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Posts Tagged John Key

TDB today: letting the Pacific drown Gareth Renowden Sep 04

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This year’s Pacific Islands Forum is under way in the Marshall Islands, and the hosts have made climate change the urgent focus of discussions. In my column at The Daily Blog this week — Letting the Pacific drown — I take a look at New Zealand PM John Key’s depressing, but entirely predictable, response to pleas for leadership from the island nations that through inaction face inundation. Discussion over there, please.

TDB Today: Missing the point by miles Gareth Renowden Aug 07

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Following the release of a new report on climate change impacts in and around New Zealand by the prime minister’s chief science advisor last week, in my Daily Blog post today I take a look at the government’s reaction. Is it really true that Tim Groser didn’t bother reading the report before spinning out a vapid response? The evidence suggests he certainly didn’t understand what the report was saying, even if he did glance at its content… Comments over there please.

NZ PM BP: John Key and the Fellowship of the Drill – beyond parody Gareth Renowden Jul 30

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The growing disconnect between the NZ government’s promotion of New Zealand as a 100% Pure tourist destination, and its desire to see more offshore oil and gas exploration and increased mining for coal and minerals is certainly attracting attention around the world. Graham Readfearn’s article New Zealand pushing plans to drill Middle-earth as Hobbit filming ends is top environment story on the Guardian web site today. Readfearn riffs on the completion of filming for the last part of the Hobbit trilogy, set against a frankly astonishing promotional video by PM John Key, in which he waxes lyrical about our beautiful country, and then describes how he’s committed to ruining it. Have a look: it is — as Greenpeace NZ noted — beyond parody.

Readfearn’s not the only one to notice: climate campaigner Bill McKibben tweeted “NZ doing its best to become a junior league petrostate, talk about bad timing” to draw attention to a 350.org blog post about Key’s tasteless little video.

The foolishness of trying to build an extraction economy around fossil fuels at a time when the carbon bubble — the over-valuation of carbon reserves by oils and coal companies — is beginning to gain traction in financial markets is all too obvious. Investing in assets that will be stranded by the inevitability of action on climate change is a strategic nonsense.

Unfortunately that’s part for the course for a government locked into an outdated set of political ideas, wedded to a world-view that considers action on emissions optional. Unless they wake up and see the world changing around them, they will find themselves as stranded as the tax payer funds they plan waste by subsidising fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

Morality, government and fossil fools (Bryan’s back!) Bryan Walker May 24

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I signed off regular writing for Hot Topic some months ago. But failing eyesight doesn’t mean failing concern, and my anger at the way our government heedlessly pursues the expansion of fossil fuel exploration led me recently to reflect I could still see sufficiently to write letters to editors. Publication of a letter by the NZ Herald emboldened me to try something for the dialogue page. It wasn’t accepted, on the reasonable  ground that they were about to publish an article by Jim Salinger which they described as along the same lines.

However I thought Hot Topic readers might be interested in my attempt to attack the government on moral grounds. I acknowledge that politics and morality make uneasy bedfellows, and that moral absolutism is hardly a suitable tool for political effectiveness. Nevertheless sometimes issues arise where shades of grey can legitimately be challenged by something closer to black and white, and that transition is certainly much earlier along the path of fossil fuel exploitation than our government (and many other governments) is currently inclined to allow.

The moral appeal is strongly made by many who write and speak on the climate issue. Al Gore sounds it regularly. Among the many books I have reviewed on Hot Topic I recall being struck by what William Calvin’s book Treating a Fever had to say on the question, as I summarised in the review:

“He also pins hope on religious leaders coming to see that climate change is a serious failure of stewardship and our present use of fossil fuel is a deeply immoral imposition on other people and unborn generations. Their arguments will trump the objections of the vested interests, just as they did when slavery was ended in the 19th century.”

Whether there’s any hope of an onslaught by religious leaders in church-going US, or for that matter in less religion-oriented NZ, is hardly yet clear, but the appeal to morality can be sounded just as well by those of no religion, and is worth making if we set any value on the finer human traits.

Here’s the piece I submitted to the Herald. Hot Topic readers will understand that it was written for a general public audience.

