Our “fair share” of future disaster

by Bryan Walker on September 7, 2013

The New Zealand Government has taken refuge from the challenge of climate change by recasting it as a matter of political positioning. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the frequently reiterated claim that we are doing our “fair share” in the international effort to reduce emissions. It’s a brash claim in any case, when our unconditional 5 percent reduction target on 1990 levels by 2020 is compared with the 30 percent unconditional target of Norway and Switzerland or the 20 percent target of the EU as a whole. But the Government prefers comparison with our “trading partners” Australia, America and Canada, and also largely excludes the emissions associated with farming on the grounds that the world needs the food we produce.

But brash or not what is convenient about the “fair share” argument is that it transfers attention from the alarming reality of climate change to the much more familiar and comfortable world of political negotiation. It enables Ministers to busy themselves with trying to get the best deal they can for the country vis-à-vis other countries, to protect the national interest, to preserve competitive advantage. Buried in such useful activity they can pretty well forget the massive and threatening question mark that climate change puts over the continued use of fossil fuels.

On the domestic front it fits well with adversarial politics, as was all too apparent in question time in the House a couple of weeks ago when Green MP Kennedy Graham questioned the Climate Change Minister about the 5 percent reduction target.

Associate Minister Simon Bridges made no attempt to defend the target in terms of its appropriateness to the task of tackling climate change but asserted confidently (twice) that it showed we are “absolutely doing our fair share”, and along the way scolded Professor Jonathan Boston, one of three academics who had criticised the target in the media, for not doing his homework before lecturing the government. The point the three critics made, incidentally, was that the target was inadequate relative to what the inter-governmental panel on climate change has indicated the developed world should be seeking. One would have thought that a climate change Minister well informed of the science would willingly acknowledge that the targets so far offered by the developed world are well short of what is required if global warming beyond 2 degrees is to be avoided. But the “fair share” theme crowds out any possible reference to the larger question.

Indeed I do not recall the Climate Change Minister or his associate ever speaking publicly of the magnitude of the threat climate change represents for human society. Tim Groser generally indicates that he has no argument with the science, but I have not heard him dwell on the details of what the science portends. He generally moves quickly instead to the claim that we are playing our part in any international attempt to tackle the question, to the political negotiation terrain that he is at home with. He shows much more passion in declaring his unwillingness to allow the New Zealand economy to be adversely affected by what he sees as precipitate action on climate change than he does in warning of the fearful dangers which climate change poses.

Along with the fair share theme the Government runs another mantra: New Zealand’s contribution to global emissions is too small to matter one way or another. This one is very effective in enabling Ministers to get on with business as usual in the economy, including plans to find and exploit more fossil fuel “resources”. It is apparently not seen as at odds with an acceptance of the science. I recall the Prime Minister on his visit to Antarctica early this year acknowledging to a reporter that climate change was happening and more rapidly than anticipated, but then immediately pointing out there was little a small country like New Zealand could do to affect matters.

Complacency reigns. John Key, when pressed on climate change by a reporter at the Pacific Islands Forum this week, asserted:

“New Zealand has got quite a comprehensive response…I don’t think we should feel either ashamed or concerned in the slightest…”

So the challenge of climate change is led as if tamed into the political arena. It’s a sad spectacle, by no means confined to the New Zealand Government. It’s hard to know whether to blame the politicians responsible or the process of government within which they work. They are, after all, intelligent people, presumably capable of understanding and being sensibly alarmed by the recognition of what rising greenhouse gas emissions are doing to our world. Yet they cannot find a response in any way appropriate on the political level. There is nothing Government Ministers say which suggests any urgent interest in moving New Zealand to a clean energy economy.

It was hard to avoid a mood of settled despair when I was writing the above. Then an email arrived from Greenpeace, bless them, with information about the newly established Get Free movement, a call to action mooted by people appalled by the Government’s backing of fossil fuel expansion and supported by 24 prominent New Zealanders. It was a healthy reminder that despair is not a useful condition. Much better to keep saying over and over again to our shackled politicians that the climate crisis is real and they must find the political courage to address it by transforming the energy basis of our economy.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

jh September 7, 2013 at 10:34 am

They are, after all, intelligent people, presumably capable of understanding and being sensibly alarmed by the recognition of what rising greenhouse gas emissions are doing to our world.

but when you think about who fills the political vacuum they are the most motivated and they are the ones who look at the world from a completely different angle where climate change is just a nuisance idea imposed from outside their world view. You may as well be arguing contraception with the Catholic Church. If you want to test the water read Kiwiblog.
The problem of modern politics is that these politicians aren’t saying what they really think?

jh September 7, 2013 at 10:52 am

While you have the self interested right on the one hand the other problem is the enlightened left who take the blame off the “poor” and refocus the problem as a social justice issue. At some stage we have to think about population and sustainability and that those policies need a geographical location as well as a social location. The left have captured this debate under the humanitarian banner and anyone questioning population growth has mud thrown at them.
Note that China does more than any other to introduce green energy but won’t get there because it still has so many people in poverty and needs fossil fuels. Note also that (so far) new energy sources tend to increase the use of old energy sources and population growth in a sort of feedback loop.

Thomas September 7, 2013 at 11:46 pm

The feedback loop is indeed problematic. Unless we artificially rise the price of fossil fuels, all advances through alternative energy deployments in the western world will reduce some pressure on fossil fuels only to make those a bit more affordable elsewhere, where they are still burned… It is the dilemma of energy saving strategies in a ‘free market’ that the lowering of cost spend on prime energy due to savings will rise the disposable income for consumption which will bump up energy use elsewhere.
In a free market only cost reductions in alternative energy below the cost of fossil fuel production will push that fossil fuel production back.
But we can hardly wait for this to eventuate.

Bob Bingham September 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm

It is not bad economics to plan for a future problems or build infrastructure that is going to benefit future generations. Would you invest in a big new building in Christchurch CBD knowing that is was going to be flooded in fifty years time? what about Auckland airport which will also be flooded. These are simple things that our chief scientific advisers must know and yet we go on doing it. Would you invest in coal?
Sending Key to the Pacific Forum exposes him to more of the reality of the problem ( like finding a home for the islanders) but he needs to accept the problems publicly and start laying out a plan. This is not a party line this is a New Zealand people plan.

McTaptik September 8, 2013 at 4:18 am

Time to stop focusing on the problem and work through and support our solution. You will be able to thank John Key and his blueboyz for kicking it all off too – love the paradox!

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