Asking the hard questions

By Bryan Walker 17/04/2012

I watched TVNZ’s Q+A on Sunday with dismay.  Phil Heatley, the Minister of Energy and Resources, was interviewed about the New Zealand government’s intention to increase oil, gas and coal exploration and mining. The emphasis of the interview was on the environmental issues, yet not a word was said about greenhouse gases or climate change. The environmental questions discussed were not unimportant, but they were easy for the Minister to swat away with talk of how Taranaki’s environment has not been seriously impacted by drilling, of how fracking is confined to suitable deep rock formations, of how careful the Government is to balance the interests of the environment against the economic gains to be had from the exploitation of our mineral resources, and so on.

What would the Minister have said if he was asked how the Government can justify pushing for increased fossil fuel exploitation in the light of the global warming to which the burning of these fuels will contribute?  I have a fair idea what he would have said, but he wasn’t asked. The fact that he wasn’t bothers me as much as his likely answer if he had been. Because it seems to indicate that the overwhelming question is either not perceived or deliberately avoided by journalists running a major current affairs programme.

Not perceived? How can it be missed? At a time when one would expect governments to be putting major effort into the transition to low-carbon economies, hastening the day when we are able to manage without burning fossil fuels, our government is holding out the prospect of an influx of wealth from an enlarged fossil fuel industry.  The contradiction with an avowed concern over climate change ought to be apparent to any reasonably informed journalist. Climate change is the result of our burning fossil fuels. It can be limited by our ceasing to use those fuels as soon as we possibly can. Surely competent journalism would want to ask the Minister not only about the effects of fracking or the dangers of deep sea oil spills but also about why the Government is enthusiastically seeking out more fossil fuels in the first place, knowing the effect they will have in increasing greenhouse gases.

Deliberately avoided then? One can only speculate why that might be. Perhaps it was judged too big a question for viewers to cope with, or perhaps considered not to be sufficiently in the forefront of public attention to warrant the attention of a current affairs programme. Perhaps the journalists themselves lacked the confidence to ask the question because they didn’t know how to press it. Perhaps in comparative ignorance of the science they assume it represents an extreme position which doesn’t warrant a place in regular discussion. Perhaps, aware of how commonly the Government path is mirrored in the actions of many of the world’s nations, they thought it not worth nailing one small country for so widespread a practice.

Whatever the reasons for omitting the question from the programme the result was that Q+A appeared to be in some kind of collusion with the view that it is sensible and right to continue to search out fossil fuel resources and exploit them provided localised environmental effects are sufficiently managed. It is not. It is foolish and wrong. The fact that fossil fuel mining will bring us a good deal of money is immaterial alongside the damage it will cause to upcoming generations. The evidence from science mounts daily.  Climate scientist Ken Caldeira put the matter very clearly in a striking guest blog on Climate Progress on the same day that Q+A managed to avoid the topic altogether:

We are converting the climate of our planet to one that is similar to the hothouse climates that existed on this planet when dinosaurs were the top predators…

Economists estimate that it might cost something like 2% of our GDP to convert our energy system into one that does not use the atmosphere as a waste dump. When we burn fossil fuels and release the CO2 into the atmosphere, we are saying ’I am willing to impose tremendous climate risk on future generations living throughout the world, so that I personally can be 2% richer today.’ I believe this to be fundamentally immoral. We are saying we want to selfishly reap benefits today while imposing costs on strangers tomorrow.

Here is what we should be doing:

All I am asking is that we follow the golden rule: ’Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ This is fundamentally a moral issue, not an economic issue. Given what we know now, it is simply unethical to impose risk of grave damage on future generations just so that we can have a few more consumer products today.

The only ethical path is to stop using the atmosphere as a waste dump for greenhouse gas pollution.

It may be daunting for journalists in the New Zealand context to ask questions of Ministers about policies which are widespread and apparently accepted without demur by many of the world’s governments. But it is a dereliction of journalistic standards to leave the big questions unasked.  New Zealand politicians should not be shielded from facing their share of responsibility, small though it may be in the global setting.