Groser underplays the real risks

By Bryan Walker 12/07/2012

I listened to Climate Change Minister Tim Groser being questioned about the ETS on The Nation last weekend and explaining that the government’s position on climate change action is that we will play our part in the global effort, doing our fair share but not more. It confirmed my impression that Groser’s focus is on our negotiating position, not on the reality of the threat of climate change. He is intelligent and articulate in his exposition and it all sounds reasonable as far as it goes. The fact that in terms of realistically tackling climate change the global effort doesn’t go nearly far enough was not mentioned during the interview either by the questioners or the Minister.

The government doesn’t deny the science. It doesn’t refuse to participate in global action. What more is it reasonable to ask? A good deal more, as I see it. The complacency which attends Groser’s defence of the government’s position is not justified when one considers the reality of climate change which is already unfolding around the globe and is only going to intensify.

It is not enough to not deny the science. It’s not even enough to say it is accepted. It is necessary to affirm it and to express alarm at what it forebodes. Heaven knows there’s ample reason for high alarm. Government ministers have ready access to the best scientific advice. Groser in the course of The Nation interview was very ready, when defending the government stance on agriculture and the ETS, to refer to the advice he had from the chief scientist heading the research into animal methane emissions. As climate change minister one assumes he also seeks advice on climate science, and there is little doubt that New Zealand scientists will be relaying the common recognition amongst scientists that the effects of continuing high levels of  greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be disastrous, even catastrophic.  I have yet to hear that message clearly delivered by the minister with chief responsibility for climate change issues, or by any government minister for that matter. Admittedly The Nation panel didn’t ask any question that would have invited Groser to communicate the seriousness of the scientific message, but neither did he seek to put his discussion of New Zealand’s role in addressing climate change into such a context.

One can only speculate why the government excuses itself from openly and publicly expressing understanding of climate science and full appreciation of the likely impacts of climate change.  Maybe it’s ignorance, though that would be inexcusable in a democratic society with an educated political community. Maybe it’s inattention, also inexcusable given the magnitude of the issue. Maybe it just all seems too much to get a handle on when there’s so much to be busy about in the day-to-day running of the country.  Whatever the reasons it’s a dereliction of political responsibility.

But even if the Minister made strong and unequivocal statements about the threats to human society from elevated levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, would it make any difference to what we, a small country, did?  Surely it would see us ready to push the boundaries of possible action rather than be satisfied to do our bit in a manifestly inadequate global response to the challenge. Instead of a panel on The Nation asking the kind of comfortable questions which enable a minister to keep on saying we’re doing our fair share they might well ask why in view of the seriousness of the risk we’re not aiming to do more than that, why we’re not giving a stronger message to business that our energy use must change, why we’re not putting more money into agricultural research and into renewable energy support, why we’re still talking about creating wealth from fossil fuel exploitation.

International negotiations on climate change grind on, and by many accounts Tim Groser plays a significant and constructive part in them. But it is very apparent that they are bedevilled by the concerns of the negotiators to ensure that their perceived national interests are not compromised. The world desperately needs countries to become less obsessed with preserving what they see as their own economic advantage and more ready to a take a lead in tackling emission reductions with urgency and with optimism that there are viable alternatives to fossil fuel based economies.

New Zealand may be very small. That’s no reason why it shouldn’t be pulling ahead of the pack rather than cautiously fitting into an inadequate process.