Doublethink: doubleplus ungood

What do New Zealand government members really think about the chasm between their claims on the one hand to be addressing climate change and their insistence on the other that we must take every opportunity to expand our fossil fuel mining industry? I listened to a recent Radio New Zealand interview with Tim Groser, the Minister responsible for international climate change negotiations, in which he discussed the outcome of the Durban conference. He sounded committed to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. He was respectful of the science. He affirmed that the progress so far made was inadequate, but thought it possible that Durban might turn out to have been a critical turning point by getting all the big emitting countries on the mitigation bus. He sometimes sounded the “real world” theme, but not to the extent of suggesting that the whole process was doomed to failure. He was positive about renewable energy potential. One might disagree with some of his perspectives, but there was no suggestion that he was not serious about the need for the world to move to low-carbon economies.

Yet back in New Zealand Groser is a Minister in a government which is planning to increase the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels, claiming that they offer immense financial benefits that we would be foolish to forego. These fuels will release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere either in the countries to which they are exported or here. When pressed on the issue the excuses offered include that emissions in other countries are the responsibility of the users of the fuels, not the suppliers, that within New Zealand our Emissions Trading Scheme will somehow result in the satisfactory offsetting of the harm done by the emissions, and that if we don’t mine fossil fuels others will and we will suffer an unfair economic disadvantage.

I find it impossible to mentally inhabit these two worlds simultaneously. A world in which we are working sincerely to a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and a world in which we are vigorously pursuing the extraction of every last bit of fossil fuel we can locate. Am I lacking mental agility?  Or is there doublethink going on in government?

The phenomenon is not confined to New Zealand by any means. I was interested this week to read a Grist article by David Roberts Markets and climate change: A case of cognitive dissonance. He in turn draws on an article by Nicholas Stern in the Financial Times (registration required) which refers to a “profound contradiction at the heart of climate change policy”.  If the world burns even the proven reserves of fossil fuels by 2050 we will have well and truly overshot the carbon budget which gives us some chance of staying within 2 degrees of warming.

If countries are serious about 2 degrees, they must be planning to leave a lot of fossil fuels in the ground. Right?

Apparently not.

…the world’s top fossil fuel companies are valued at some $7.42 trillion (including the top 100 listed coal companies and the top 100 listed oil and gas companies). They are valued at this level because of proven fossil fuel reserves to which they have access. In other words, their valuation carries the implicit assumption that they will burn the fossil fuels available to them.

Markets are assuming that fossil fuel companies will burn the fossil fuels that the world’s governments have, at least implicitly, said they cannot burn. That’s the “profound contradiction.”

Evidently markets are thinking that governments don’t mean what they say, that they aren’t really serious about climate change and they’re going to allow business as usual to proceed.

If that’s the case, Roberts quotes Stern:

… the resulting rise in atmospheric concentrations could eventually mean, with a substantial probability, global warming of 5 degrees or more, to temperatures not seen on Earth for more than 30m years. That would probably transform where and how people could live and lead to the migration of hundreds of millions, as well as to conflict and severe economic decline.

Roberts goes on to look at projections of the resource mix in US electricity markets in coming decades. There’s a significant shift from coal to gas predicted, and a modest rise in renewables, but no reduction in emissions that comes anywhere near the level required to stay within the 2 degree guardrail. It’s not that there won’t be any climate policy, just that it will be at a level that is woefully inadequate. And it’s not that the level of change needed is beyond US capacity. There are alternative courses policy makers could chart if they were serious. But mainstream analysts don’t expect them to.

And yet we do nothing to prepare for the future that inaction is going to bring us! It’s a widespread and increasingly glaring case of cognitive dissonance in the institutions and practices at the center of the modern global economy. One way or the other, it’s going to resolve itself, and I fear the results will not be pretty.

A digression. I used the Orwellian term doublethink, perhaps unkindly. Roberts employs the term cognitive dissonance, coined by American social psychologist Leon Festinger. Curious, I checked them out. If I understand the explanations correctly doublethink is the holding of contradictory beliefs without discomfort (“knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic” – Orwell 1984 Part 1 chapter 3), whereas cognitive dissonance is a more conflicted process leading to attempts to rationalise the contradictions which disturb the person holding them. In that respect they can be described as opposites. But they are not opposite in their effects when it comes to climate change.

There is no rationalisation which can reconcile this contradiction: we can’t both burn all the fossil fuels the earth holds and avoid the consequences of severe climate change. Much of the remaining oil, gas and coal must remain in the ground and the companies and countries which are counting them as assets must write them down drastically. It’s as simple as that and it’s high time governments gave up pretending otherwise.

7 thoughts on “Doublethink: doubleplus ungood”

  1. When pressed, I think you will find that NZ politicians take refuge in the ‘we are not a large emitter’ argument. I know a friend who works for the Greenhouse Policy Coalition who rationalises his work in this way.

    Its nonsense of course. How many people in NZ refuse to recycle on the basis that ‘large companies produce much more waste than I do’? We dont take that attitude for at least 4 reasons. First, we take personal responsibility where we can, second we know that every little bit helps, and third, we know change happens when we lead by example. Fourth, by making a start on reducing emissions even on a small scale, we are proving in the real world the different ways in which it can be done.

    Its interesting to see who uses this ‘small emitter argument’. Not just NZ, but the UK and even the US. Apparently, there is always some larger emitter who can justify our personal inaction as disaster approaches.

    1. yes, unless people understand that our global problem is the sum of everybodies emissions and that the solution therefore must be the sum of the reduction or avoidance of these emissions at each and every source, nothing will change.

  2. New Zealand is in fact, for the size of the population, one of the worst global warming offenders. If you count agricultural emissions of methane and nitrous oxide as well as carbon dioxide, the only countries worse than us on a per capita basis are the USA, Canada, Australia, and a handful of tiny oil sheikhdoms.

  3. The Federated Farmers of New Zealand election manifesto on trade uses an interesting argument “Unilateral elimination of tariffs would also show the world that New Zealand remains committed to free trade.” (p 54)

    On climate change there is a different approach — climate change policies need to be aligned with those of our key trading partners and competitors.

    Although it also states that Feds takes its responsibilities are NZ citizens seriously, and it is vital to use resources efficiently and wisely and that climate change policies should be based on good science and be practicable and cost-effective and allow NZ farming to remain economically viable and internationally competitive. Not to forget that agriculture still provides the lion’s share that anchors the NZ economy.

    Which all means their climate change policy comes down to a balance between what some people in society view as right and what is reasonable. (p 26).

  4. Yes. We too, according to the Canadian government, are small emitters. And the tar sands? Even smaller. Nothing to worry about apparently.
    And the double speak continues. After arguing for “reduced carbon intensity,” or the reduction of the amount of carbon that it takes to produce one unit of energy (or what have you), the Canadian government at Durban was calling for “absolute reductions” in carbon emissions. Huh?
    Just don’t talk about per capita emissions, which in Canada are amongst the highest, if not the highest in the world. That might force us to do even a little more. Because Canadian emissions are only 2% of world emissions, and since the tar sands are only .1% of global emissions, all is well. We aren’t that bad, not compared to big bad China and India…

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