Deckchairs? We haven’t even got a boat…

Followers of Hot Topic’s new Twitter feed might have noticed this link, posted this morning. It’s a Guardian report of a select committee hearing in the UK Parliament, in which the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change (at Manchester University) took the Labour government to task for the “dangerously optimistic” nature of the targets it has adopted.

Professor Kevin Anderson, the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said the government’s planned carbon cuts – if followed internationally – would have a “50-50 chance” of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2C. This is the threshold that the EU defines as leading to “dangerous” climate change. Anderson also said that the two government departments most directly involved with climate change policy, were like “small dogs yapping at the heels” of more powerful departments such as that run by the business secretary, Lord Mandelson. He said that the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc), run by Ed Miliband, should be given more power.

What are the British targets that so concern Professor Anderson? In the April budget, Gordon Brown’s government formally adopted the target suggested by the committee it established to advise on the matter — a 34 per cent cut in emissions by 2020 from a 1990 baseline. Anderson wants that tightened to 40% before the Copenhagen meeting in December, in order to get a reasonable deal out of the process.

… without more ambitious action he feared that a significant deal at Copenhagen would not be achieved. “No one I talk to thinks there is going to be anything significant to come out of Copenhagen,” he said. “We are going to come out and recover the deck-chairs in preparation for moving them as the Titanic sinks. We’re not even at the stage of rearranging them,” he added.

There’s a message here for New Zealand’s politicians and scientists, and it’s not a comfortable one for either group.

The policy comparison is straightforward enough. Britain decided long ago that climate change was a problem to be taken seriously. All three major political parties have built action on climate into their policy portfolios, and David Cameron’s Conservatives have been trying to out-green everyone in a bid to build support for the next election. The Labour administration has adopted a binding target of 34% below 1990 levels by 2020, and however optimistic/unrealistic/impossible with current policy settings that target may be, it is at least on the statute books with a public commitment to get there.

In New Zealand, we have no comparable consensus on the need for action, good policy being dismantled, a pusillanimous official “target” of “50 by 50” with no policy to get us there, and precious few beyond the Greens and Greenpeace prepared to stand up and argue the need for urgent action. The ETS Review committee is set on “reviewing” existing legislation — which means watering it down to match the Australian scheme (though that tactic might be derailed by Australia’s own failure to sort out policy) — and has heard from not just mainstream sceptics, but the lunatic fringe. Big emitters continue to argue for inaction or featherbedding of their emissions. In Britain, the Confederation of British Industry (think Business NZ) calls for urgent action.

The policy failure goes deeper than that. The UK now has a reasonably comprehensive set of structures in place to help guide policy and action. The Carbon Trust helps business and consumers take sensible decisions about reducing emissions (including pioneering carbon labelling). The Committee on Climate Change reviews the state of our knowledge and advises the government on prudent targets. Government departments like the Department of Energy and Climate Change — even if Prof Andersen thinks they’re little dogs snapping at the heels of the high and mighty — at least exist, and have the budget and sense of direction that produces guidance like last week’s new projections for climate change in the UK over the next 100 years. In New Zealand, NIWA’s equivalent projections were hidden in a document aimed at local authorities, and after a brief splash last year have been mostly forgotten. If you want to know what they say, there’s no web site that allows you to drill down into the data, just a large document written for planners to plough through.

New Zealand’s body politic now lacks both the vision, the will and the means to get sensible action on climate change underway. That’s bad for everybody, business and big emitters included, because it means that not only that the rest of the world is leaving us behind, but that we’re not taking basic steps to prepare for the inevitable changes that are coming — not just the climate impacts here (which we hope will be modest), but impacts in the rest of the world and the action taken to deal with them.

This failure of political will has nothing to do with the science of climate change, but it has everything to do with the communication of what that science says, and the failure over the last ten years to build any consensus on the need for action. During the ETS review hearings, two key groups made excellent presentations (the NZ Climate Change Centre and the Climate Change Research Institute). The cream of NZ’s climate and policy experts were involved. The committee listened respectfully, and then moved on to the climate cranks.

I know that the scientists and academics involved in those submissions (and the NZ climate science community in general) are deeply committed to their work, and happy to tell the world what that work suggests we face, but I detect no real sense of urgency, no strong desire to get that message out to combat the disinformation and apathy reflected in Parliament. Where’s New Zealand’s Jim Hansen, who was arrested in a protest against coal mining in West Virginia in the last couple of days? Somebody of real stature needs to be knocking politicians heads together, knocking sense into their butterfly brains on this issue, giving them the intellectual backbone they need to stand up to cranks and delayers. Will the new chief scientist bend John Key’s (right) ear on this most pressing of subjects? If not, why not?

John Key’s government needs to come to its senses and start putting together a coherent and sensible set of climate policies, instead of using the ETS review as an excuse for inaction. Nick Smith was touted as one of the few parliamentarians who really understood the ETS legislation (which is an indictment of the majority of our politicians, not a recommendation of Smith), yet he gives every impression of just muddling through his portfolio. In other words, we need real leadership on this issue, and we need it soon. We have a role to play in working out how to deal with climate change. That means credible targets and realistic policy to achieve them. A failure now will be a failure that will haunt this government, this generation of politicians, and our scientific community. It will haunt all of our children.

[Disclosure: In my second year at college, I had the room next door to Peter (now Lord) Mandelson. We called him Betty. He didn’t call me Al.]

2 thoughts on “Deckchairs? We haven’t even got a boat…”

  1. See also: Brian Fallow provides a good overview of the ETS review/Australia/US progress in today’s Herald:

    … waiting for the Australians to sort themselves out before we finalise an ETS risks being – to borrow a phrase from the Cold War – naked at the negotiating table.

  2. Not sure if this is news to anyone, but:

    “Smith told the local government and environment select committee that officials had said the New Year target date for bringing the stationary energy – such as electricity generators and boilers – and industry sectors into the scheme will not be met…
    “Smith said officials had advised the industrial sector could be brought into the ETS in January without an allocation plan, “but in my view, that is untenable”.”

    So, more delay.

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