind, eyes squinting against the southerly onslaught. To the east was the flat isthmus between Lyall Bay and Evans Bay, a low-lying grid of streets lined with wooden houses, two schools, two shopping centres and the now- quiet airport runway sitting just 4.5 metres above the rising seas.
I followed Admiral Byrd’s gaze. To the south, past the houses, was Lyall Bay beach, the Southern Ocean and – beyond that – some 3,300 kilometres away, Antarctica. But the rain was heavy and the skies were low and all I could see was white.
On my first trip to Antarctica, in 2011, I’d found another bust of Admiral Byrd at McMurdo Station. The US base, along with New Zealand’s Scott Base, sits on the volcanic rock of Ross Island, in view of Mount Erebus. McMurdo’s ragtag assemblage of buildings and reddish-brown dirt roads provides a splash of murky colour in an otherwise white landscape.
Most of the year, Ross Island is covered in snow and surrounded by ice. On the northern coast of the island, the annual sea ice – a two-metre-thick layer – sits on top of the ocean, creating habitat for penguins above and algae and fish below. South of the island, the Ross Ice Shelf stretches, flat and white, towards the horizon. This floating slab of ice, up to 750 metres thick and extending over an area the size of France, covers most of the Ross Sea, the southern extent of the Pacific Ocean. To the west, the Transantarctic Mountains form a barrier between the ocean and the massive East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which covers the continent with a layer of ice up to four kilometres thick. In the gaps between the mountain peaks, massive glaciers pour through steep-sided valleys to drain the ice sheet. North of Ross Island, the glaciers flow towards the ocean; south of Ross Island, these ice rivers – along with massive ice streams from the smaller West Antarctic Ice Sheet – feed the Ross Ice Shelf.
As a science writer on an invited media programme, I got the VIP treatment: helicopter trips to Scott’s and Shackleton’s historic huts and to an American field camp in the Taylor Valley, with spectacular aerial views of the mountains and glaciers. I spent eleven nights at Scott Base and one in a tent on the Ross Ice Shelf.
Now, nearly a decade later, as I stood on a Wellington hill, looking south towards Antarctica, the World Health Organization was reporting nearly half a million cases of Covid-19 and more than 20,000 deaths. While New Zealand, with 102 cases of Covid-19 and no deaths, was hardly the centre of the crisis, our prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, had on 23 March closed the borders and provided forty-eight hours’ notice to prepare for a strict lockdown – Alert Level 4 of four possible levels. ‘Be strong and be kind,’ she urged our island nation of 5 million people at the end of her televised message.
Antarctica had always felt like another planet, and now it really was a world away. Shut off from the rest of humanity, with its bases now staffed by winter-over crews, it was the only continent in the world that was Covid-free.
We were quiet as we walked downhill, soaked to the skin. Close to home, my daughter ran ahead, while I plodded along in my water-laden boots. At the top of a muddy slope, where the mountain bike track joined a paved path and a field, were three yellow signs on a wooden pole. Two yellow diamonds showed black figures – two children holding hands, a purposeful-looking walker. Below them, an orange rectangle carried a warning. But someone had used silver spray paint to write over prepare to stop, and those of us leaving lockdown and braving the outside air were now being cautioned to prepare to die.
I had adapted easily enough to lockdown. As an academic, I was on salary and able to work from home. I spent my days in Zoom meetings: virtual morning teas with my team, emergency faculty meetings, Māori language lessons, student supervisions. When I had time, I progressed some research I was preparing to submit to a scientific journal. I led a public engagement workstream for the NZ SeaRise programme, a five-year effort to improve sea level rise projections for New Zealand. But before we told people what to expect in the future, I wanted to gauge what they already knew. People were worried about sea level rise, our survey of 1,000 New Zealanders revealed, but they didn’t really understand it. First, they tended to think the main cause of sea level rise was melting sea ice, but we knew that when sea ice melts it has no direct impact on the volume of water in the ocean. They also seemed to think things could get a whole lot worse than any of us did. If things really all went to shit, under what we called a ‘scientifically credible worst-case scenario’, one third of respondents rightly assessed that sea levels could rise up to two metres by the end of the century. But another one third of respondents thought things could get much, much worse, checking the boxes for five metres of sea level rise, eight metres, twelve metres, or even ‘fifteen metres or more’. Fifteen metres of sea level rise by 2100? Was that even physically possible? My house would be completely under water if the oceans rose that much.
