The wrong road to take

by Bryan Walker on January 19, 2012

It’s difficult not to become repetitive when blogging about climate change. The basic science is well-established. The dangers global warming poses to human society are clear and in some places present. The solutions lie with drastically cutting the level of greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to changes already unavoidable.  The mitigation solution in particular continues to be resisted by vested interests and their political allies. I’m conscious of having expressed each of these facts many times over in a variety of forms over the past three years. And now I’m about to repeat myself within a month of last writing about the contradiction in New Zealand government thinking.

It was BusinessNZ chief executive Phil O’Reilly’s article in the Herald on Tuesday that provoked me. He was bullish at the start of a new year on New Zealand’s opportunity to earn new wealth. It’s our hard commodities – minerals and petroleum –which offer outstanding rewards. We are “blessed with iron sands, coal, petroleum, phosphate, precious metals and rare earths”. We already take royalties and tax revenues from the sector, and O’Reilly claims we could be earning much more by opening access to more of our mineral and petroleum estate. It needs to be done responsibly of course, and we could be leaders in that direction:

We could create a minerals and petroleum sector with standards for sustainability, safety and environmental protection that are the highest in the world.

From a climate change perspective let’s be clear about what O’Reilly is proposing. He wants the search for and extraction of fossil fuels to play a major part in the New Zealand economy. He’s looking for a great surge in activity in this direction. The high standards of environmental protection he writes of clearly do not include climate protection. This is not surprising. Fossil fuel use is inimical to climate protection. The only way fossil fuels can protect the climate is by remaining in the ground unused. All the care in the world to prevent oil spills or restore mined landscape doesn’t alter the fact that when that fuel is burned it will increase the level of global warming.

O’Reilly urges readers to participate in the review of the Crown Minerals Act which is currently under way and which will invite public consultation this year. I had a look at the Ministry of Economic Development website to see what that involved. There’s nothing there to reassure anyone alarmed by climate change. The first aim of the review:

Align the regulatory regime with the Government’s Economic Growth Agenda and regulatory reform agenda.

And the Economic Growth Agenda to which it is to be aligned?

The Government has set a target for New Zealand to catch up with Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (currently 76 per cent) and for exports to be 40 per cent of GDP (currently 31 per cent) by 2025. The Government has announced a broad economic growth plan to achieve this. The plan includes focusing on lifting the growth of particular sectors, including the petroleum and minerals sectors, which have the greatest potential to contribute to a step change in New Zealand’s economic performance and where the potential impact of government action is likely to be very high.

This is all spelt out at greater length in the full discussion document which contains no mention of climate change, global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, or carbon dioxide. In other words the government is determined to go ahead with fossil fuel development as a key factor in their plans for economic growth and no consideration of climate change will be permitted to stop them. Phil O’Reilly, representing New Zealand’s largest business advocacy body, is very much in step.

What is so wrong about all this is not that we are continuing to use fossil fuels. Our economy is built around them and no one is claiming that we can switch off using them immediately. But what one expects from an educated government and business community is a plan to move towards a low-carbon economy with all possible speed and determination, not an all-out drive to discover and exploit fossil fuels justified by the wealth it will create. To do so is morally obtuse since we know the dangers such a course holds for humanity. It is also likely to prove economically self-defeating because it pushes investment in a direction which has dead end written all over it.

O’Reilly does not represent all New Zealand businesses. Phillip Mills of Pure Advantage carried a very different message in the Herald (also posted at HotTopic) in November, urging politicians to plan for a very different future from that extolled by O’Reilly.

Rather than risking our environment and reputation by opening marginally accessible petroleum reserves to foreign oil corporations, the emphasis should be on investing in those industries that can provide us with an advantage in rapidly emerging markets such as renewable energy and the businesses that spin off that, from electric vehicles to cloud computing.

He wrote that the Pure Advantage Trust has recently commissioned a group of world-leading economists to review New Zealand’s green growth opportunities and make recommendations as to how we can build a greener, wealthier nation. They plan to release the group’s findings early this year. Those findings might prove a useful counter to the kind of results the government obviously expects from its review of the Crown Minerals Act.

