Government confirms NZ ETS to be watered down

By Bryan Walker 03/07/2012

I listened sadly on the news last night to the conviction with which the Climate Change Minister Tim Groser announced “This is not the time to put the foot on the accelerator”. Admittedly he followed immediately with “nor, as the climate change sceptics would have wanted us to do, to back the ETS truck up the drive”, but the unfortunate image remaining is of the ETS truck sitting idling at the foot of the drive waiting, or at best crawling at snail’s pace along the road.

Groser is not a climate change sceptic. He claims to fully accept the science. But he obviously does not accept the science when it says that it is already past time when we should have begun reducing emissions, and the window of opportunity is near closing. In other words this is the time to put the foot on the accelerator if we place any value on the human future, or have any care for those already enduring the adverse effects of warming.

So what induces a climate change minister who does not deny the science to deny the urgency of action? The  Prime Minister, backing him up in yesterday’s statement, put the thinking, if that’s what it is, clearly enough: “We’re not prepared to sacrifice jobs in a weak international environment when other countries are moving very slowly.” Putting a price on carbon is going to simply pile costs on the economy. “If Labour want to put more costs on New Zealand consumers and New Zealand businesses in a very fragile time in the international environment they’re free to campaign on that.” Much of the news item centred on the delay in bringing the agricultural sector into the ETS, and here again it was the feeling that our farmers would be put at a competitive disadvantage which was invoked. Groser: “Not one country in the world has put a carbon price on biological emissions and we are not going to be the first to do this.”

Good grounds exist for considering that the government is wrong in its estimation that a price on carbon is inimical to the economy. There are plenty of reasons, many of them rehearsed in Hot Topic posts and underlined by commenters, to see real and lasting economic benefits in moving to decarbonising energy, transport, building and industry. The Ministers also exaggerate the degree to which New Zealand would be out in front with a fully functioning ETS. However it’s not the purpose of this post to explore these issues, but rather to focus on the urgency of serious action to reduce emissions.

Even if the Ministers were right in seeing carbon pricing as a drag on the economy, would that justify further delay in tackling emissions reduction? Not if the science of climate change is accorded the seriousness it merits. I’ve often quoted James Hansen on this. Let me in this post remind readers of the warnings of another representative climatologist, Lonnie Thompson, a renowned ice caps and glaciers specialist whose restrained words I reported  eighteen months ago:

“There’s a clear pattern in the scientific evidence documenting that the earth is warming, that warming is due largely to human activity, that warming is causing important changes in climate, and that rapid and potentially catastrophic changes in the near future are very possible. This pattern emerges not, as is so often suggested, simply from computer simulations, but from the weight and balance of the empirical evidence as well.”

And since Groser talked about not accelerating our attempts to reduce emissions let me point to Thompson’s concern about a different acceleration – of the rate of global temperature rise:

“This [acceleration] means that our future may not be a steady, gradual change in the world’s climate, but an abrupt and devastating deterioration from which we cannot recover.”

We can’t prevent global warming, which is already upon us. Our remaining options, Thompson says, are mitigate, adapt, suffer. The best option is mitigation, and without it we will be left with only adaptation and suffering.

“Sooner or later, we will all deal with global warming. The only question is how much we will mitigate, adapt, and suffer.”

That’s the verdict of the science and it’s very difficult to see how the Ministers’ professed concerns about today’s economy can be construed as a duty to slow down on mitigation. Their sense of proportion is badly out of kilter. Their conviction is misplaced.

Climate change looms as a disaster which will dwarf what they profess to be worried about in the moves to rein in emissions. That’s the central factor. Groser’s determination should be transferred to that reality. He and the Prime Minister should be rallying the population with that message, not dressing up their timidity as a brave resolve to save the economy.