Don’t worry Kyoto (National’s Only Looking Out For Its Friends)

The New Zealand government has announced that the country will not join the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (CP2), but will instead make voluntary commitments within the Kyoto framework [Herald, NBR]. Climate change minister Tim Groser presented this move as:

…aligning [NZ’s] climate change efforts with developed and developing countries which collectively are responsible for 85% of global emissions. This includes the United States, Japan, China, India, Canada, Brazil, Russia and many other major economies.

To put it another way, New Zealand has chosen to abandon the 36 countries already signed up for CP2 — which runs from 2013 to 2020 — and instead aligns itself with the world’s worst polluters. Ironically, Groser rejected CP2 on the same day that Australia, only recently equipped with a meaningful carbon emission reduction scheme, announced it would sign up. The move completes the National-led government’s programme of gutting and dismembering the climate policies it inherited from the last Labour-led government when it took power in 2008.

Reaction from political opponents was swift and, as you might expect, damning1, but more telling from my perspective was the response from scientists, compiled by the Science Media Centre.

Jim Salinger, currently the Lorry Lokey Visiting Professor in the Program in Human Biology, Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford:

…the New Zealand Government must take its head out of the sand and step up to its scientific responsibility collectively together with the nations of the world in order to save future generations from the horrendous future impacts of a dramatically warming planet.

Martin Manning of the Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University:

This move now leaves any sense of legal commitment to limiting future climate change to the EU and Australia. And while it probably has only a small direct effect on total global CO2 emissions New Zealand’s retreat seems to be part of a growing reluctance by several developed countries to play any leadership role. So New Zealand’s move is part of a pattern that just leaves the problem to others.

Associate Professor Euan Mason, School of Forestry, University of Canterbury:

The government’s failure to commit us to a second Kyoto commitment period is consistent with, and is perhaps a consequence of, its failure to secure our NZU currency, and represents a failure to take opportunities to contribute to a better environment for us all.

Associate Professor Ralph Chapman, Director, Environmental Studies Programme, Victoria University:

This move has to be interpreted in the context of other signals New Zealand is sending on climate change policy. These signals are sadly pointing in the direction of easing back, rather than doing more, despite the climate change problem steadily worsening. The signals that the NZ government is not serious about climate change include its weakening of the ETS, a hiatus on renewable energy, a determination to build more highways that encourage carbon emitting land transport, and so on.

What’s interesting about these comments is not so much what they say — Hot Topic readers and anyone who has been following developments in climate science and policy would probably say much the same things — but who is saying it. These are working scientists who understand the issue in all its seriousness. They have an intelligent appreciation of the risks we and the world face as the planet warms. It’s becoming all too obvious that those risks are not understood by Key, Groser and the rest of the leadership of the National party.

In radio interviews over the weekend, Tim Groser described the move as in New Zealand’s national interest, and this morning prime minister John Key was forced to defend the move by rewriting history2:

I think we never wanted to a world leader in climate change we’ve always wanted to be what is affectionately called a fast follower.

Key conveniently forgets that Helen Clark’s government most certainly did want NZ to be a world leader on tackling climate change3 — in fact, Clark suggested we should be one of the first carbon neutral economies. Her government put together a coherent blend of policies — an emissions trading scheme backed by a suite of regulations, commitments to renewable energy, solar heating initiatives, home insulation and so on — that backed up that position. Key’s government, as Ralph Chapman notes, has been busily unravelling all that policy.

Groser’s view that this latest move is somehow in “the national interest” seems to depend on a definition of national interest that focusses only on the economic interests of fossil fuel and mining companies and his party’s supporters in the agricultural sector, as well as the frankly daft idea that economic interests can somehow be balanced against environmental issues4. National interest is about much, much more than is dreamt of in his philosophy — and includes taking prudent steps to prepare for an uncertain, but much warmer future. A strategic approach to the risks posed by rapid climate change5 would involve taking immediate steps to ensure that the ETS prices carbon at a level sufficient to ensure emitters take action6.