The relationship between morality and government is rarely easy to affirm, but if ever there was a clear moral imperative for government it is to mitigate climate change. Human suffering on giant scales is threatened as the predictions of climate science begin to prove correct in reality. Economist Lord Nicholas Stern, head of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change, warned recently of the massive movements of people likely to be triggered by the temperature rises our current greenhouse gas emissions trajectory will cause. He foresees hundreds of millions of people forced to leave their homelands because of disrupted weather patterns and spreading deserts, resulting in serious and prolonged armed conflict.

Emissions continue to rise. This month the global concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached 400 parts per million, another milestone on the path to catastrophic consequences for humanity. According to paleoclimate research the last time this level of carbon dioxide was reached was some four million years ago, in the Pliocene epoch. Global temperatures rose perhaps four degrees higher than today, as much as 10 degrees higher at the poles. Sea level may have been 20 or more metres higher than today.  It’s a frightening legacy we are preparing for coming generations. For that matter there is plenty to be alarmed at already, in the intensification of severe weather events, the increasing acidification of the ocean, the diminishing volume of global ice, the rising sea level and many other manifestations of warming.

In the light of what we now understand of the consequences of climate change it is the clear duty of governments to lend their weight to a rapid transition from fossil fuel reliance to energy sources which do not emit greenhouse gases. That is why the present government’s intent to gain wealth for New Zealand by expanding the search for fossil fuels is ethically indefensible. According to Climate Change Minister Tim Groser the government has no dispute with the science. The Prime Minister acknowledges that changes are already occurring, sooner than might have been hoped. Yet somehow that does not mean the government is prepared to forgo what it sees as the possibility of considerable wealth from expanded fossil fuel exploration and exploitation.

Indeed it embraces the possibility with enthusiasm. The Prime Minister unashamedly appeals to consumer desire. He speaks of a possible $13 billion annually from royalties, assisting our “desire to spend like other first world countries”. When challenged, government refers to the way other nations are acting and proudly affirms that it will not allow the New Zealand economy to suffer by comparison. In an interview early in his premiership Key acknowledged that it would be irresponsible of us not to play our part when it comes to climate change but in the same breath asserted we should also not be prepared to “completely sacrifice our economy” in the name of climate change when other countries are just not prepared to do that.

It’s a convenient cop-out. It begs the question of whether there are other ways of running a successful economy than by exploiting fossil fuels. And once that question is by-passed it’s easy to accuse others of naiveté and of promoting economic ruin. Justifying immoral practice in the name of the economy has a long history. Slavery abolitionists in Britain and the US had to struggle for many decades against the accusation that what they were advocating would be disastrous for commerce and national wealth. It wasn’t, of course. Neither will turning our backs on further expansion of our oil, gas and coal resources spell disaster for the New Zealand economy.

The government needs to see its commitment to expanding fossil fuel exploration against the perspective of what a rapidly warming world is threatening for some current populations and all future populations. There are some ways of making money which offend human morality so deeply that decent societies cannot allow them.

Symptoms too serious to ignore: a call to face up to NZ’s critical risks Gareth Renowden Feb 25

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A loose affiliation of New Zealand’s great and good will launch an appeal to parliament next week, asking for a dispassionate and non-partisan risk assessment of the “unprecedented threats to our collective security” facing the country as a result of climate change, fossil fuel extraction and economic uncertainty. The Wise Response group features poets, writers, All Blacks, academics, surgeons and scientists amongst its first 100 supporters1, and will launch its appeal at a public meeting in Dunedin on March 8th.

In its appeal the group identifies critical risks in five areas:

1. Economic security: the risk of a sudden, deepening, or prolonged financial crisis. Such a crisis could adversely impact upon our society’s ability to provide for the essentials, including local access to resources, reliable supply chains, and a resilient infrastructure.

2. Energy and climate security: the risk of continuing our heavy dependence on fossil fuels. Progressively restricting their extraction, importation and use could promote a switch to genuine renewables and encourage smarter use of existing energy and energy systems while creating better public transportation. Such responses would simultaneously lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

3. Business continuity: the risk exposure of all New Zealand business, including farming, to a lower carbon economy. To mitigate this risk, all businesses could explore both market and job opportunities in reducing the human ecological footprint, finding substitutes for petroleum-based goods and services, increasing efficiencies and reducing waste in food and resources. This would position New Zealand as a market leader in low-carbon technologies and living arrangements.

