Finding better words

By Bryan Walker 25/10/2009

ClimatechallengeA sidelight to Gareth’s post about the 4ºC map launched in London last week is the strength of the language used at the event by the Miliband brothers — foreign secretary David (left) and climate change secretary Ed. The Times reported that David Miliband accused the public of lacking a sense of urgency in the face of the potentially devastating consequences of climate change. People have grown apathetic, he said, when they needed to be galvanised into action before Copenhagen.

’For a lot of people the penny hasn’t dropped that this climate change challenge is real and is happening now. There isn’t yet that feeling of urgency and drive and animation about the Copenhagen conference.’

His brother Ed chimed in to point out that only 18 percent of people believed that climate change would affect their children, and defended the government’s hard-hitting advertising campaign on the dangers ahead. He also spoke of a positive vision of a low-carbon future.

The Milibands are not alone in offering a robust message to the British public.  Gordon Brown speaks unequivocally of the threat and has undertaken to go to Copenhagen.

There ought to be nothing remarkable about this, other than the fact that it has been so long in coming. It’s straightforward, down to earth political leadership which we have a right to expect in a modern democratic state where scientific literacy is fundamental. But it looks remarkable from a New Zealand perspective because we are hearing next to nothing by way of urgent statement from our own government on the issue. Certainly no clarion calls.

I’ve scrolled through the record of ministerial releases and speeches which bear on the issue, and have nowhere found anything resembling a wake-up call to the New Zealand public. Nick Smith sometimes gives the impression that he is aware of the threat, but most of what he has to say is about the difficulties of facing it. I commented on his May address to a climate change conference here, and it is difficult to see much change since then. The most recent statement I could find was his address to the Bluegreens Forum, entitled Goodbye Nanny State; Hello Green Economy which, after detailing few government initiatives, concluded with the reassuring government mantra of a “balanced approach”.

Not much help from Gerry Brownlee. One of the first things he did was to remove the ban on new thermal baseload electricity generation.

’The Government wants investment in new electricity generation to occur on the basis of sound economics, rather than through ruling out particular options on the basis of ideology.’

Admittedly since he has duly welcomed advances in renewable energy deployment and claimed much credit for the home insulation scheme, but one looks in vain for any indication in his speeches that these are matters of urgency. 

Tim Groser is also a letdown when it comes to stressing urgency.  On his departure for pre-Copenhagen talks in New York last month he had this to say:

“New Zealanders will want to know that the deal is fair and the efforts they are called upon to make will lead to a safer future.’

His ministers give the Prime Minister an easy ride. However on the international stage when addressing the UN in September he sounded briefly exciting:

’Distinguished representatives, the major focus of the General Assembly this year must be the challenge of climate change. 

’Climate change demands innovation and a global response.  The world cannot afford to contemplate failure at Copenhagen.  Political leadership is needed, and it is on display.’

But it was downhill from there, and the balance theme duly emerged:

’All countries must take action that reflects our individual circumstances, responsibilities and capabilities.

“For our part, New Zealand is committed to securing a durable and meaningful agreement on climate change. An agreement that is both environmentally effective and economically efficient.’

I’ve not heard anything from John Key inside the country that comes anywhere near his opening words on the topic at the UN. But there’s been plenty on the need for a balanced approach. With tepid statements from the political leadership the New Zealand public can perhaps be forgiven for thinking there’s not too much at stake.  And it leaves plenty of unoccupied space for the lobbies urgently pursuing shortsighted financial interests.

Another contrast has shown up today. President Obama has just given a major speech on clean energy at the MIT.  No quarter there for those who want to slow things down: 

’There are those who will suggest that moving toward clean energy will destroy our economy — when it’s the system we currently have that endangers our prosperity and prevents us from creating millions of new jobs. There are going to be those who cynically claim — make cynical claims that contradict the overwhelming scientific evidence when it comes to climate change, claims whose only purpose is to defeat or delay the change that we know is necessary.

And no helplessness in the face of how difficult it all is:

’But understand there’s also another myth that we have to dispel, and this one is far more dangerous because we’re all somewhat complicit in it. It’s far more dangerous than any attack made by those who wish to stand in the way of progress — and that’s the idea that there is nothing or little that we can do. It’s pessimism. It’s the pessimistic notion that our politics are too broken and our people too unwilling to make hard choices for us to actually deal with this energy issue that we’re facing…

 ’I reject that argument. I reject it because of what I’ve seen here at MIT. Because of what I have seen across America. Because of what we know we are capable of achieving when called upon to achieve it.’

It looks as if New Zealanders won’t know what they are capable of achieving because they won’t be called upon to achieve it by those best placed to issue the call. I realise this post is about words rather than deeds, and that rhetoric alone won’t save us. But without some political rhetoric I see little chance of effective actions.