If Key, Groser, Joyce, English and the others are not listening to what the scientists are saying, perhaps they will listen to the International Energy Agency, who have noted that we are currently on a trajectory that will take us a long way beyond two degrees of warming. The world’s biggest accountants, PricewaterhouseCoopers, recently suggested that current policy settings were pushing the world towards six degrees7 of warming. These organisations speak the language that one must presume National’s leadership understands, so it would behove them to pay attention. But of that there is no sign.

One voice they will almost certainly dismiss out of hand for purely political reasons is that of our last prime minister, Helen Clark. Clark is now the administrator of the UN Development Programme, and recently addressed a meeting at Stanford about “Why Tackling Climate Change Matters for Development”. The full text is available here8, and shows Clark joined the dots on the importance of climate change years ago9, while John Key is still playing with his Etch A Sketch.

Wedded to an unrealistic view of the world, where climate change is just another policy setting that can be fiddled to the advantage of supporters or to suit ideology, New Zealand’s present government is stuck inside an epistemic bubble of considerable size. They are, quite literally, divorced from reality. What the national interest requires is that someone burst that bubble and force them to confront the need to take serious action on mitigating, and — crucially — adapting to the climate changes that are now “locked in” to the system. Perhaps a group of senior scientists equipped with a very large pin might seek an audience with the National Party caucus…

[Yoko Ono – should be played at full volume during all cabinet deliberations until such time as they fully understand the risks we face.]

  1. Labour: Day Of Shame As National Pulls Out Of Kyoto, Greens: ETS destroyed, now Government gets to work on Kyoto. []
  2. Or perhaps he conveniently forgets recent NZ political history. []
  3. Although his use of the “royal we” suggests he has other problems beyond memory. []
  4. A clue: without a functioning environment, a vibrant economy is impossible. []
  5. Which is exactly what we’re witnessing today. []
  6. And doesn’t stuff up an entire industry, as Euan Mason’s full comment at the SMC notes. []
  7. If six degrees is where we’re heading, I’d recommend reading Mark Lynas’ book of that title to get some appreciation of just what sort of Dante’s Inferno that might be. []
  8. With short video. []
  9. And did so while NZ PM. []

14 thoughts on “Don’t worry Kyoto (National’s Only Looking Out For Its Friends)”

  1. I can add one more item to the Clarke Government program. A kind of academic task force charged with designing ways toward carbon neutrality was established. It represented a whole range of disciplines. I surmise that before the election that brought in the Key government they saw correctly the writing on the wall and hastened to publish what they had come up with in a 310 page book titled

    Carbon Neutral by 2020
    How New Zealanders can tackle climate change

    Edited by Nikki Harré and Quentin D. Atkinson.
    craig potton publishing, Nelson. 2007

    I don’t know what kind of distribution it achieved. I managed to intercept one of the copies being sold by Nikki at the Auckland University venue of a lecture by someone from the UN focussing on climate change. Every seat was filled. The program was axed right after the election.

    Nikki contributed on “The psychological challenge of climate change” as part of the introduction. Chapter topics focussed on Schools, home renovation, carbon neutral living in the home, thinking outside the car, Auckland’s transport system, how ‘Hobson Mall” became climate friendly, computing away climate change, deep organics, sustainable design, role of ethics, responsible investing, the law, political activism.

    The conclusion targets Individual actions, Organisational actions, Political Actions. Even the garden gets a mention.

    I wonder how many read this book or even heard of it?


    1. Noel, I reviewed the book for the Waikato Times early in 2008, before I started writing for Hot Topic. Here’s my opening paragraph:

      “This is a cheering book. It has been depressing in recent months to see many New Zealand business and farming leaders express strong opposition to government moves to address climate change. Here by contrast is an eminently sensible publication which faces the reality and looks at how we can get on with responding to it positively.”

      Five years later the opposition to addressing climate change, aided by a change of government, has clearly thus far prevailed over anything resembling good sense.

