The Minister Speaks

nick-smith_editedThe Minister Responsible for Climate Change Issues Nick Smith’s address to the recent NZ Climate Change Centre’s conference Managing the Unavoidable appeared to be the first comprehensive public statement he has made since assuming ministerial responsibility.  I read it with interest and here offer comments on some of it. 

But first a look back. I am given to writing to politicians when sufficiently roused, and I see I wrote to Smith three times between 2005 and 2007 protesting at the cavalier nature of statements he made about global warming and our response to it.

It’s a bit different now. Thankfully the National Party has moved on, and I have no interest in accusing them for past failings.  Smith’s speech makes no suggestion that the basic science could be in doubt. However he also makes no explicit endorsement of the science, and offers no recognition of how serious for the human future global warming is.  We very much need to hear something along those lines from ministerial quarters, at least occasionally. The President and senior administration members in the US speak in such terms.  It’s called political leadership.  Even the Russians may be starting to offer it.

But perhaps the Minister judged this as an occasion when that could be taken for granted and concentrated on the policy for addressing global warming.  He made much of how big an issue climate change is, outlining several problems. Real enough most of them, but not the first, that the science is “mind blowingly complicated”. An overstatement, surely.  The detailed work of scientists, of course, is not readily accessible, but the broad outlines seem to me, as a non-scientist, relatively easy to comprehend. 

The first step Smith offers on the way to measuring up to the size of the issue is to get us out of the limelight.  He criticises the lofty goals of the previous government as doing our international reputation more harm than good, because they were not reflected in practice. Realism demands that we settle for just doing our fair share as a developed country.  I regret the stepping back from ambitious goals, but can accept that doing our fair share is a not unreasonable stance.  It was important that Smith added “as a developed country”, and one hopes this means he is aware of the implications that we will accept a higher level of emission reductions than is immediately required of developing countries.

He then repeats the government’s “achievable target” of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 as compared to 1990 levels.  The target is not adequate, but it’s certainly a big step forward from earlier National Party thinking.  Why the word “achievable”?   Admittedly choosing targets that can’t be achieved would be rather pointless, but there are all sorts of political and economic assumptions involved in the word which need to be exposed and discussed before we settle for its use. “Achievable” is no substitute for “adequate” when it comes to emission reductions.  In all the clamour surrounding the issue of emission reduction in NZ it may be unrealistic to expect calm scrutiny as yet, but the target must be re-examined at some point in the not too distant future.

No argument with Smith’s next statement that setting the target is easy – it’s the practical policies to get there that matter. An economic instrument is the preferred pathway. He  reiterates National’s preference for a modified Emissions Trading Scheme but stresses that a decision will not be made until the Select Committee review has concluded. All nicely relaxed and reasonable-sounding, as is the following section on harmonisation with Australia. All this time emissions continue to rise (my comment, not his).

On adaptation, the focus of the conference, much of what Smith has to say about forward planning is unexceptionable in general terms, but the changes which he speaks of are at the conservative end of predictions.  A sea level rise of only 50 cms by the end of the century is looking increasingly underestimated.  Even his own Ministry’s guidance booklet for local bodies on preparing for coastal change suggests an extra assessment of consequences for at least an extra 30 cms on top of that. Adaptation measures are important in themselves but also because they underline the need for mitigation measures. When they avoid quite real possibilities they not only fail in their purpose but also induce a false sense of comfort.  In scenarios I have read it would only take a metre of sea level rise to inundate farmland around Invercargill, cause salt water intrusion in many agricultural areas, cause water seep on to Wellington airport, and put Tamaki Drive under water, for example.  Smith mentions continuing work on the subject.  One hopes that will include looking beyond 50 cms.  I found it a little ominous that he mentioned the current economic climate as posing a special challenge for long-term planning.  It is surely also an opportunity. 

My first reaction to his speech was relief.  There was no suggestion of the bob each way mentality John Key’s Investigate magazine interview in March displayed. And he was quite clear that tackling climate change is the Government’s number one environmental priority.  The trouble is several Ministers, from the PM down, have made it clear that the environment is ranked below economic growth for them.  It’s not clear whether Nick Smith will challenge that, or even want to.

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