It was more than two years since I’d returned from my third trip to Antarctica and I doubted I’d ever go back. I’d written magazine articles, compiled an anthology of Antarctic science writing, filmed lectures for an online course taken by students around the world and written an Antarctic memoir. Given the carbon emissions involved in a flight to Antarctica, I’d need a new and compelling reason to try and go back.
On my first two trips, in late November and early December, I’d enjoyed daily walks on the pressure ridges. Here, the moving sea ice in front of Scott Base is deformed into rolling hills and jagged peaks, bent and broken slabs of ice separated by vivid turquoise melt pools, a miniature landscape in blue and white. My most recent trip was in late January – high summer – when this icescape gave way to open water around Ross Island, meltwater streams flowed over volcanic rocks, and green mosses and orange lichens emerged to add colour to the monochromatic landscape. While the weather I had experienced – sunshine and temperatures around minus 5°C – was typical for summer on Ross Island, it all felt ominous, a sign of things to come. In other parts of Antarctica the environment is changing rapidly. The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming places on the planet and just a few weeks before my lockdown walk, Esperanza Base, at the northern tip of the peninsula, had a temperature of 18.3°C, the highest ever recorded on the continent. The rising temperatures, on land and in the surrounding ocean, are causing ecosystem changes and Adélie penguins are suffering, while other species, like exotic grasses and predatory king crabs, are thriving. Most dramatic, though, are a series of ice shelf collapses, forming giant bergs that are photographed by satellites and shared around the world.
When floating ice shelves collapse, the land-based glaciers that feed them are free to melt into the warming ocean. This kind of ice loss does cause sea level rise. Antarctica, the biggest repository of ice on the planet, is home to 90 per cent of the world’s ice and 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water. If all of it melted, it could raise global sea levels by sixty metres or more. The Ross Ice Shelf remains intact, but in West Antarctica, the warming ocean is melting the floating ice shelves, and the ice sheet is thinning and retreating. The net result of the melting is that ice is currently being lost from Antarctica at a rate of 252 gigatonnes – that’s 252 billion tonnes – per year. It’s hard to comprehend. One gigatonne of ice would cover New York’s Central Park to a height of 1,119 feet, say NASA, who estimate that 49,000 gigatonnes of the planet’s ice has melted since 1901.
On my second trip south, I travelled with a colleague, Cliff Atkins, and a camera, making video lectures for an online university course about Antarctic science and culture. While I visited huts from the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration to give field lectures on Antarctic history, Cliff filmed me. When he visited rock outcrops and field camps to give lectures on Antarctic geology, it was my turn behind the camera. On the second week of our trip, we were helicoptered into the Friis Hills, a 1,300-metre-high ice-free plateau in the Transantarctic Mountains. Here we joined a team of geologists and palaeoclimatologists – some of whom were now working on the NZ SeaRise programme – investigating what this part of Antarctica was like during a period they called the Miocene climatic optimum, when atmospheric CO2 levels reached 700 parts per million, temperatures were 4–5°C warmer than today and sea level was up to thirty-five metres higher. Tim Naish, one of the expedition leaders, had told me that when it came to the CO2 we were pumping into our atmosphere today, ‘We know the endgame. We know that if we keep 400 parts per million or more in the atmosphere for long enough, we’re heading towards a world like the mid Miocene.’
One lockdown morning, I received an email from Tim, with a journal article attached. ‘Assume you have all seen this?’ he wrote to the NZ SeaRise team. The article, published in the journal Science, reinforced the scientific view that when it came to sea level rise, there was a tipping point at around 2°C of warming, after which Antarctic ice melt would be unstoppable and sea level would keep rising for centuries. Tim described it as ‘a commitment to multi-metre sea level rise if we miss the Paris target’.
In 2015, at a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Paris, the nations of the world agreed to try to limit global temperature increase by 2100 to 1.5–2°C above pre-industrial levels. The ambitious 1.5°C target was led by a coalition of small island and low-lying nations whose homes would be inundated if higher temperatures caused sea level to continue to rise. ‘1.5 to stay alive’ was their call.
