Human stupidity and the NZ election (Heigh ho! Heigh ho!)

by Gareth on November 23, 2011

I’ve been writing about climate science and policy for the last five years, and taking an interest in the subject for far longer, but I’ve seldom read more depressing news than Fiona Harvey’s Guardian article last week — Rich nations ‘give up’ on new climate treaty until 2020. According to Harvey, expectations for the UN conference in Durban are low:

…most of the world’s leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020.

Unfortunately for all the inhabitants of this planet, the atmospheric carbon load is increasing fast and unless emissions peak soon — no later than 2020 — we will be committed to dangerous, and quite possibly uncontrollable future warming. How in the name of your favoured deity did we allow that to happen? Here’s a clue: a few sentences taken from the environment policy statement of New Zealand’s National Party, who led the outgoing government, and who on current polling will lead the next after Saturday’s election:

We’ve introduced a more balanced approach to climate change … Ensured New Zealand is doing its fair share on climate change … Amended Labour’s ETS to strike a better balance between New Zealand’s environmental and economic interests.

The National Party document also claims the last (Labour-led) government “set an impractical goal of carbon neutrality”. Well, have I got news for you, John Key and Nick Smith. Carbon neutrality is not an impractical goal — it’s what the evidence tells us we need to achieve, not just in New Zealand but around the whole world.

Here’s the first bit of evidence, taken from the NZ Climate Change Centre’s first Climate Brief, on The Challenge of Limiting Warming to Two Degrees1:

NZCCCEmissionsf3

This graph illustrates the practicalities of global emissions pathways, based on a simple idea — in order to give ourselves a 50/50 chance of staying under a 2ºC increase in the global average temperature, we can only emit 1,445 gigatonnes of CO2 from 2000 to 2050. If emissions had peaked last year, an annual decline of 1.3% would be all2 that’s required, but if we leave it until 2020, then annual cuts of 5% will be required, and global carbon neutrality will be necessary by 2050. Leave the emissions peak until later, and you rapidly run into impossible to meet rates of emissions reductions, and face having to suck prodigious amounts of carbon out of the air to meet the goal.

Carbon neutrality is therefore not an impossible luxury, but likely to be a necessity for the planet and New Zealand. A “50 by 50″ target just doesn’t cut it.

The National document also makes much of the idea of “balance”. They’re taking a “more balanced” approach to climate change, “striking a better balance between NZ’s environmental and economic interests”. There are actually two kinds of “balance” here, and they’re both radically mistaken. With respect to climate policy, and in particular emissions reductions, the government has chosen to ignore the best current evidence and pursue a watered-down set of objectives. This is portrayed as not so “extreme”, as if there were a middle course3 to be steered between doing what is necessary and doing nothing.

Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment.

Then there is the idea that you can strike a balance between environmental and economic interests. This assumes that the two things are separate and separable, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can only have an economy because the planet provides us with resources of all kinds — and not all of them are renewable on an annual basis4. Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment. The environment therefore imposes limits on what we can do, and we ignore those limits at our peril.

…these are the last years of the great human bubble

Accepting this fact is hard for most politicians, wedded as they are to the idea that economic growth as we currently understand it can somehow continue ad infinitum. Some pay lip service to the idea of sustainability, without understanding what it really means — living within our environmental means. There’s a real challenge here: how to design steady-state, truly sustainable economies that can give people fulfilling lives, and I can’t really blame our current crop of politicians for failing to realise that’s what they’re going to have to do sooner or later. They are a product of their times — as are we all — and these are the last years of the great human bubble.

Most politicians aren’t stupid, but they are very skilled at avoiding or ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their ideology or which they suspect might be unpopular with their supporters and financial backers. Apart from selecting a new government this Saturday, NZ’s voters are also being asked to vote in a referendum on our proportional voting system, MMP. I would much rather be voting in a referendum designed to require politicians to produce evidence-based policies — that is, policies that are informed by the facts and the evidence, as the PM’s science adviser discussed earlier this year. Evidence-based climate policy would be a long way removed from what we see both in New Zealand and in the machinations around the post-Kyoto deal-making.