The task of turning governments worldwide away from fossil fuel exploration and extraction seems herculean. But we have no alternative than to keep at it. It would be dereliction to allow them to carry on regardless with no protest from the portion of the population which understands how truly dire are the circumstances many governments continue to ignore.

I’ll endure the knowledge that I’m repeating myself and say again that the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t extract all our fossil fuel resources without producing severe climate consequences. Exporting them for someone else to burn alters that fact not one whit. The Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce and the Energy and Resources Minister Phil Heatley should be facing up to that reality every day and requiring their cabinet colleagues to do likewise.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Dappledwater January 20, 2012 at 8:48 am

Don’t worry about repeating yourself Bryan, the National government and the business sector keep doing the same thing too, with one major difference – you’d swear they have anterograde amnesia, like Guy Pearce in the movie Momento.

Gosman January 20, 2012 at 9:36 am

The trouble with that logic is that we could equally apply it to the other main Greenhouse gas Methane. Do you agree that any amount of Methane being released into the atmosphere leads to increased warming and is therefore bad?

Dappledwater January 20, 2012 at 11:24 am

The rather obvious point Bryan is making is that fossil fuels are extraordinarily damaging to our climate and environment, be they in the form of long-lived CO2, or the shorter-lived methane.

The National govt is ignoring the scientific advice in their bloody-minded pursuit of money. That black gold is fool’s gold. It’s a dead-end scenario. It will not make us rich, it will make a handful rich. The rest of us, and our descendants, will be impoverished (at the very least) for millennia to come.

Natural ecosystems are like Humpty Dumpty, once you break them you’ll never be able to put them back together again.

Look at the Pacific Coast of North America for instance, the burning of fossil fuels, fertiliser/nutient run-off, and increased upwelling of acidified water due to strengthening seasonal winds from global warming have all combined to make waters there so corrosive they have been killing juvenile Pacific oyster larvae for 6 years. It will not stop, the source water of the upwelling was last at the ocean surface 40-50 years ago, so they have another 40-50 years of increasingly acidified water to upwell there. They are in a great deal of trouble.

Fortunately we don’t have such strong upwelling along the coast of New Zealand, but it gives us a snapshot of the future, if we continue along this suicidal path of fossil fuel use. As a Maori, and having a lifelong affinity with the ocean, this alone is a reason to resist the National govt’s madness at all costs.

The desire to catch up with Australia is quite ironic, because Australia is in the throes of destroying their environment too. They’re going to fare much worse than us though, the big wet of the last 3 years from a La Nina-dominant weather pattern will not last. A return to neutral or El Nino conditions is likely to happen in the next 1-3 years. This will dry out the land surface again and see land surface temperatures soar as the evaporative cooling of all that water-soaked soil is lost.

And look at the Great Barrier Reef. A recent study (Sweatmann [2011]) reckons it’s doing okay, but his research shows a substantial decline in coral cover over the last decade. Furthermore, given that the heat capacity of the oceans is a thousand times that of the atmosphere, the thermal lag this creates, and that the oceans are warming at a ferocious rate, despite the lull in global surface temperatures, it means the Great Barrier Reef is going to suffer when we return to an El Nino-dominant period. In fact by 2030, even in the most optimistic scenarios 66-85% of all coral on the planet will suffer mass bleaching every 10 years (see Meissner [2012]). It only gets worse from then on. We might be witnessing the complete elimination of a vital natural ecosystem.

See, this is why the National govt, big business, and the mainstream media they own, have to omit or lie about the scientific evidence. If these scientific facts are well publicized they know the public will turn against them.

Gosman January 20, 2012 at 11:48 am

Stop being hysterical. This information isn’t being stopped from being published. The fact that you just mentioned them here is evidence of this. You might prefer they are distributed more widely and more often but I would suggest it is beholden on you and other supporters to look at how you can go about this rather than moan that life is so unfair.