4. Ecological security: the risks associated with failing to genuinely protect both land-based and marine ecosystems and their natural processes. We believe that such protection is essential for both the maintenance of indigenous biodiversity and ultimately, all human welfare.

5. Genuine well-being: the risk of persisting with a subsidised, debt-based economy, preoccupied with maximising consumption and GDP. An alternative is to measure progress by means of indicators of community sustainability, human well-being, more equitable wealth-sharing and environmental resilience, and to incorporate full-cost pricing of harmful environmental impacts.

The group is looking to build support both inside and outside parliament for a detailed risk assessment of how these issues might impact New Zealand, and is hoping this will lead to:

…robust cross-party strategies and policies to avert these risks and give future generations the very best chance of security, peace, social justice and opportunity for all.

There’s much to like in the group’s appeal statement, but what I find most encouraging is that a diverse group of prominent New Zealanders is looking to make our politicians face up to the harsh realities of the modern world. I don’t imagine that John Key and his government will pay much attention — they’re too wedded to the all growth, all the time dogma for that — but with luck and persistence, the group may be able to start building a consensus around the things that we really need to do as a nation. That’s something I’m only too happy to support.

  1. The Otago Daily Times lists Brian Turner, Wayne Smith, Fiona Kidman, Glenn Turner, David Thom, Philip Temple, Anne Salmond, Julian Dean, Owen Marshall, Morgan Williams, Chris Trotter, Bruce Burns, Richard Langston and Anton Oliver amongst others.

Symptoms too serious to ignore: a call to face up to NZ’s critical risks Gareth Renowden Feb 25

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A loose affiliation of New Zealand’s great and good will launch an appeal to parliament next week, asking for a dispassionate and non-partisan risk assessment of the “unprecedented threats to our collective security” facing the country as a result of climate change, fossil fuel extraction and economic uncertainty. The Wise Response group features poets, writers, All Blacks, academics, surgeons and scientists amongst its first 100 supporters1, and will launch its appeal at a public meeting in Dunedin on March 8th.

In its appeal the group identifies critical risks in five areas:

1. Economic security: the risk of a sudden, deepening, or prolonged financial crisis. Such a crisis could adversely impact upon our society’s ability to provide for the essentials, including local access to resources, reliable supply chains, and a resilient infrastructure.

2. Energy and climate security: the risk of continuing our heavy dependence on fossil fuels. Progressively restricting their extraction, importation and use could promote a switch to genuine renewables and encourage smarter use of existing energy and energy systems while creating better public transportation. Such responses would simultaneously lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

3. Business continuity: the risk exposure of all New Zealand business, including farming, to a lower carbon economy. To mitigate this risk, all businesses could explore both market and job opportunities in reducing the human ecological footprint, finding substitutes for petroleum-based goods and services, increasing efficiencies and reducing waste in food and resources. This would position New Zealand as a market leader in low-carbon technologies and living arrangements.

4. Ecological security: the risks associated with failing to genuinely protect both land-based and marine ecosystems and their natural processes. We believe that such protection is essential for both the maintenance of indigenous biodiversity and ultimately, all human welfare.

5. Genuine well-being: the risk of persisting with a subsidised, debt-based economy, preoccupied with maximising consumption and GDP. An alternative is to measure progress by means of indicators of community sustainability, human well-being, more equitable wealth-sharing and environmental resilience, and to incorporate full-cost pricing of harmful environmental impacts.

The group is looking to build support both inside and outside parliament for a detailed risk assessment of how these issues might impact New Zealand, and is hoping this will lead to:

…robust cross-party strategies and policies to avert these risks and give future generations the very best chance of security, peace, social justice and opportunity for all.

There’s much to like in the group’s appeal statement, but what I find most encouraging is that a diverse group of prominent New Zealanders is looking to make our politicians face up to the harsh realities of the modern world. I don’t imagine that John Key and his government will pay much attention — they’re too wedded to the all growth, all the time dogma for that — but with luck and persistence, the group may be able to start building a consensus around the things that we really need to do as a nation. That’s something I’m only too happy to support.

