Lip service: NZ government infested with climate denial

Over the last few years I’ve documented the current NZ government’s lackadaisical attitude to climate change policy. They’ve gutted the emissions trading scheme and dismantled sensible initiatives, ensuring that NZ emissions are on course to grow steeply. Last night, TV3 News asked three senior cabinet ministers whether they believed in the reality of climate change, and two of the three couldn’t quite find it in their hearts to endorse simple reality. Here’s my transcription of their responses:

Gerry Brownlee (minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, Transport, Leader of the House, #3 in the hierarchy):

Well, I think climate change is something that has happened always, so to simply come up and say, look, it’s man-made, is an interesting prospect.

Bill English (deputy PM, finance minister, #2 in the hierarchy):

There’s some impact… [edit] we should uncritically follow the Green’s extreme views about these things, well, many of us don’t.

By way of contrast, climate change minister Tim Groser was unequivocal:

Absolutely, the evidence is overwhelming — you’d have to be denying reality…

Given that I’ve been critical of Groser’s stance on NZ climate policy, it’s refreshing that he feels free to be so blunt in his acceptance of the reality of the problem. He is, after all, a skilled diplomat, and knows that if he were to tell the world that climate change was “an interesting prospect”, his peers in the international community would consider him to be a complete tit. It’s perhaps a good job that English and Brownlee don’t have to front up to the world on climate matters, or their self-esteem might suffer.

Here’s a simple explanation of the issue that even a woodwork teacher could understand. The fact of climate change, the reality of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet’s climate system, is not political. Acknowledging that the evidence supporting that position is overwhelming is not a political act. It’s called living in the real world.

The politics is in what you do about it. That’s where the debate is, where international negotiations are proceeding (or not).

The only argument worth having that has any basis in science is how bad it will get, and how soon. There are legitimate differences of opinion about that amongst the people with the most expertise — the earth scientists who study the issue.

But you are not let off the hook of having to devise and implement effective emissions reductions and adaptive strategies by assuming that climate change is somehow not going to be too bad. That would be appalling risk management — akin to underinsuring your house and then lighting a bonfire on the back deck. We need policy that prepares for the worst that climate change can throw at us, while at the same time aiming for emissions reductions that minimise the long term damage.

To do that, we need a government that really understands the gravity of the problem the world confronts. There’s no shortage of evidence, but around the cabinet table there appears to be a considerable lack of willingness to take it seriously. That’s bad management, bad politics and bad government.

[Mr Costello and The Attractions]

17 thoughts on “Lip service: NZ government infested with climate denial”

  1. Why is it that governments spend millions of dollars on research and then make up there own minds from information they get from Youtube.
    t Abbott knows he does not need help and has withdrawn funding for a quarter of the climate scientists.
    Gerry Brownlee is rebuilding Christchurch on a flat area only one meter above sea level which is not a smart move. I know it would have been a difficult decision to do otherwise but we have to face facts.
    Set the map to one meter and see what happens.

  2. David farrar (national bellwether) picks posts by Bjorn lomborg and recently an IEA guy who claimed a paternalism bias that over looked (or relied too much on) evidence based research… As always cold water. A recent post was “grow baby grow”. Has a good life$tyle?
    We badly need a group which analogues interests, influence, ideas, power etc.

  3. One major problem in New Zealand is that we spend millions of dollars on the wrong research. We invest comparatively huge amounts on paleoclimate research, and very little on improving (or even staying abreast of) scientific understanding of climate processes. The Marsden Fund is one example – since 2005 the climate modelling/dynamics community has received $500k. In the same period, the paleoclimate research community have received ~14M.* That’s a ratio of about 28-to-1. The dynamics/modelling community is small, but it produces good research. But it’s frozen out of a Marsden process that is captured by geologists.* Depressingly, one of the reasons that the NZ govt is not very well-informed about climate change is because the very physics-based science that might actually tell us about how New Zealand might change in the future just doesn’t get a look in.

    The Marsden is particularly extreme but the point holds more generally. Basically, small science systems are prone to being captured by relatively strong communities. We have lots of geologists and agricultural scientists. Unsurprisingly this leads to lots of paleoclimate research, and an emphasis on agricultural GHG research, rather than a broader portfolio-based approach that would include fossil fuels. (The core of the problem, remember?)

    It’s not surprising to me that there are low levels of climate literacy when NZ just hasn’t invested much in building capability in the core disciplines (atmospheric/oceanic physics, maths, chemistry) that underpin climate science.

    *The entire non-geological physical climate research community – oceanographers, atmospheric chemists, data scientists, modellers, etc – have received less than *half* this amount.

  4. I wrote: “*The entire non-geological physical climate research community – oceanographers, atmospheric chemists, data scientists, modellers, etc – have received less than *half* this amount.”