    2. I met Nikki Harré in 2008, when we were both on a panel at the Going West book festival (with Francesca Price), and have a copy of her book. It’s full of good and practical suggestions, though as you note, the product of a more optimistic time. Five years and 10ppm further on, the door marked 2 degrees is being locked and bolted…

        1. Niki, may I get it right this time, has advised me that the book “Carbon Neutral by 2020, How New Zealanders can tackle climate change” sold about 1600 copies.She has since written

          “Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability”
          .which I downloaded from
 this “morning”.way past my bedtime. There are three forms, Kindle, PDF, both free, and printed $15, 193 pages.

          I have only briefly flicked through it so far. Every page grabbed me, it is a ‘must read’. I wanted to quote just about everything but she asks that electronic copies not be circulated but obtained from her web site so she can keep track of what it is doing, Here’s the first paragraph from the introduction:

          I wrote this book for people (like me!) who believe it is worth trying to make a better world in which both our species and the ecological systems we are part of can flourish. We may think the problems humans face are a simple truth and that it is blatantly obvious business as usual won’t work for much longer. But in any human system, it is not just about who is right, it is also about who can win people over. This book contains numerous strategies for inspiring others to join with those of us who are trying to make a difference. It is for the teacher who updates her class on the latest climate change negotiations, the office manager who buys Fair Trade coffee, the student who cannot accept that our current way of life is the best we can do, the builder who suggests his clients install solar panels, the mother who refuses to provide take-home bags of plastic toys at the end of her childs birthday party, the city counsellor who lobbies for cycle lanes. Whatever your social location, if you believe a more sustainable world is possible and desirable, then (I suggest) this book is for you.

          It has been interesting to see the psychologists get into climate change. This may be the best yet.


  2. There only one action Keys and associates need now undertake before turning out the lights and leaving the planet and that is to apologize to their children (and the children of the world) for not having the whit or wisdom to recognize the blatantly obvious threat climate change (unmitigated) represents to the future of the inhabitants of the planet and choosing to do nothing in response.
    I suspect Keys philosophy is to pursue “Growth” relentlessly and deal with the climate later. The trouble with that is “growth” requires energy currently in the form of fossil fuels and `later` was yesterday.
    The natural planet is not governed by a politically convenient agenda.

  3. I can’t wait to see David Frame launch his trademark stinging riposte to National’s moribund approach to climate change policy, should be a veritable bloodbath.

    I note that Mike Hosking (NewstalkZB) was yesterday congratulating John Key for pulling out of Kyoto, after all Mike assures his listeners that there is alot of scientific disagreement on climate change, so it stands to reason that we should not sacrifice the New Zealand economy for such a trifling issue.

    My feeling is that most New Zealanders are worse than Republicans, and that government stagnation on climate change, is why the Nats are doing so well in the polls. I suggest that most Kiwis are perfectly willing to distort reality to any extent as long as their comfort zone never becomes challenged. In other words we are just a secular version of the GOP. What does it tell you when even our very own Rachel Hunter is a registered Republican?

  4. One thing we might try a little harder to attain here is how does one go about a more constructive approach than exists presently.

    In this regard I believe that the NZ government is well aware and attuned to revenue-neutral policy implementations. Which, in this case of funding climate actions might occasion a swap between let’s say taxcuts and polluter taxes. An example is here.

    Whilst the US is a very much greater hardcase climate action-wise, one could say that if their folks can face up to US and global responsibilities then so can NZ. In a like-minded way.

    That is, of course, if the USA is one of the National government’s “friends”.

  5. A demoralising day for NZ on the international stage. I didn’t know NZ was a ‘fast follower’ type. But ‘fast following’ who? who? 22 years ago when NZ first adopted a climate goal – the Toronto target, 20% by 2005 (don’t say anything) there was a sense of alliance, moral obligation, to work with the Pacific as close neighbours. There was ‘punching above the weight’ in the international arena for a period. There was still time.

    I’m [sort of] ok about the All Blacks beating Scotland at the rugby, but for god’s sake beat them on climate. The team, the talent, the training, the execution. You don’t falter.