  1. The Otago Daily Times lists Brian Turner, Wayne Smith, Fiona Kidman, Glenn Turner, David Thom, Philip Temple, Anne Salmond, Julian Dean, Owen Marshall, Morgan Williams, Chris Trotter, Bruce Burns, Richard Langston and Anton Oliver amongst others.

Don’t worry Kyoto (National’s Only Looking Out For Its Friends) Gareth Renowden Nov 12

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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.

John Key’s fossilised vision for NZ Bryan Walker Jul 07

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One wearies of lamenting the government’s inability to view proposed paths of economic development from the perspective of climate change. But as they continue to trumpet economic solutions which are inimical to facing the challenge of global warming there is little option but to keep reiterating that they need to take a longer term view.

What has provoked this post was the news in the NZ Herald on Thursday of the pleasure the Prime Minister has expressed in the results of a Herald-Digipoll survey suggesting that most New Zealanders back the Government’s plan to increase exploration for oil, gas and minerals. In welcoming the poll result John Key commented:

“New Zealanders, mostly, understand that while we owe it to future generations to do everything we can to protect our environment, we must also do all we can to leave them with a robust and sustainable economy where they can expect a good job and a good standard of living.

“We have always believed that New Zealand’s mineral wealth can play a large part in the economy, and we have also always believed this can be done with a minimal impact on our environment.”

When Key talks about protecting our environment he is obviously not considering the global environment on which human life depends. He’s talking about the local environment. But my concern in this post is not local environmental threats, serious though they often are, but the global threats which are consequent to the mining of fossil fuels.

These threats are never even mentioned in the current government campaign to attract mining exploration in New Zealand and its large area of surrounding seas. The more the threats of climate change multiply and the more evident their first signs become, the more they are ignored in the name of economic progress. Would the New Zealand public really support wider exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels if they knew that the burning of those fuels, no matter by whom, increases the likelihood of catastrophic sea level rise, of dangerous levels of ocean acidification, of much more frequent extreme weather events, of prolonged drought in major food-growing regions, and a host of other impacts highly detrimental to human society?

Key talks of our owing future generations “a robust and sustainable economy where they can expect a good job and a good standard of living”. Does he think that can be delivered along with a world in which societies will be struggling with the massive impacts of unrestrained climate change? I presume his way out of that dilemma is to simply tell himself that the predicted impacts are greatly exaggerated, if he actually thinks about them at all.

The Prime Minister is not a lone figure of course. He is surrounded by people who take the same position, as, according to the polls, do a majority of the population. Labour Party MP Shane Jones, until recently the party associate spokesperson on economic development, is in on the act as well. First a cheap shot against the Greens, again restricted to local environmental considerations:

“We in Maoridom must not buy uncritically into the hostile rhetoric from the Greenies.

“It’s about time they showed as much concern for the brown kiwis disappearing to Aussie as for the habitat of the brown spotted kiwi.”

He sees the extractive industries offering the best prospects for jobs and economic advancement for Northland Maori.

“There is an ethic of guardianship in our national culture and no one should deny that but there’s also an awareness that each generation has got to create jobs and got to search for ways to create wealth.

“We can only create greater wealth by boosting our export earnings. Those things are capable of coming to pass with a sensible environmental framework.”

It is admittedly going to require extensive change for our society to function with greatly reduced reliance on fossil fuels, and the transition can’t happen overnight. But it’s the transition which should be the focus of government attention and support, not the extension of the existing order. It is irresponsible in the extreme to pin New Zealand’s hopes of economic wealth to an increase in fossil fuel exploration and exploitation. It’s a question of direction, and the direction government is currently supporting is wrong and outmoded.

So widespread and so apparently nonchalant is the conviction that we might grow rich through oil and gas and coal that one can feel almost stupid for even suggesting that it is a course which should be eschewed in the interests of humanity. But when one looks seriously at what the science cannot avoid predicting it is not stupid to more than suggest, to insist rather, that we must begin to set a limit to fossil fuel exploitation. Most of what remains must be left where it is. That’s the big picture which the government is studiously avoiding and of which it must continue to be reminded for as long and as often as proves necessary.