    Just by way of context, this means that in terms of IPCC chapters, NZ has funded pure research in one chapter to the tune of $14M, while funding the other 13 chapters to the tune of ~$6M. In other words, the investment NZ makes in understanding climate change looks nothing like the investment the international science community makes in understanding the problem.

    1. Thank you for that insight Dave. I might suggest this is not atypical of NZ’s response to world problems.

      Take for instance our ‘generous’ response for aid to the phillipines $150K.

      1. We – as in Abbott – originally offered a princely $400,000. I actually had assumed this was a typo! Per size of population and economy that makes NZ’s offer look like the Marshall Plan!

        That didn’t go over too well, I’m pleased to say, so it went up to $10 million. When some pointed out he’d just handed $16m to Cadburys Ltd., it went up to a rather-more-respectable-but-not-exactly-dazzling $30m.

        Let’s hope it all gets where it needs to go!

  5. A few corrections.

    Bob, christchurch is 6m above sea level, that is many, many melted glaciers away from going under.

    Carol, the climate is always changing, look at any climate graph you can find. You will never find a straight line.

    Dave, more money on research is no guarantee of more knowledge. Billions have been spent so far and the IPCC could not even predict the current surface temperature trend. What a waste I say.

    Good on the National Party for continuing to steer this country toward prosperity and not selling our futures to a self righteous green agenda.

    1. Murray, a few corrections: according to Google Earth the Cathedral is 4m above sea level. The high tide limit on the Avon is between the Madras & Kilmore bridges. We won’t need 6m of rise to spook the rebuild, a metre or so will inundate parts of the coastline and collapse confidence.
      The IPCC doesn’t do any research, they aggregate research done by others and are thus always a year or more behind the bleeding edge.
      My worry about the Nationals is that they are risk-blind and so fixated on growth they are goose-stepping toward calamity.

    2. Murray, You say the IPCC cant predict current temperature trends. No, the first IPCC report around 1990 predicted periods of reduced temperature increase due to natural variability. You are also setting an unreasonable bar in that science is rarely perfect on any issue, but obviously no reasonable person would say abandon science.

      Plus a recent paper has found current temperature trends are almost the same as the average over the last 30 years. Refer Coverage bias in the HadCRUT4 temperature series and its impact on recent temperature trends
      Kevin Cowtan1,*, Robert G. Way

      This is currently being discussed on

      Gerry Brownlee should read some material on how observable changes in atmospheric structure point directly at carbon dioxide being implicated in the warming period since 1900. Ditto the fact that most of the increased warming is at night so is inconsistent with solar variability. I made some comments on this issue on the herald some time ago under the name of gandalf.

    3. Murray wrote: “Dave, more money on research is no guarantee of more knowledge. Billions have been spent so far and the IPCC could not even predict the current surface temperature trend. What a waste I say.”

      Actually, you’re completely wrong, Murray. The IPCC’s 1990 “prediction” for global surface warming was pretty good across the period 1990-2012. And a climate sceptic’s forecast of no change would have been very bad.

    4. “Carol, the climate is always changing, look at any climate graph you can find. You will never find a straight line.”

      A climate graph, Murray? What on earth is that? I have seen graphs of temperature changes, precipitation changes etc, but never a graph of “climate”.

      The RATE of changes in surface temperature, for example, that we have seen over the last over the last 30 years are pretty much unprecedented in the paleo-climate record (climate through geological time).

      (In case you don’t know, Murray, climate is the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period).

      The National Party seem intent on selling our futures to overseas corporate interests.

  6. I was using ecan for hight, 6.2m. Some areas around the avon are pretty low but the earthquake has moved most of those houses.

    I never said the IPCC did the research, but they claim to be using the best research to make their reports.

    1. “I never said the IPCC did the research, but they claim to be using the best research to make their reports.”
      Indeed, the use the best research available for their reports but due to the timing of the extensive review process the most recent research is often not yet included.

  7. Fortunately, not all politicians are as craven and ignorant as the likes of Brownlee, English and the Tea Party Republicans in the US.

    Here is an inspiring speech from US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, speaking out against climate change denial:

    It is time to wake up. It is time to turn back from the misleading propaganda of the polluters, the misguided extremism of the Tea Party and the mistaken belief that we can ignore without consequence the harm that our carbon pollution is causing. It is time to face facts, be adults and meet our responsibilities.

    Mr. President, I give these speeches because climate change is real, because the campaign of denial is as poisonous to our democracy as carbon pollution is to our atmosphere and oceans, and because I am confident. I am confident that we can do this. We can strengthen our economy, we can redirect our future, we can protect our democracy and we can do our duty to the generations that will follow us, and that will look back in shame unless we change our program. But we have to pay attention, Mr. President. We have to wake up.

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