By the way I find it rather distasteful that you think being a Maori gives you some sort of special affinity to Oceans. It would be like me claiming that as a NZ European I have a special affinity with Dairy farming or Urban culture. It borders on racism.

Dappledwater January 20, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Gosman – the only one being hysterical here is you. The scientific evidence of harm from fossil fuel use is overwhelming.

“rather than moan that life is so unfair”

Sophistry & rhetorical debating techniques won’t work on me. You must have realized that by now.

“By the way I find it rather distasteful that you think being a Maori gives you some sort of special affinity to Oceans.”

No more than any other person who has grown up depending on the ocean for a source of food, and understands it importance to ecosystem function and, ultimately, one’s well being. Clearly it’s something that a naive urban dweller would not understand. But you soon will. Food will become ever more expensive in time, especially when that next El Nino rolls around.

As for racism, you have not a clue about the history of New Zealand. I bet you have gleaned your pauper-like knowledge from the mainstream press, and yet the archives are loaded with correspondence demonstrating what true racism is – that inflicted upon my ancestors.

You see Gosman, the motivation that drove the suppression of other races, such as Maori, is the same ignorance that drives capitalists today and that motivation is ideology.

Of course, this is veering off-topic, no doubt your intent, but it doesn’t change the facts. The National government is pursuing a dangerous, and dead-end fuel source, because it is ideology-driven. It doesn’t care about the man and woman in the street. They will be stopped one way or the other.

Gosman January 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm

“No more than any other person who has grown up depending on the ocean for a source of food, and understands it importance to ecosystem function and, ultimately, one’s well being”

Essentially what you are stating is people who live near the sea in a rural setting and rely on it for supporting their lifestyle have a better understanding of the interelation of the ecosystem of the sea. I have no problem with this point.

However, considering most Maori are actually urban dwellers, this would not apply to them. Therefore the fact that you are Maori makes not a blind bit of difference to whether you have an affinity with the ocean or not.

Bryan Walker January 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm

We are off topic here. Dappledwater’s reference to his Maori ancestry was a small point, Gosman. Don’t use the thread as an opportunity to turn it into a big one. And don’t throw round words like racism gratuitously.

Gosman January 20, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Making claims that you have some sort of special affinity with the environment because of your ethnic background is bordering on racism Bryan. I abhore racism in any form and will point it out if I see it. I make no apologies for that however if you and Gareth make it clear that bringing race into a discussion on the environment is not appropriate I am happy to not do so in future.

Dappledwater January 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm

“I abhore racism in any form and will point it out if I see it.”

I doubt that very much. You just saw this an opportunity to deflect attention away from the science that highlights the appalling ideology of the National govt.

“Therefore the fact that you are Maori makes not a blind bit of difference to whether you have an affinity with the ocean or not”

This is simply more ignorance about Maori culture, and indeed the culture of many indigenous people.

Here’s some advice, before spouting rubbish on the internet, remember you’re going to run across people who actually have a good grasp the subject matter. People who actually read scientific studies on said topic, and will call you out on your nonsense.

And if you really want to understand what racism is I can refer you to some work which highlights the racism suffered by Maori at the hands of their supposed treaty partners. The archives are full of documentation. It will make you cringe when you read what public officials wrote and did. One imagines they really did believe their delusions of racial superiority.

Now that is racism, me saying I have an affinity with the ocean because of my upbringing and ethnicity – that’s just the way it is. No racism necessary.

Again, none of this changes the fact that the National govt and their big business partners are intent on destroying what sustains us in order to line their pockets with filthy lucre. We must not let them.

Gareth January 20, 2012 at 7:45 pm

OK: no more discussions of racism, please. Any further attempts to justify your original comment will be snipped, Gosman. Thanks for showing commendable restraint, DW.

bill January 20, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Gosman, I suggest you calm down for a day or so, then re-read the exchange above and have a good hard think about who actually comes off as closest to ‘hysterical’ or ‘bigoted’.