Human stupidity and the NZ election (Heigh ho! Heigh ho!) Gareth Renowden Nov 23

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I’ve been writing about climate science and policy for the last five years, and taking an interest in the subject for far longer, but I’ve seldom read more depressing news than Fiona Harvey’s Guardian article last week – Rich nations ‘give up’ on new climate treaty until 2020. According to Harvey, expectations for the UN conference in Durban are low:

…most of the world’s leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020.

Unfortunately for all the inhabitants of this planet, the atmospheric carbon load is increasing fast and unless emissions peak soon – no later than 2020 – we will be committed to dangerous, and quite possibly uncontrollable future warming. How in the name of your favoured deity did we allow that to happen? Here’s a clue: a few sentences taken from the environment policy statement of New Zealand’s National Party, who led the outgoing government, and who on current polling will lead the next after Saturday’s election:

We’ve introduced a more balanced approach to climate change … Ensured New Zealand is doing its fair share on climate change … Amended Labour’s ETS to strike a better balance between New Zealand’s environmental and economic interests.

The National Party document also claims the last (Labour-led) government ’set an impractical goal of carbon neutrality’. Well, have I got news for you, John Key and Nick Smith. Carbon neutrality is not an impractical goal – it’s what the evidence tells us we need to achieve, not just in New Zealand but around the whole world.

Here’s the first bit of evidence, taken from the NZ Climate Change Centre’s first Climate Brief, on The Challenge of Limiting Warming to Two Degrees1:

NZCCCEmissionsf3

This graph illustrates the practicalities of global emissions pathways, based on a simple idea — in order to give ourselves a 50/50 chance of staying under a 2ºC increase in the global average temperature, we can only emit 1,445 gigatonnes of CO2 from 2000 to 2050. If emissions had peaked last year, an annual decline of 1.3% would be all2 that’s required, but if we leave it until 2020, then annual cuts of 5% will be required, and global carbon neutrality will be necessary by 2050. Leave the emissions peak until later, and you rapidly run into impossible to meet rates of emissions reductions, and face having to suck prodigious amounts of carbon out of the air to meet the goal.

Carbon neutrality is therefore not an impossible luxury, but likely to be a necessity for the planet and New Zealand. A “50 by 50″ target just doesn’t cut it.

The National document also makes much of the idea of “balance”. They’re taking a “more balanced” approach to climate change, “striking a better balance between NZ’s environmental and economic interests”. There are actually two kinds of “balance” here, and they’re both radically mistaken. With respect to climate policy, and in particular emissions reductions, the government has chosen to ignore the best current evidence and pursue a watered-down set of objectives. This is portrayed as not so “extreme”, as if there were a middle course3 to be steered between doing what is necessary and doing nothing.

Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment.

Then there is the idea that you can strike a balance between environmental and economic interests. This assumes that the two things are separate and separable, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can only have an economy because the planet provides us with resources of all kinds — and not all of them are renewable on an annual basis4. Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment. The environment therefore imposes limits on what we can do, and we ignore those limits at our peril.

…these are the last years of the great human bubble

Accepting this fact is hard for most politicians, wedded as they are to the idea that economic growth as we currently understand it can somehow continue ad infinitum. Some pay lip service to the idea of sustainability, without understanding what it really means — living within our environmental means. There’s a real challenge here: how to design steady-state, truly sustainable economies that can give people fulfilling lives, and I can’t really blame our current crop of politicians for failing to realise that’s what they’re going to have to do sooner or later. They are a product of their times — as are we all — and these are the last years of the great human bubble.

Most politicians aren’t stupid, but they are very skilled at avoiding or ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their ideology or which they suspect might be unpopular with their supporters and financial backers. Apart from selecting a new government this Saturday, NZ’s voters are also being asked to vote in a referendum on our proportional voting system, MMP. I would much rather be voting in a referendum designed to require politicians to produce evidence-based policies — that is, policies that are informed by the facts and the evidence, as the PM’s science adviser discussed earlier this year. Evidence-based climate policy would be a long way removed from what we see both in New Zealand and in the machinations around the post-Kyoto deal-making.