A few days after Tim’s email, I was in a Zoom call with Tim and NZ SeaRise leader Richard Levy. Tim had the standard home office set up behind him – bookshelves, some framed awards, a bit of art – but Richard had used Zoom’s virtual background feature to place himself in the Friis Hills. It looked like a helicopter shot, perhaps taken on approach to our campsite. Snow was speckled across the dark brown, rocky landscape of 500-million-year-old granites, 180-million-year-old dolerites and 14-million-year-old glacial deposits. In the distance I could see the vast expanse of ice that feeds the Taylor and Ferrar Glaciers, the steep-sided Kukri Hills that separate the Taylor from the Ferrar, and the distant peaks of the Royal Society Range. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun glinted off the ice.
They started the meeting by catching up with each other, talking about conferences cancelled, Antarctic Treaty meetings postponed, but I eventually got their attention. Over the last week I’d been reading news reports of dropping global carbon emissions. People were talking about ‘silver linings’ and ‘golden opportunities’ to turn things around, to use the post-Covid recovery to reinvest in a green economy. I felt cautiously hopeful about the future, but I knew that even if we ‘solved’ climate change, even if we cut global carbon emissions to zero tomorrow, that sea level would keep on rising.
Even under the best-case scenario, Tim said, where we achieved our Paris Agreement targets to keep global warming close to 1.5°C, we were still in for a significant amount of sea level rise. ‘Most models for that pathway suggest we’re going to get at least forty centimetres of sea level rise by 2100. We can’t avoid that.’
Scientists are in fair agreement about what will happen under a 1.5°C warmer world as the sea level rise under that scenario is mostly associated with thermal expansion – water takes up more space when it is warmer – and melting of mountain glaciers. The physics is relatively simple and it’s all pretty quantifiable. But under warmer scenarios, projecting sea level rise is complicated. What gets the scientists perplexed, and has the modellers disagreeing with each other, is the response of the Antarctic ice sheets to a warming world and how much they will contribute to sea level rise.
As we warm the oceans, the sea ice will go first – we’re already seeing that happening in the Arctic. Without the buffer of the sea ice, the ice shelves will be further exposed to the warming ocean and will start to melt. If the ice shelves are lost, there will be nothing holding back the glaciers that flow from the massive ice sheets towards the ocean. That’s when something called marine ice sheet instability, or MISI, kicks in.
‘That’s where the real tipping point is,’ said Richard. ‘If we blow through that two degrees, then we’re really committed to long term, major sea level rise.’ With MISI, he explained, there’s a runaway non-linear retreat of the ice sheets. While the more stable East Antarctic Ice Sheet covers the Antarctic landmass, the smaller West Antarctic Ice Sheet sits over a massive marine basin, a giant ice-filled bowl, The grounding line of the ice sheet – the line where the grounded ice sheet meets the floating ice shelf – is around the rim of this basin. For millennia, the ice sheet has been stable: the flow of ice from the centre of the ice sheet is balanced by the loss of ice where the ice shelf meets the ocean. But the warming planet is upsetting this equilibrium. If warmer water melts the base of the ice shelf, it thins and – with less mass to hold the ice sheet in place – the grounding line could retreat back from the lip of the marine basin and turn the grounded ice sheet into a floating ice shelf. As the ice sheet thins and the grounding line retreats deeper into the basin, a thicker and thicker layer of ice is free to go afloat, where it is vulnerable to melting and calving, leading to more retreat. It’s a self-sustaining cycle.
‘It’s non-linear, like Covid,’ added Tim. ‘We’d end up with exponential loss of the ice sheet.’
We’ve all become familiar with non-linear growth curves from looking at plots of each country’s total Covid-19 cases over time. But I’ve been looking at exponential growth curves for years. Exponential growth of CO2 levels in the atmosphere is happening now. If we don’t reduce CO2 levels, exponential growth of sea level rise will follow. The difference with Covid-19 is that the exponential growth can only last so long. New Zealand’s elimination strategy lockdown, and other countries’ attempts to ‘flatten the curve’ through border control, social distancing and mask wearing, have seen new cases level off, then start to decline. We’re not doing so well on the climate change metrics. Those curves keep on steepening.