A final thought: humans can be individually brilliant but collectively stupid. What we are seeing in the politics of climate policy, nationally and internationally, is the latter, writ large. This weekend, New Zealand will vote for the politicians it wants to govern the country for the next three years. Climate policy — beyond some facile jockeying for position on the details of a watered down emissions trading scheme — has hardly figured in the campaign of either of the major parties. It has certainly not been fought over, or accorded the prominence you might expect of an issue that is going to shape human destiny over the next century.

At times like this, you can either laugh or cry. I choose laughter.

For a comparison of party and candidate policies on climate issues in the NZ election, I heartily recommend the efforts of Generation Zero here.

  1. The whole thing is well worth a read. Would that some of our politicians did so. []
  2. All! References to relevant literature in the Climate Brief. []
  3. A third way, even! []
  4. Earth Overshoot Day 2011 — the day when the world starts dipping into natural capital instead of consuming renewable resources — was September 27th []

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

bennydale November 24, 2011 at 5:09 am

From The Guardian’s George Monbiot…

“We have a moral duty to assess threats as clearly and rationally as we can, so that we do not lobby to replace a lesser threat with a greater one. If, as is already happening in Germany, shutting down nuclear power results in an increase in the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, far more people will suffer and die as a result of both climate change and local pollution. If, as now seems likely, we wildly miss our carbon targets and commit the world to runaway warming, partly as a result of the nuclear shutdown, history will judge the people who demanded it harshly…”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/nov/22/christopher-busby-nuclear-green-party

bill November 24, 2011 at 9:40 am

*splut!* *gurggggggle* *flob!*

Speaking of human stupidity…

Did you paste that all by yourself? The only reference to ‘Nuclear’ I can find on this page is yours, Benny.

Before we all become further mired in The Stupid – and another potentially interesting discussion becomes hopelessly derailed – I submit that this posting belongs elsewhere. (The TZ for mine!)

Gareth November 24, 2011 at 11:08 am

I think I’ll leave it bill, on the grounds that the quote does at least mention missed targets… But discussions about nuclear power are certainly off-topic here.

Bryan Walker November 24, 2011 at 11:15 am

I see that Pachauri in a Reuters interview has put in his plea for an evidence-based approach to the international negotiations.

“It is absolutely essential that the negotiators get a continuous and repeated exposure to the science of climate change.

“… it will definitely have an impact on the quality and outcome of the negotiations, after all these are human beings, they have families, they are people also worried about what is going to happen to the next generations.”

I often wonder how many of our political and business leaders square their failure to measure up to the gravity of the science with the normal family and human concerns which they presumably share. I presume it means they as yet can’t or won’t credit the science.

Mr February November 24, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Climate Change Minister Nick Smith seems perfectly happy to pretty much ignore the science (as visualised in the excellent graphic of future emissions pathways) and see the UNFCCC/Kyoto process continue it’s 18 years of stalemate.

Here is a statement he made to Parliament where he implies the lack of an international climate change agreement, after Kyoto ends in 2012, is fine with him as it enables him to tell Kennedy Graham (Greens MP) that there will be no cost after 2012 to the taxpayer from giving emitters free emissions units.

“This member and other members make the gross error of trying to claim that not exposing industries or consumers to the full price of carbon over all their emissions is somehow a subsidy. A subsidy implies that there is a cost to taxpayers. That is not true. It is not true, and members opposite who attempt to run that argument ignore the fact that there is no international agreement beyond the end of 2012 for reducing emissions at this point, and without it, there is no cost to the New Zealand taxpayer.”

To me Smith seems to be saying “It’s no big deal if the UNFCCC/Kyoto process remains stalemated. In fact, we are relying on stalemate in the crazy design of our NZETS”.

As well as basing the NZETS policy on a bet that the Durban conference will continue in stalemate, Smith is also wrong in fact about costs to taxpayers. The NZ emissions units are owned by the Crown on behalf of taxpayers. Giving them away free to emitters is a transfer of wealth from all taxpayers to emitters. Or a cost!

password1 November 24, 2011 at 9:16 pm

“…Smith is also wrong in fact about costs to taxpayers. The NZ emissions units are owned by the Crown on behalf of taxpayers. Giving them away free to emitters is a transfer of wealth from all taxpayers to emitters. Or a cost!”

Nonsense. After 2012, the Crown does not receive any units from the UN. The units the Government receives, and then distributes to foresters, industry etc are those surrendered by emitters under the ETS. I’ve read that the Government expects to receive more units than it allocates from 2012 onwards, which must be a problem if the Government has no international use for them without a Treaty, and if they can’t be sold into other ETS.