A final thought: humans can be individually brilliant but collectively stupid. What we are seeing in the politics of climate policy, nationally and internationally, is the latter, writ large. This weekend, New Zealand will vote for the politicians it wants to govern the country for the next three years. Climate policy — beyond some facile jockeying for position on the details of a watered down emissions trading scheme — has hardly figured in the campaign of either of the major parties. It has certainly not been fought over, or accorded the prominence you might expect of an issue that is going to shape human destiny over the next century.

At times like this, you can either laugh or cry. I choose laughter.

For a comparison of party and candidate policies on climate issues in the NZ election, I heartily recommend the efforts of Generation Zero here.

  1. The whole thing is well worth a read. Would that some of our politicians did so.
  2. All! References to relevant literature in the Climate Brief.
  3. A third way, even!
  4. Earth Overshoot Day 2011 — the day when the world starts dipping into natural capital instead of consuming renewable resources — was September 27th

Agriculture: National’s double whammy on the environment cindy Nov 15

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Here’s the first in a series of NZ election special articles from Hot Topic’s contributors. More pithy comment to follow… Last week I was open-mouthed when I heard the National Party release its environment and climate policy pretty much in the same breath as  releasing the agriculture policy (same province, same day). I can’t figure out how they thought these two things went together — well, in a good way anyway.

Climate change: no mention of the importance of the issue, the alarming reports coming from the scientists.  A lot of blather about keeping up (or perhaps “down” would be a more appropriate term) with other countries. Slowing down the ETS. Never mind that our actions are among the smallest in the industrialised world (see the Climate Action Tracker’s assessment here — rated “inadequate”).

Agriculture:  the sector most likely to undermine New Zealand’s climate policy. Our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Essentially, Key confirmed that agriculture will continue in its role as climate killer by announcing that the sector will not be part of the ETS until – erm – when? Indefinitely, apparently. As John Pagani noted  in a post last week:

“When farmers say they don’t want to be “brought into the ETS”, that doesn’t mean that their emissions will not be paid for — it just means they won’t pay for them. You will. You subsidise them. Under the delays National announced yesterday, it is as if you sat down at the kitchen table and wrote out a cheque and handed it to a farmer.”

But if that wasn’t enough,  Key went on to give another massive subsidy to dairy farmers  –  a $400 million fund for irrigation. At this point I was beginning to think this was some kind of sick joke.

Clean water, said Key, is a major priority,  yet  National’s Policy on Freshwater management removes the need for a resource consent for land use intensification. And the main reason for our increased need for water around the country is industrial dairy. A 2010  article from NIWA says:

“We’re fast approaching water resource limits in some parts of the country, and pollution issues are threatening our clean, green brand.”

The quality of our lakes and rivers, NIWA tells us, is still in decline:

“There is no doubt that our declining river water quality over the last 20 years is associated with intensification of pastoral farming and the conversion of drystock farmland to dairy farming, particularly in Waikato, Southland, and Canterbury”

I grew up on a farm in Canterbury.  We had some irrigation for the traditional Canterbury farming practice:  mixed cropping. Dairy was a little-known activity for the Canterbury plains in those days – the “Dairy region” in New Zealand was the Waikato. Canterbury was too dry and we didn’t have enough water.

I moved away from the area in the mid-80′s and,  by the time I returned in 2004, I found the whole landscape of the plains had changed. Dairy rules now. Shelter belts have been cut down and replaced by massive irrigation schemes across the region.

In the early 1980′s, as environment reporter at The Press, I sat through weeks of hearings over the Water Conservation Order (WCO) on the Rakaia River: it was enacted in 1988.  Trustpower now wants to break that WCO apart to increase hydro power in Lake Coleridge and irrigate another 40,000 ha of land across the Canterbury Plains.

Nick Smith has  fast tracked  this application to his appointed Commissioners. From his statement:

“The application order  “does not vary the outstanding features of the Rakaia River recognised in the water conservation order, the minimum flow levels specified for each month, or the operating limits of Lake Coleridge in existing resource consents.”

However, according to  Fish and Game,  because the irrigation is outside the scope of the WCO, Trustpower has not proposed any mitigation options for the irrigation.  Nor has Trustpower done its homework on river flows to protect the salmon fishery.

I don’t know whether anyone else noticed this double-whammy for the environment: the continued assault on the climate and our waterways by agriculture, but it certainly wasn’t picked up by the mainstream media.

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