If we fail in our efforts to reduce CO2 levels, the impacts will be felt over generations. If we hit two metres of sea level rise by the end of the century, it won’t stop then. ‘After that you’re talking multi-metre sea level rise, up to ten metres over the next five hundred years,’ said Richard. ‘And that can’t really be avoided by reducing CO2 because you’ve got other non-climatic processes pushing the ice sheets along.’
Sea level has already risen by twenty centimetres over the last century. Looking forward to 2100, it’s a choice between another thirty centimetres of sea level rise if we do everything we can to cut our carbon emissions, and up to two metres of sea level rise if we don’t. Even forty centimetres of sea level rise could displace millions of people in low-lying countries like Bangladesh, and Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati and Tokelau. Most of the world’s major cities are coastal, and two metres of sea level rise could inundate 1.79 million square kilometres of land and displace up to 187 million people, leading to millions of climate migrants and ‘social breakdown on scales that are pretty unimaginable,’ said physicist Jonathan Bamber, who led a 2019 study into sea level rise.
But it’s not just about seawater flooding the coastal regions that are dry today – rising sea levels will cause storm flooding to reach much further inland, saltwater contamination of drinking water and crops, and failure of storm water, sewerage systems and transport networks.
In our research project, we were hoping that if people understood sea level rise better they would be more willing to take action to adapt – to prepare for the sea level rise that was inevitable – and to mitigate – to reduce carbon emissions to stop things getting even worse. Around the world, we were now seeing radical societal change in response to the threat from Covid-19, and while many people and businesses were finding it painful, and difficult, it was saving lives. It was encouraging to see that change was possible, that when people and governments really understood the nature of a threat, they were – well, most of them were – willing to make sacrifices now to avoid something worse in the future.
As the days went on, I fell into an adrenaline-fuelled routine. In the early mornings, I baked bread and walked in the hills. During the day, I sat at my computer and worked, with frequent interruptions from children wanting food, or help with their schoolwork. In the weekends, I gardened, made crumbles from the quinces and figs that were ripening on my trees, and used the sewing machine to tackle a pile of mending that had been building up for years. As a teenager in the 1980s I had thought we were heading for nuclear war, and as an adult that anxiety had transferred to climate change. Global pandemic? That’ll do. It seemed to trip the ‘existential threat to humanity’ switch that was hardwired into my psyche. On some level, I felt like I’d been preparing for this for years.
In the evenings, I poured a gin and tonic and watched the Al Jazeera world news. Half the world was now in lockdown. There were drones in the streets of Spain telling people to go home. In South Africa, police were firing rubber bullets at shoppers breaking lockdown rules. In the UK, an old man with a Zimmer frame was walking laps of his backyard to raise money for the NHS. In the US, President Trump was telling lies and firing dissenters.
But the focal point of each day was the Covid-19 briefing. At 1 p.m. each day I tuned in for the daily briefing from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield. New Zealand’s first Covid-19 death was reported on 29 March. Daily cases peaked ten days into lockdown, by which time global cases had passed 1 million. Jacinda, while standing firm on the lockdown measures taken to halt the spread of the virus, also continued urging calm and kindness.
While looking at Twitter one morning I noticed the MetService was forecasting six-metre southerly swells. I scrolled further down. Someone had posted a video of a ferry battling the waves as it turned out of Wellington Harbour and into Cook Strait. As the swell hit the front of the ship it rose high on the water, exposing a bulbous bow that should have been way below the waterline. The bow crashed down as the swell passed and lifted the back of the turning ship. I continued to scroll down. Another video showed waves crashing onto Lyall Bay beach and surging across the road only two kilometres from my house. A tweet from the city council announced that the south coast road was closed.
The government had made the rules clear – if you’re not an essential worker you should only go out, locally, for exercise, food shopping or medical appointments. I had to go to the supermarket, and if I dropped some supplies to my mother, I could justify driving to Lyall Bay, where a wide sandy beach stretches from the airport at one end to the hills at the other. The airport end of the beach is usually populated by surfers and dog walkers. At the suburban end of the beach is a cafe and – in warmer months – swimmers and paddlers.
When I arrived, just past midday, the Esplanade was busy – or what passed for ‘busy’ under this new normal – with dog walkers, cyclists and parents with prams. I parked and scurried across the road, avoiding a pile of slimy brown kelp and sand, and leaned over the sea wall. The beach was gone. On the other side of the low concrete wall the water swirled over tussock-covered dunes, submerging the dunes with each incoming wave, and exposing the golden grasses as the water retreated.