Seems to me you’ve been indulging in blatant dog-whistling on the flimsiest of pretexts, and this does you no honour.

viv January 20, 2012 at 9:42 am

Another excellent post Bryan, it should be printed in every newspaper in the country!

Tom Bennion January 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I have no problem with repetition. This is all about overcoming major cognitive dissonance.

I take comfort in the fact that Solid Energy and the current government, among others, mostly take refuge in the argument that ‘someone else will burn it’. They dont spend any time arguing against the prognosis that BAU is unsustainable.

Consequently, they are already reduced to abandoning any moral arguments and have a very weak practical argument.

I suggest honing in on 1) the immorality of the ‘someone else will burn it’ argument and 2) the practical nonsense that it is namely:

– it doesnt solve the problem of BAU being unsustainable – simple continues and reinforces it. What good will all those petrodollars be when major ecosystems are ravaged?
– everyone can use the argument – so it becomes a nonsense. Aviation argues they dont contribute much, so they should not suffer the EU carbon tax, the EPA under the Bush presidency said US vehicle emissions were not that significant in world terms.
– the courts in numerous jurisdictions have never bought into the argument. Most countries, including ours, have a concept of cumulative emissions.
– we just dont accept such an approach to solve any other environmental problem. Imagine applying the ‘someone else will just make more mess than me’ to our recycling and water pollution control efforts.
– the ‘someone else will burn it’ argument in terms of climate change actually hides within in it an acceptance of the catastrophic consequences of BAU (ie ‘what’s the point’), but this is never stated.
– for those pointing the finger at China, there is the interesting issue of the carbon footprint of trade goods. Is the coal we would export being used in the production of goods purchased in NZ?
– this highlights another hidden assumption in the ‘someone else will burn it’ argument – that such burning in inevitable and cannot be stopped. It suggests that engaging and campaigning directly with the Chinese and others directly over coal use, assisting with popular movements and government efforts and the like, is not possible. But of course that is happening.

Oh, and this just in:

“The huge reserves of coal, oil and gas held by companies listed in the City of London are “sub-prime” assets posing a systemic risk to economic stability, a high-profile coalition of investors, politicians and scientists has warned Bank of England’s governor, Sir Mervyn King.

In an open letter on Thursday, they tell King that the global drive to reduce carbon emissions could mean billions of pounds of fossil fuel reserves will rapidly lose value and cause a “major problem” for institutional investors and pension funds.”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jan/19/fossil-fuels-sub-prime-mervyn-king?intcmp=122

Minkie41 January 20, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Nicely done,thank you!There’s an argument for leaving it in the ground.It’ll be a lot more valuable in 2100,when we should be 4-7 degrees C hotter (not counting other related effects).Could all those smarts in Wellington find someone who’d pay us to keep it there?Do a long put;sell the whole thing forward untill the next century;it’s unlikely the buyer’ll be around to take delivery–particularly if they live in the Northern Hemisphere.In any case,what will the government do with the (miniscule) royalty? Pay more children to have children who can be brought-up very badly,end up in jail or unemployed,or are battered and murdered?It’s so difficult to be other than cynical;one despairs of polticians and other government servants.
Peter Cummins

Mr February January 23, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Exactly to the point, Bryan.
National’s conflicting climate and fossil fuel policies are very much summed up in this cartoon Joe Romm has linked to.
http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2012/01/22/408771/toles-cartoon-nails-keystone-climate-contradiction/

Byron Smith February 7, 2012 at 3:15 pm

I say this as an Australian: don’t follow Australia.

Having introduced legislation to price carbon (with much fanfare), there is almost no comment on the fact that the Australian government is also planning for expansion of coal extraction on a scale that puts all planned domestic emissions reductions in the shade. It is only the oddities of carbon accounting that means we can offshore responsibility for these emissions while cashing in on them (NB this is one of the reasons that Oz has higher GDP per capita – our massive mining industry with coal prominent within it).

Byron Smith February 7, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Editing function wasn’t working, so I’ll add a second post to provide this link about planning expansion of coal extraction which I’d intended to include above.

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