Morality, government and fossil fools (Bryan’s back!)

By Bryan Walker 24/05/2013


I signed off regular writing for Hot Topic some months ago. But failing eyesight doesn’t mean failing concern, and my anger at the way our government heedlessly pursues the expansion of fossil fuel exploration led me recently to reflect I could still see sufficiently to write letters to editors. Publication of a letter by the NZ Herald emboldened me to try something for the dialogue page. It wasn’t accepted, on the reasonable  ground that they were about to publish an article by Jim Salinger which they described as along the same lines.

However I thought Hot Topic readers might be interested in my attempt to attack the government on moral grounds. I acknowledge that politics and morality make uneasy bedfellows, and that moral absolutism is hardly a suitable tool for political effectiveness. Nevertheless sometimes issues arise where shades of grey can legitimately be challenged by something closer to black and white, and that transition is certainly much earlier along the path of fossil fuel exploitation than our government (and many other governments) is currently inclined to allow.

The moral appeal is strongly made by many who write and speak on the climate issue. Al Gore sounds it regularly. Among the many books I have reviewed on Hot Topic I recall being struck by what William Calvin’s book Treating a Fever had to say on the question, as I summarised in the review:

“He also pins hope on religious leaders coming to see that climate change is a serious failure of stewardship and our present use of fossil fuel is a deeply immoral imposition on other people and unborn generations. Their arguments will trump the objections of the vested interests, just as they did when slavery was ended in the 19th century.”

Whether there’s any hope of an onslaught by religious leaders in church-going US, or for that matter in less religion-oriented NZ, is hardly yet clear, but the appeal to morality can be sounded just as well by those of no religion, and is worth making if we set any value on the finer human traits.

Here’s the piece I submitted to the Herald. Hot Topic readers will understand that it was written for a general public audience.

The relationship between morality and government is rarely easy to affirm, but if ever there was a clear moral imperative for government it is to mitigate climate change. Human suffering on giant scales is threatened as the predictions of climate science begin to prove correct in reality. Economist Lord Nicholas Stern, head of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change, warned recently of the massive movements of people likely to be triggered by the temperature rises our current greenhouse gas emissions trajectory will cause. He foresees hundreds of millions of people forced to leave their homelands because of disrupted weather patterns and spreading deserts, resulting in serious and prolonged armed conflict.

Emissions continue to rise. This month the global concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached 400 parts per million, another milestone on the path to catastrophic consequences for humanity. According to paleoclimate research the last time this level of carbon dioxide was reached was some four million years ago, in the Pliocene epoch. Global temperatures rose perhaps four degrees higher than today, as much as 10 degrees higher at the poles. Sea level may have been 20 or more metres higher than today.  It’s a frightening legacy we are preparing for coming generations. For that matter there is plenty to be alarmed at already, in the intensification of severe weather events, the increasing acidification of the ocean, the diminishing volume of global ice, the rising sea level and many other manifestations of warming.

In the light of what we now understand of the consequences of climate change it is the clear duty of governments to lend their weight to a rapid transition from fossil fuel reliance to energy sources which do not emit greenhouse gases. That is why the present government’s intent to gain wealth for New Zealand by expanding the search for fossil fuels is ethically indefensible. According to Climate Change Minister Tim Groser the government has no dispute with the science. The Prime Minister acknowledges that changes are already occurring, sooner than might have been hoped. Yet somehow that does not mean the government is prepared to forgo what it sees as the possibility of considerable wealth from expanded fossil fuel exploration and exploitation.

Indeed it embraces the possibility with enthusiasm. The Prime Minister unashamedly appeals to consumer desire. He speaks of a possible $13 billion annually from royalties, assisting our “desire to spend like other first world countries”. When challenged, government refers to the way other nations are acting and proudly affirms that it will not allow the New Zealand economy to suffer by comparison. In an interview early in his premiership Key acknowledged that it would be irresponsible of us not to play our part when it comes to climate change but in the same breath asserted we should also not be prepared to “completely sacrifice our economy” in the name of climate change when other countries are just not prepared to do that.

It’s a convenient cop-out. It begs the question of whether there are other ways of running a successful economy than by exploiting fossil fuels. And once that question is by-passed it’s easy to accuse others of naiveté and of promoting economic ruin. Justifying immoral practice in the name of the economy has a long history. Slavery abolitionists in Britain and the US had to struggle for many decades against the accusation that what they were advocating would be disastrous for commerce and national wealth. It wasn’t, of course. Neither will turning our backs on further expansion of our oil, gas and coal resources spell disaster for the New Zealand economy.

The government needs to see its commitment to expanding fossil fuel exploration against the perspective of what a rapidly warming world is threatening for some current populations and all future populations. There are some ways of making money which offend human morality so deeply that decent societies cannot allow them.