It was unrecognisable. At the western end of the bay, where the coastline curved towards the hills, the water flowed in multiple directions as the waves swept in from the south, bounced off the sea wall and travelled east, to intersect with the next set of southerly waves.
I started to walk around the curve of the bay, stepping carefully on the sandy footpath, popping kelp bubbles and trying not to slip while I immersed myself in the roar of the waves, the smell of sea and kelp, the squawk of an oystercatcher.
As I walked, I looked through the gaps between a row of beachfront houses. One had a launch on a trailer in the driveway. Another a kayak on the lawn. Useful. I found myself standing with an older couple and a woman with a camera, looking past a wooden house where waves were surging across a stone wall and into its yard.
‘Are you a reporter?’ asked the man, with a nod at my notebook and pen.
‘I’m a writer,’ I replied. ‘I’m writing about sea level rise.’
‘Ah!’ He nodded. ‘Good thing the land keeps rising.’
‘1855,’ he added with a raise of his eyebrows.
He was right but he was also wrong. In 1855, a magnitude 8.2 earthquake hit the Wellington and Wairarapa regions. It lifted this shoreline by up to one metre, creating the raised wave-cut platform that our coastal roads now followed, and drained the swampy isthmus between Lyall Bay and Evans Bay that was now home to more than 5,000 people. Further east, the uplift reached six metres. Earthquakes like this, though, work against a long-term slow subsidence of about two millimetres per year. Other parts of New Zealand are subsiding by up to four millimetres a year. This is another reason why projecting sea level rise is complicated – projections of forty centimetres, one metre, two metres or more are global averages, but sea level rise will differ from place to place. One factor that impacts local sea level rise is where the melted ice comes from. Because large ice sheets have a gravitational pull on the ocean surrounding them – they pull the sea up towards the ice sheet – when an ice sheet melts, local sea level will actually fall, meaning that sea level on the other side of the planet will be higher than the global average. So if most of the melting ice comes from Greenland and other northern hemisphere sources, sea level rise in the southern hemisphere will generally exceed the global average. When Antarctica starts being the major contributor to sea level rise, sea level will increase more in the north. Add to this any local effects such as uplift caused by isostatic rebound – some parts of Europe and Canada are still bouncing back from the pressure of being covered with continental ice sheets some 10,000 years ago – and subsidence related to plate movement or groundwater extraction, and projecting sea level rise for any specific location gets even more complex. New Zealand is prone to earthquakes, which can uplift significant stretches of coast, but earthquakes are unpredictable; they aren’t something we can rely on to solve sea level rise.
High tide had passed and the beach was re-emerging. I walked to my car, head down, reading a news article on my phone. A person swept out to sea that morning had been ‘recovered with moderate injuries’ and a police spokeswoman was telling locals, ‘Do not come down to take pictures or just to have a look.’
A police car drove slowly past, flashing its hazard lights. Sprung.
Climate change is already increasing the frequency and intensity of storms. When an extreme coastal event happens – a storm surge, a king tide, or both at the same time – if it happens on top of a higher sea level the impact will be greater. On average, the sort of coastal floods that we now know as ‘1-in-100-year events’ are projected to happen once a year by 2050. After one metre of sea level rise these sorts of water levels will happen at every high tide. We need to start protecting our coasts, with sea walls, sophisticated drainage systems and wetland and dune restorations. In some places, we need to think about coastal retreat – we need to start moving away from the coast before the decision is made for us.
Other parts of Wellington have already made the hard decisions. At Mākara Beach, residents have decided to stay and adapt, but money will need to be spent on a sea wall and drainage. Kāpiti Coast residents have decided on a managed retreat, with a surf club, parking and picnic areas, and tracks to be relocated or abandoned after a series of damaging storms. Either option – adaptation or relocation – costs money. At Lyall Bay though, the existing sea wall – built in 1932 to reduce sand drift – is going to be restored as a heritage structure. I wonder how many more storm events it will take before a new plan is needed.
Winter was approaching, and I continued my daily walks as the weather got wilder, but things calmed down – locally at least – on the Covid-19 front. Daily cases were dropping and a public health professor was calling New Zealand’s success in responding to the pandemic a ‘triumph of science and decisive leadership’.
