Join the conversation at Hot Topic

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.