The scientific yardstick for political policy

By Bryan Walker 14/11/2011

I was pleased to see the Labour Party’s announcement that it is opposed to the Southland lignite development planned by Solid Energy, and went looking for more detail in the party’s climate change policy.  The opening paragraph of the policy statement struck me as more direct than I expected:

Climate change poses an enormous global threat and severely threatens our way of life. It is occurring more rapidly than previously predicted. Humankind is pouring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on a scale far greater than the ability of the environment to absorb them.

Against this background the decision to oppose the lignite development in spite of its claimed financial benefit makes perfect sense:

New Zealand’s lignite resources are immense but the environmental case against large-scale lignite use is overwhelming.

Labour does not support the mining of lignite, and its conversion to liquid fuels using current technologies, because of the high volume of greenhouse gases produced.

There is more, and the conclusion is clear:

Labour will therefore direct Solid Energy not to proceed with its liquid fuels lignite mining proposal.

I applaud the Labour Party’s stance, as much as I deplore the Government’s support for lignite development, reiterated in the response of the Deputy Prime Minister to Labour’s declaration as ’just another example of Labour standing in the way of jobs and progress in Southland’.

Why would Labour want to stand in the way of ’jobs and progress’? Does Bill English ask himself that question?  Is it possibly because they have declared that ’climate change poses an enormous global threat and severely threatens our way of life’?

I had a look at the National Party policy. It’s on a cheery page headed Environment and Climate Change with the subtitle Building a Brighter Future. Certainly nothing there to suggest an enormous global threat. Indeed, the scaling back of the Emissions Trading Scheme is referred to as ’a more balanced approach to climate change’. There’s some reassuring-sounding reference to more trees, more renewable power stations, more home insulation, emissions targets. But the better balance they refer to is between what they describe as New Zealand’s environmental and economic interests, and it essentially means, so far as I can see, that they do not treat the climate crisis with full seriousness. No one contemplating with equanimity the conversion of Southland lignite to liquid fuel can be treating climate change seriously.

Consider the recent analysis of the International Energy Agency, as reported in the Guardian. If current trends continue, and we go on building high-carbon energy generation, then by 2015 at least 90% of the available “carbon budget” will be taken by our energy and industrial infrastructure. By 2017, the whole of the carbon budget will be taken. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA summed it up:

“The door is closing. I am very worried — if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

That’s the proper context in which to consider ’jobs and progress in Southland’.

To return to the opening paragraph in the Labour party policy statement. Nothing less than such a statement will do to guide political action today. It is desperately necessary that the major parties acknowledge this, as the Greens have long done. There is no political slant to this kind of recognition. It is to do with fundamental science and fundamental conditions for life. The enormity and severe danger of climate change is the yardstick against which our political environmental policies must be measured. And politicians of all persuasions should be finding the courage to say so unequivocally and regularly.