Is that what we needed for climate change? Science and decisive leadership?
‘The challenge we have with climate change,’ Richard told me, ‘is it’s very slow; it hides in the weeds and you don’t see it until it jumps up and bites you in the arse. So it’s hard to get the same social response, it’s just not so in your face.’ The climate change graphs I’m familiar with show atmospheric CO2 levels over years, decades, centuries, millennia – the Covid-19 graphs show daily figures. But lately, said Richard, people were starting to notice the increased frequency of extreme weather and flooding events. ‘People are saying, “Holy shit, this is actually starting to have an impact on me”.’ On my Lyall Bay excursion, the waves were exciting, entertainment for the locked-down masses. But when your beachfront house falls into the sea because of coastal erosion, when you can no longer get insurance for your family home, when the rising seas start eating your country. That’s when people take notice.
I knew that while science and leadership had contributed to New Zealand’s successful Covid-19 response, no amount of science and leadership would stop the sea from rising – the carbon we had already pumped into the atmosphere had committed us to a certain amount of sea level rise. And our country couldn’t go this one alone, pull up the drawbridge. ‘As an island nation, we have a distinct advantage in our ability to eliminate the virus,’ said Jacinda Ardern at one of her daily briefings. But that’s no advantage to us when it comes to climate change, to sea level rise – we’re all on the planet together on this one. When the ocean really does eat people’s countries, the people displaced by rising sea level will need somewhere to go. Our response to Covid-19 is to close the borders, lock everything down. But as sea levels rise, we’ll have to start opening our borders. New Zealand will likely become home to thousands of our Pacific Island neighbours escaping coastal erosion and freshwater contamination. People in large or mountainous countries, like the United States and many European countries, can retreat inland. But what about Bangladesh, with a population of 160 million and two thirds of the country less than five metres above sea level? Where are all those displaced people going to go?
As people started speculating about when lockdown might be lifted, when we might move to a lower alert level, I began to feel anxious. I had settled into this newly simple life. The roads were quiet enough for me to ride my bicycle. We were spending wisely and not wasting any food. We’d stopped flying and were barely using the car. I was enjoying more time with my family, in the garden and on personal projects I’d been neglecting for years. And I felt a new sense of community. We would smile and say hello to neighbours on walks. People were looking out for each other and students were delivering groceries to elderly people, the over-seventies who had been told to stay home. It all felt more like the life I wanted to be living.
But I wasn’t exactly happy. I felt the same sense of dread as everyone else. But I felt this dread all the time – I’d been lying awake at night worrying about climate change for years. It felt like the rest of the world was suddenly acknowledging that yes, things were fucked. What upset me, what made me feel like things were out of control, was when we kept living, kept on consuming, as if everything was OK when it’s not. At last, there was a response that seemed commensurate with the shit that we were facing as a planet and a civilisation.
In New Zealand, our strict lockdown was lifted on 28 April, after thirty-three days. We spent sixteen days in Alert Level 3, then settled in Alert Level 2 on 14 May. Inside New Zealand, most restrictions were dropped, but the borders remained closed. We ate takeaways for the first time in five weeks. My three children returned to university and school. We started to share meals with my mother and her husband. While I was pleased to have a quieter home workspace, the world around me started to feel noisy and busy. I felt tense. I was spending less time in the garden. My impressive daily step count had dropped, so I planned a long walk that took in the waterfront and the hills.
I walked down our street, over a flat park built on reclaimed land and across a busy road to the Evans Bay Marina, home to 140 yachts and launches, a row of boat sheds, a small coastguard station. It was high tide and the boats were high in the water, which was lapping just fifteen centimetres below the parking lot and the marina walkways. Lyall Bay’s sea wall should hold back the water for a while, but the sea will overflow this marina in my lifetime. In his 2017 book The Water Will Come, American journalist Jeff Goodell reports from the front line of sea level rise about how the rising ocean is already impacting nations around the world: in Venice, engineers are building a set of inflatable booms to hold back storm tides; in the Marshall Islands, saltwater is contaminating the atolls’ scarce freshwater supplies; in New York, the city is planning a sea wall around Manhattan Island. I saw Goodell speak at a writers’ festival, where he said that scientists were projecting that sea level rise by 2100 would be ‘three to nine feet – and the numbers keep getting higher.’