  6. A demoralising day for NZ on the international stage. I didn’t know NZ was a ‘fast follower’ type. But ‘fast following’ who? who? 22 years ago when NZ first adopted a climate goal – the Toronto target, 20% by 2005 (don’t say anything) there was a sense of alliance, moral obligation, to work with the Pacific as close neighbours. There was ‘punching above the weight’ in the international arena for a period. There was still time.

    I’m [sort of] ok about the All Blacks beating Scotland at the rugby, but for god’s sake go out to beat them on climate. The team, the talent, the training, the execution. You don’t falter.

    1. I seem to recall that the Scotlish Parliament adopted quite demanding goals re- climate change. Whatever they were I cheered for them at the time. Their optimism may have had something to do with the perception that they were well endowed with wind and tidal forces though not much for solar as climate change is making the place cloudier and wetter as far as I can make out from the moans of astronomers who may be living in the only dark sky area of the UK but rarely see the stars.

      So by contrast we are rather well endowed with wind, sun, water (hydro) and even steam. A goal of 100% sustainable is much easier for us than for Scotland or for most places.

      So the government has just assured us that it takes climate change seriously and will shortly announce some aspirational goal which we will probably criticise with justification as timid to put it mildly. If instead they really are bold then we must take them at their word and hold them to it else as I have said before it is just a schedule for defering effort: ‘So what? 80% reduction in carbon by 2050? Well why take that seriously just now. We have better things to do!’

      An aspirational goal is worthless unless there a plan is implement from the start, not drawn up by politicians who are easily persuaded to put short term intersts first, but prepared by a task force focussed on the goal. Such a force is usually drawn from science and university institutions. Hello! we had just that in the past. Even National during the “think big” stuff required lots of studies from such sources.

      So there must be a plan. It must be well thought out with actions to take every year that can be built on. Yes! hold them to their aspirational goal, enquire as to who is doing the planning, keep a watch on what is mooted, cheer the good bits, jump on efforts to weaken it, scrutinise closely, and very publically, claims for exemptions. Get compliance reports that are published through NGOs and universities at about the same times as Government reports are tabled. Such non-governmental reports should also take into account policies and practices that run counter to the goal. Where nothing appears to have been done count on it; something counter to the goal is being done.

      I just mention the conflict between Auckland’s need for better public transport and the government’s push for more motorways that have in the past simply extended commuting distances so people living in expensive houses, with big carbon consumptions, loud demands for upgraded services, and big salaries can commute to Auckland from places like Mangawai, the Coromandal, Waihi and beyond, the Awhitu peninsular, oh no! scratch the last, that is part of the Supercity now.

      Could rates be based on energy demand linked with carbon footprint and of course, demand for services? If so an institution, business or residence that generates it’s own power, is genuinely carbon neutral, with zero waste, and is environmentally sustainable may pay much lower rates than those who are not. If carbon negative such might even get a dividend. .

      Given that we will certainly overshoot on carbon emissions, and possibly already have, carbon negative is a real goal.


  7. On 13th Nov (3.50pm) I left a link to the example of constructive thinking there evident. This was Norquist, a Republican anti-tax lobbyist, who’d suggested the revenue neutrality of a polluter tax in trade-off(swap) against taxcuts to ‘his constituency’.

    Soon thereafter, this economist found himself subject to a Koch Bros funded bullydom for such interests. And, as expected, (albeit disappointingly) Norquist went back on his earliier progressive suggestion.

    At hearing this I’d wondered whether I should appear again here to explain how in no way had I intended mislead those folks who chased down the link to find the reverse.

    In the interim and to hand, however, the Caperton report on almost simultaneous proceedings for the same topic. We find institutions like the AEI, IMF, Brookings and others piling into possibilities political and policy.

    Regardless the bully domain which can be seen in these times as a lesser parallel party ( or bunch).

    Interesting for the US and those of us about broader activity. One or two of the comments there look singularly encouraging ie Brak..

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