Our “fair share” of future disaster

By Bryan Walker 07/09/2013

The New Zealand Government has taken refuge from the challenge of climate change by recasting it as a matter of political positioning. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the frequently reiterated claim that we are doing our “fair share” in the international effort to reduce emissions. It’s a brash claim in any case, when our unconditional 5 percent reduction target on 1990 levels by 2020 is compared with the 30 percent unconditional target of Norway and Switzerland or the 20 percent target of the EU as a whole. But the Government prefers comparison with our “trading partners” Australia, America and Canada, and also largely excludes the emissions associated with farming on the grounds that the world needs the food we produce.

But brash or not what is convenient about the “fair share” argument is that it transfers attention from the alarming reality of climate change to the much more familiar and comfortable world of political negotiation. It enables Ministers to busy themselves with trying to get the best deal they can for the country vis-à-vis other countries, to protect the national interest, to preserve competitive advantage. Buried in such useful activity they can pretty well forget the massive and threatening question mark that climate change puts over the continued use of fossil fuels.

On the domestic front it fits well with adversarial politics, as was all too apparent in question time in the House a couple of weeks ago when Green MP Kennedy Graham questioned the Climate Change Minister about the 5 percent reduction target.

Associate Minister Simon Bridges made no attempt to defend the target in terms of its appropriateness to the task of tackling climate change but asserted confidently (twice) that it showed we are “absolutely doing our fair share”, and along the way scolded Professor Jonathan Boston, one of three academics who had criticised the target in the media, for not doing his homework before lecturing the government. The point the three critics made, incidentally, was that the target was inadequate relative to what the inter-governmental panel on climate change has indicated the developed world should be seeking. One would have thought that a climate change Minister well informed of the science would willingly acknowledge that the targets so far offered by the developed world are well short of what is required if global warming beyond 2 degrees is to be avoided. But the “fair share” theme crowds out any possible reference to the larger question.

Indeed I do not recall the Climate Change Minister or his associate ever speaking publicly of the magnitude of the threat climate change represents for human society. Tim Groser generally indicates that he has no argument with the science, but I have not heard him dwell on the details of what the science portends. He generally moves quickly instead to the claim that we are playing our part in any international attempt to tackle the question, to the political negotiation terrain that he is at home with. He shows much more passion in declaring his unwillingness to allow the New Zealand economy to be adversely affected by what he sees as precipitate action on climate change than he does in warning of the fearful dangers which climate change poses.

Along with the fair share theme the Government runs another mantra: New Zealand’s contribution to global emissions is too small to matter one way or another. This one is very effective in enabling Ministers to get on with business as usual in the economy, including plans to find and exploit more fossil fuel “resources”. It is apparently not seen as at odds with an acceptance of the science. I recall the Prime Minister on his visit to Antarctica early this year acknowledging to a reporter that climate change was happening and more rapidly than anticipated, but then immediately pointing out there was little a small country like New Zealand could do to affect matters.

Complacency reigns. John Key, when pressed on climate change by a reporter at the Pacific Islands Forum this week, asserted:

“New Zealand has got quite a comprehensive response…I don’t think we should feel either ashamed or concerned in the slightest…”

So the challenge of climate change is led as if tamed into the political arena. It’s a sad spectacle, by no means confined to the New Zealand Government. It’s hard to know whether to blame the politicians responsible or the process of government within which they work. They are, after all, intelligent people, presumably capable of understanding and being sensibly alarmed by the recognition of what rising greenhouse gas emissions are doing to our world. Yet they cannot find a response in any way appropriate on the political level. There is nothing Government Ministers say which suggests any urgent interest in moving New Zealand to a clean energy economy.

It was hard to avoid a mood of settled despair when I was writing the above. Then an email arrived from Greenpeace, bless them, with information about the newly established Get Free movement, a call to action mooted by people appalled by the Government’s backing of fossil fuel expansion and supported by 24 prominent New Zealanders. It was a healthy reminder that despair is not a useful condition. Much better to keep saying over and over again to our shackled politicians that the climate crisis is real and they must find the political courage to address it by transforming the energy basis of our economy.