That’s more than the scientists I work with are expecting, but not by much. The trouble with overestimating sea level rise, though, is it can make people feel helpless. It’s much better to tell it like it is. We will have thirty or more centimetres of sea level rise by 2050. We could have a metre of sea level rise by 2100, perhaps even two metres – and we need to prepare for that. One of the interesting things I’ve learned in my research is that if people acknowledge the sea level rise that is coming, and realise they need to adapt to it, they will also be much more likely to mitigate, to try and reduce carbon emissions, reduce global warming, to avoid the more extreme sea level rise scenarios.
From the waterfront I walked up a suburban road, through a small shopping centre, across a footbridge and into the bush-covered hills. I might have been far from Antarctica, but I knew that the rocks beneath the tracks and the trees were greywacke – deformed layers of sandstone and mudstone that were once, some 200 million years ago, layers of sand and mud on the sea floor off the coast of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, before it broke into Antarctica, Australia and several other continents.
As I walked I listened to a podcast, the first in a series called After the Virus. In New Zealand, following our prime minister’s decision to ‘go hard’ and ‘go early’ with one of the strictest lockdowns on the planet, there had been 1,504 cases of Covid-19 and twenty-two deaths, but now, in early June, only one person in the country remained sick. I listened to journalist Guyon Espiner interview Christiana Figueres, who chaired the United Nations meeting that led to the 2015 Paris Agreement. The global lockdown, she said, had led to a drop in carbon emissions that is projected to reach 8 per cent by the end of 2020, more than the 7.6 per cent per annum needed to reach our Paris Agreement goal to halve carbon emissions by 2030. But it’s not good news, she said. ‘The drop in emissions has come at a very, very high human cost. We have lost thousands of lives. We have lost millions of livelihoods. That is not the way we are planning on decarbonising the economy.’ What we need, she continued, is ‘a drop in emissions and an increase in the quality of life of the human population. So this is almost getting to the right destination with absolutely the wrong path.’
Can we now treat climate change with the same urgency that we felt in trying to manage Covid-19? asked Espiner. Given the trillions of dollars that are now being committed to economic recovery, we have to, said Figueres.
‘We thought this was the decisive decade for climate change,’ she said. ‘No. Forget it. This is it. Those ten years that we thought we had have now been shrunk, I would say, to anywhere between three to eighteen months. C’est tout. Because by the end of those eighteen months all the decisions, and most of the allocations of the recovery packages, will have been made.’ But it’s not just climate change we have to respond to, she said; four global crises have collided: an acute health crisis has come on top of the climate crisis, an inequality crisis and an acute oil price crisis. We have to converge the solutions to these crises, she said, with policies and injections of capital that address them all at the same time, ‘because sequentially addressing them will only get us out of one frying pan and into a raging fire.’ Economic recovery packages must be focused on initiatives that are clean, green, lead to more social inclusion and build the health resilience of both humans and the planet, she said.
There were two other guests on the podcast – New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton and the head of the United Nations Development Programme Achim Steiner – and each spoke from a different perspective, but they seemed in agreement when they talked about the need for multilateral cooperation, collaboration, fairness, transparency, solidarity . . . Perhaps what they were talking about was kindness. Kindness on a global scale – not just for each other, but for the planet, and everything on it.
The track wound down the hill through the pines.
We had managed to crush Covid-19 in New Zealand but around the world the virus was raging and people were getting angry. Globally, there were now 6.6 million cases of Covid-19 and 389,000 deaths and there was talk of a second wave of Covid-19 in the northern hemisphere. I had become acutely conscious of how privileged I was to live in an island nation with a sensible leader and a populace who – mostly – trust scientists and care for each other. Things felt positive here, but what about the rest of the world? Could we do it? Could we use this period of upheaval and unrest to segue into a better world? A better world for everyone? We have to, I thought. And I felt hopeful about the future because it’s the only way I know how to survive.
I was nearly home.
On the track above the field there was a new embellishment to the orange sign.
Someone had used marker pen on paper, and a mass of sticky tape, to cover the words stop and die so the sign now read prepare to be kind.
Artwork © Jill Pelto, Landscape of Change, 2016