On the eve of destruction

By Bryan Walker 03/09/2009

This column was published in the Waikato Times on 1 September

Chamerlain In September 1938 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from a conference at which Britain and France had agreed to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. He spoke to a crowd outside Downing Street: ’I believe it is peace for our time…And now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds.’

Appeasement was an early attempt to cope with the threat of Nazi Germany.  It’s not my purpose here to make any judgment on its wisdom. The point is that it didn’t remove the threat. Within one year of Chamberlain’s reassurance war had been declared. Within two years the Londoners recommended to sleep quietly in their beds were being blitzed by German bombers and sleeping in air raid shelters.

Why raise this in a column on the Eco-issues page?  Because, prompted by observations in British MP Colin Challen’s recent book Too Little, Too Late, I see the appeasement stage of dealing with Nazism as analagous to what our government is currently offering in the face of climate change. Yes, there is a belated recognition that global warming poses a threat to the future.  But there is also a vain hope that  something less than full engagement with that threat will make it go away.  10 to 20% emissions reduction by 2020, 50% by 2050.  We can all sleep quietly in our beds.

Unfortunately we can’t. There is no safety in emissions reduction at a lower level than the science says is necessary.  At least 40% by 2020 and 90% by 2050 is more like the figure required. The target figures currently being offered by the government simply won’t work. They don’t address the threat seriously enough.

I realise that what New Zealand comes up with on its own won’t make significant difference to the global picture; however seeking to opt out for that reason is not only ethically shameful but also an exemption that we won’t be granted.  Even as a small player our response needs to be in line with what is required of the world at large.

So far it’s not. The reason? The Prime Minister claims the reduction targets the government proposes are as much as we can offer without seriously compromising our economic growth.  I think the economics on which he bases this claim are badly flawed and that he underestimates the resilience and adaptability of the economy.  But even if he were right his claim would be irrelevant.  The threat is the all-important factor and it must be averted even if it did affect our economic growth rate as much as he insists.

What on earth would be the point of delivering our grandchildren in 2050 an economy which had doubled or trebled in value, if with it we delivered them a world set on the path of runaway climate change? A world beset by drought, famine, flood, sea level rise, armed conflict and more.

I have not heard the Prime Minister or the Climate Change Minister Nick Smith say that the targets they propose are adequate to counter the threat.  All I hear is that the targets are as much as we can afford to offer. They talk of balancing competing needs. That’s the wrong way in which to approach the issue.  The threat is immense. The economy must be re-ordered to meet it. And to be effective the first stages have to be under way very soon.  That’s what we should be hearing from the government.  Appeasement won’t work against the reality of climate change.  Don’t tell us to sleep soundly. Mobilise us to the necessary level of change.