Lip service: it’s all climate action ever gets from Key & Co

By Gareth Renowden 16/04/2014

As expected, the New Zealand government’s response to the IPCC’s Working Group 3 report on mitigating climate change pays lip service to the science, while maintaining that NZ is doing all that can be expected. Climate change minister Tim Groser’s press release said that the IPCC report’s call for intentional cooperation meant that NZ is “on the right track in pressing for a binding international agreement on emissions beyond 2020″ but failed to note the urgency explicit in the report.

Groser also repeated the government’s standard response when challenged on government inaction on climate policy:

“New Zealand is doing its fair share on climate change, taking into account our unique national circumstances, both to restrict our own emissions and support the global efforts needed to make the cuts that will limit warming.”

Groser’s response to the WG2 and WG3 reports so angered Pure Advantage founder Phillip Mills that he announced he would make a $125,000 donation to the Labour and Green parties. Mills, who has been working behind the scenes for the last five years, lobbying cabinet ministers and National MPs to build a business case for climate action and clean, green business growth, told the NZ Herald:

I’ve been trying impartially to deal with National. I’ve met with John Key around this a number of times … and really I held the hope that I and groups that I’ve been involved with would be able to get National to see sense.

NZ scientists who contributed to the IPCC reports were also critical of NZ’s perceived inaction. The Science Media Centre collated some of their responses.

Prof Ralph Sims, Sustainable Energy, School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, Massey University, WG3 lead author:

…each New Zealander is responsible for emitting around eight tonnes of carbon dioxide a year … we are now the fourth highest emitters per person in the world, behind Australia, the United States, and Canada. New Zealand has set a modest target to reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions by five per cent below the 1990 gross emission level in just six years time, yet no one knows how we will achieve this…

Bob Lloyd, Associate Professor and Director of Energy Studies, Physics Department, University of Otago:

in international climate change negotiations NZ is regarded as a particularly ‘tough’ negotiator. By ‘tough’ read ‘selfish’. … To get global buy-in NZ must act as a global leader in emissions reductions not a selfish backwater.

Prof Susan Krumdieck, Dept of Mechanical Engineering, University of Canterbury:

There aren’t any responsible leaders, competent engineers, or sensible people who would suggest we should exceed safety limits. Who in the world would say that as a matter of convenience, we should push essential systems to collapse? There is also no way to mitigate the impacts of a catastrophic failure.

The only option now is for all responsible, competent and sensible people to demand action from engineers, planners and business leaders to change every system that produces and uses climate affecting materials so dramatically reduce the production and use of fossil fuels and reduce the emissions of other greenhouse gasses.

Tasked with these comments by Green climate spokesman Kennedy Graham, Groser’s response was the scientists should “stick to their knitting” and leave the decision-making to him. Such obvious contempt for expertise seems to be a hallmark of Groser and his colleagues: when the message is inconvenient, how much easier to belittle the messenger than to address the issue.

That’s the real problem: the heart of the National government, from John Key repeating Groser’s mantra at Question Time, to Steven Joyce’s blind spot on green business initiatives, simply cannot pay anything other than lip service to the evidence in the IPCC reports, because if they did they would be forced to recognise that they have their policy settings all wrong.

For Tim Groser, climate change is an international relations problem, to be solved by tough negotiation where New Zealand’s interests — as defined by Key & Co — are paramount. For John Key, climate change is a political problem. If the other side thinks it’s important, then by definition his party has to say it’s less important. Such is the nature of parliamentary party politics, as played by shallow people who don’t understand the breadth of the problem they are supposed to confront.

Of course, the climate problem is an international relations issue, and a domestic political issue, but those are just component parts of a far bigger and much more serious problem. The IPCC reports make it clear that we are already changing the climate, and that we’re currently on course for 3 to 4ºC of warming this century — well beyond any safe limit. Action to reduce emissions now will limit future damage, and be surprisingly affordable, but the window to act is closing fast.

What Key & Co do not appear to understand are the dire consequences of inaction. Nor do they appreciate what risk management means when you don’t know how bad things are really going to get. It might be expedient to punt the problem to future parliaments, while trying to save face in the here and now, but inaction is actively increasing the risk of future damage, and the costs of adapting to it. As Susan Krumdieck points out, “there is […] no way to mitigate the impacts of a catastrophic failure”.

So how do we persuade the present government to take its responsibilities seriously? One obvious route is via the ballot box, by making climate action a central issue in September’s general election and voting for parties with a commitment to urgent action. But there is another way, and one for which there may be some signs of a groundswell developing — and which will be the only route open if the National Party leads the next government.

The Wise Response group has delivered its petition to parliament, calling on the government to take climate action and green growth seriously. The Royal Society of NZ has also called for a change in direction towards a low emissions, green economy. With influential groups consistently knocking on the door, and with climate impacts in the news and increasingly undeniable, is it too much to hope that Key & Co might accept the need for urgent action and set NZ back on the right road?

[Update 17/4: Peter Griffin at Sciblogs fact checks Groser’s comments about Ralph Sims, and finds that the Minister was 100% wrong to suggest that Sims was “palpably wrong on multiple levels”.]

[Elvis. The other one.]