Welcome political forthrightness

By Bryan Walker 05/12/2011

I felt a twinge of envy watching a recent BBC Hardtalk interview with Chris Huhne, Britain’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. The tone of his statements was much more forthright than anything we’re likely to hear from New Zealand government ministers. It was no more than we have a right to expect from our politicians, but so rarely do we hear leading figures from major parties speaking with directness and conviction that I was grateful for the interview and thought parts of it worth reporting. (It doesn’t seem to be available on line to non-UK viewers, though there’s a snippet here.)

Huhne said he is going to Durban with the continued pursuit of a global legally binding agreement firmly in his sights:

’…because no serious global problem, [whether] of an environmental nature like chlorofluorocarbons or of a defence nature like international disarmament has ever been left to voluntary pledges. It’s simply not realistic. Anything that involves the serious long-haul dealing with major changes in the way in which we power our economies, with all the vested interests that are involved, requires a legally binding global deal so that we’re all assured that we’re travelling at the same pace and each doing our bit — in different ways, because obviously the developing world has to be taken account of with its particular problems. The developed world could do more, but we all have to be sure that we’re moving together.’

He accepts that a deal won’t be struck at Durban itself, but looks for a commitment to get one in place by 2015, for very good reason:

’…so that we actually do what the science tells us is essential, which is to get global carbon emissions down by 2020. If we don’t do that we will not hold global warming to within two degrees of pre-industrial levels and we’ll have some really unpleasant climate change to deal with.’

Later in the interview Huhne underlined what that meant, with unusual frankness from someone in his position. He referred to the effect on ’some of the most vulnerable people in the world’, instancing the small island states and the estuary cultures like Bangladesh. Invited to elaborate further he spoke of a world which becomes enormously more dangerous for a very large number of people, of substantial sea level rise and of the capacity of warmer air to hold more moisture and deliver more precipitation and very big storms.

’All of that of course has substantial economic costs. It can destroy crops, destroy livelihoods, create migration problems we’ve not seen before. And all of these problems would be massively difficult to deal with.’

Huhne spoke of the deadlock between China and the US as a major difficulty in reaching a global deal and made this interesting comment:

’If China moves — and I think there are reasons why China may move — then I think it would be very hard for the Obama administration not at the same time also to make the commitment to that global overarching deal by 2015. And then at least we all know what we are aiming at.’

On the question of the financial crisis diverting attention from the climate crisis he bracketed the two issues:

’I see no conflict between what we need to power out way out of this very deep recession in the developed world and this whole agenda of replacing much of our old infrastructure, replacing much of our old high carbon electricity generation. For example in the UK we will be spending double what we normally spend in a business cycle on replacing electricity generating plant with new low carbon plant. And that is actually helping the recovery, giving more green growth and actually meaning more jobs.’

Huhne firmly batted away the suggestion that the Chancellor, George Osborne, is subverting the government’s green agenda, claiming, for example, that the reduction in solar subsidies was simply a recognition that the cost of solar panels was falling dramatically and that large-scale projects, which initially protested that the reduction would put a halt to their progress, have been ’growing like blazes ever since’.  Whether Osborne is as much in sympathy as Huhne claims is hotly disputed by many UK commentators, but Huhne still maintains that the coalition is on track and that it matters to him:

’I care passionately about making sure that we take this whole climate change agenda really seriously at the global level and domestically. We have to show that we are…going to be the greenest government ever… So [my job is] an enormous privilege and that’s something that doesn’t come round very often.’

What I most appreciated in Huhne’s plain speaking was the absence of prevarication over the basic science. Not that the science necessarily supports the notion that two degrees of warming is low enough to be regarded as safe, but it certainly sees anything higher as opening up very dangerous prospects, something Huhne clearly understands and respects. Populations need to hear that from their politicians regularly. The present government in the UK as a whole may be delivering mixed messages on the issue, but the responsible minister isn’t. That’s what made me feel a little envious. One has to scratch around in the releases and speeches of the New Zealand ministers to find what they may be thinking. It is difficult to imagine Nick Smith or Tim Groser communicating to the public with the kind of urgency Huhne displays.

There are occasionally glimpses of what could be a compelling picture in some of what Groser has to say. He went to Durban declaring that New Zealand will be looking for progress towards a comprehensive global agreement with binding emission-reduction commitments from all developed countries as well as advanced and major-emitting developing countries.  In a speech to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in September he was critical of fossil fuel subsidies and provided a thoughtful narrative of the international climate change negotiations towards a global deal, concluding:

’But we are not blocked. We can still surprise the cynics. There is a basis for a multilateral deal emerging that will establish coherence amongst countries’ efforts on the climate change front.’

It sounds as if the intentions are positive. But we know how muddied they have become on the domestic front. And how when the ministers do talk publicly on climate change they are more likely to talk about the need to protect the economy than to warn us of the perils of not acting to reduce emissions drastically. They simply do not communicate that climate change is a matter of great moment. Huhne does.