Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Leading for at least the life span of a tree

Mitigation and Adaptation used to be two words that were heard together twenty years ago when ever climate change was mentioned. Mitigation was the high road – it was the route towards fixing the planet and making amends for unintended consequences of humanity’s management of the earth’s natural resources. It is also a "public good" where everyone benefits even if they personally don't pay for it. Diplomats and Crusaders tried to rally people around the hard but worthwhile task of pulling greenhouse gasses back out of the atmosphere; reducing the latent energy in the atmosphere; quieting the predicted storm. Political and even moral might was needed to follow this path.

Adaptation was an admission that climate change had already gone too far for humanity to be immune to the consequences. Already the growing seasons were affected and the heat of summer was that bit hotter than in the past. Already the rainfall patterns were changing and what once was a 1 in 20 year event was happening every 10 years or worse, and certainly more often than our infrastructure was designed for. Adaptation was reinforcing the bridges to withstand the more intense rain; it was building bigger dams to hold water for the longer periods between rain; it was building new or reinforced sea walls to withstand more powerful waves and higher tides. Insurance and re-insurance companies adapted their policies, payouts and risk profiles because their accountants and statisticians saw the numbers and knew the damage was already happening. Even businesses are adapting - diversifying their inputs and their employee skills and, of course, increasing their insurance coverage. Adaptation: reacting to something that was clearly happening.
Trees in a courtyard - beauty, cooling in summer, improving health and sequestering carbon

Many Governments these days seem to be only interested in adapting to the immediate. This drought is now: how can we get hay to the starving cattle? This heatwave is now: how can we keep the electricity flowing into the air conditioners? These frosts that are occurring out of season: how can we keep the gas flowing into the heaters?  Mitigation, that high road that implies hope, is rarely mentioned any more. “Don’t speak of climate change mitigation” we are told “because we are too busy fighting this unusually frequent drought or this unusually early fire season or this electricity generating plant that fails in this unusual heat, or these power lines that blew down in this unprecedented gale”. It seems we have admitted defeat on mitigation.

Trees dying in the heat, new species moving in ...adapting

Have our governing classes conceded that they lack political skill or even the capacity for leadership when it comes to mitigation? Some pretend that climate change isn’t real in a vane attempt to salve their bruised ego; to avoid acknowledging they are weak and unable to lead. “Look at me” they cry, “we are adapting - here is $100 off your electricity bill” which, if you had air conditioning installed in your house, would allow you an extra month of cooling over the longer, hotter summer. Our governing classes all have air conditions are are no doubt confident that can ride out the heat in their cooled homes and offices, but they don’t acknowledge that they are simply moving the heat from inside their houses to the outside, adding to that heat load of those who cannot afford air conditioning. “Look at me, I can offer a loan to buy hay which you can pay back once the climate fixes itself up”. They don’t say where they’ll get the hay for next year’s starving cattle. They don’t want you to look to them about helping the climate fix itself back up, or about your increasing insurance premiums, or even about staying cool when you can’t afford to buy that air conditioner.   Instead they say, just concentrate on today’s adaptation or the limited range of ways of adapting to the most current crises caused by climate change – electricity and hay!

Sometimes though it is possible to both mitigate and adapt, but it needs leaders who can think beyond the election cycle, or at least beyond the news cycle. Maybe we need the return of career Diplomats who see much further than the next vote. Or maybe business leaders who plan for their businesses to be still viable and profitable long after our powerless politicians have tried to distract us with a few coins of electricity and hay.

City authorities often have longer vision and set in place policies and actions which bare fruits well into the future. Local governments are stepping out - ignoring the larger state and federal governments who have rejected their original role for large scale, nation building and strategic planning. City authorities are not wasting efforts on getting a slight reduction in electricity to benefit the well off in the midst of hotter, drier, harsher cities.  City authorities are planting trees - appropriate trees that will shade and cool everybody - rich and poor - even if not before the next election.  Trees are also known to reduce human stress, which might be very important when dealing with people who are worried about the lack of leadership. Simultaneously, these trees capture carbon from the atmosphere and can therefore directly help mitigate climate change. But trees are long lived, and any tree planted today may expected to be living in a city both hotter and drier in 50 years time. Those who support the planting of trees are looking beyond the immediate, they are leaders who are advancing both mitigation and adaptation for the good of all.

Trees selected to mitigate and help our cities adapt to climate change must also be able to survive the changes over the coming decades. Wise leaders in our cities are exploring the opportunities for different tree species and different site preparations to survive, cool and reduce stress in our cities for the future. So that is one other thing that trees can provide – Hope. Hope for a future and the return of true leadership!

A plantation of rare and endangered trees near the center of Canberra. Saving trees, giving city dwellers shade, health and cooling while sequestering carbon.