I’m troubled when reading criticisms of NZ’s climate change policy. Some of the criticisms seem to suggest that if NZ imposed tougher targets on itself, then the either the world would be saved, or that the rest of the world would follow suit. That simply won’t happen. Realistic thinkers would see the roadblocks exist in the form of reluctance from developing countries to take on any meaningful target, including the better off developing countries, as well as the massively important symbolism of the US’s inability to act. NZ’s domestic policy settings are completely irrelevant to international negotiations and to atmospheric ghg concentrations.

Follow Durban events here: http://www.iisd.ca/climate/cop17/

Lulu12 November 24, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Good post! I’m with Generation Zero, the group mentioned at the end of your piece, and as a young New Zealander I really want to encourage everyone to use their vote to ensure a sustainable and healthy future for our country.

To find out more about what specific candidates have to say about action on climate change check out http://www.electwho.org.nz and vote for a zero carbon future!

Nga mihi nui

Lucinda

Dappledwater November 24, 2011 at 10:29 pm

“Some of the criticisms seem to suggest that if NZ imposed tougher targets on itself, then the either the world would be saved, or that the rest of the world would follow suit.”

Tsk, tsk, Password1, that’s nothing but a strawman argument. The only commenter here foolish to fall for that nonsense is poor old benneyhilldale.

Do you realize how far back your lame canard dates back to? Yup, the days of slavery when plantation owners made alarmist claims they’d be bankrupted by the abolition of slavery. Yawn.

The physical laws of nature will not be fooled by half-arsed attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, so there’s no point in pretending it will be. Someone has to take the lead. It would be nice if it were us, but we know that’s improbable with a National Govt.

Tom Bennion November 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Password1

Its pretty easy to show that your approach is not one that has been adopted by the NZ government in relation to our largest industry.A quick google search on “agriculture subsidies world leader NZ’ gets you there. for example:

“What would the world look like without agricultural subsidies? What would the United States look like? If a crystal ball exists for those questions, its name is New Zealand, one of the first and still one of the few modern countries to have completely dismantled its system of agricultural price supports and other forms of economic protection for farmers.

Brace yourself: this is free-market faith to make Adam Smith proud. But the New Zealand experience is pretty persuasive. Well into its second decade of subsidy-free farming, New Zealand enjoys a worldwide reputation for its high-quality, efficient and innovative agricultural systems.

New Zealand agriculture is profitable without subsidies, and that means more people staying in the business. Alone among developed countries of the world, New Zealand has virtually the same percentage of its population employed in agriculture today as it did 30 years ago, and the same number of people living in rural areas as it did in 1920. Although the transition to an unsubsidized farm economy wasn’t easy, memories of the adjustment period are fading fast and today there are few critics to be found of the country’s bold move.”

http://newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/features/0303/newzealand_subsidies.shtml

We were first in the world to ditch agriculture subsidies and farming has boomed ever since. Go figure.

I guess your advice on subsidies would have been:

“I’m troubled when reading criticisms of NZ’s [agriculture subsidies policy]. Some of the criticisms seem to suggest that if NZ imposed tougher targets on itself, then the either the world would be saved, or that the rest of the world would follow suit. That simply won’t happen. Realistic thinkers would see the roadblocks exist in the form of reluctance from [European] countries to take on any meaningful target, including the better off [European] countries, as well as the massively important symbolism of the US’s inability to act. NZ’s domestic policy settings are completely irrelevant to international negotiations and to [agriculture subsidies].”

It turns out that you would have been wrong and right. Right in the sense that people have been slow to follow, wrong in the sense that the action has been hugely beneficial to NZ agriculture.

That it what makes the current refusal to get agriculture into the ETS so odd. It not only forgets an important lesson from our immediate past, but actually endangers the benefits of earlier bold policies.

Mr February November 25, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Password1,

You have confused New Zealand Units (NZUs) – which are allocated under the NZETS – with Kyoto units which are used to estimate NZ’s Kyoto liability.
The Auditor General, Lynn Provost, says “NZUs have a market value and the issue of NZUs without charge to participants is an expense to the Government and creates a liability.” So giving away NZU’s does cost the Government and therefore taxpayers.

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