Last call for climate action commission
Dr Jan Wright’s last report is also her least likely to ruffle feathers.
Until now, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s refreshingly evidence-based reports have probably unsettled more Green Party supporters than the balance of voters.
While Dr Wright’s defence of aerial 1080 pesticide drops was surely unsurprising even to organics proponents, her searing demolition of solar in the context of water heating unsettled any Greens paying attention. Their then, and current, energy spokesman, Gareth Hughes, described the definitive, evidence-based report as unhelpful.
The inconvenient truth about climate action is that most of that which is proposed in the name of climate is meaningless. The imperative must be to avoid, if that remains humanly possible, forcing climate into the unsurvivable. Whereas the goal of even the most committed politicians is to set targets that fall well short of what the world’s climate scientists warn is necessary to avoid dangerous global warming. And these are post-Paris, 1.5° goals.
Dr Wright has, of course, called for Aotearoa to emulate the United Kingdom in setting up a climate action commission—she in fact suggests that it be called the Climate Change Commission, missing the obvious opportunity to emphasise the positive. But given that the United Kingdom lacks policies to meet more than half its carbon targets, there is a clear and obvious danger that a commission would allow political parties to collectively abdicate responsibility for meaningful climate action. Those championing a commission begin by pointing to the fact that the United Kingdom is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions while Aotearoa is increasing hers. Dr Wright does admit that there are reasons why New Zealand’s emissions will be a harder nut to crack. Developed countries have largely outsourced their emission-generating industries to those that are developing, but unless Fonterra, Open Country Dairy et al close most of their New Zealand-based milk powder factories and produce more of their milk in the counties in which it is consumed, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions will resist all but the most radical decarbonising efforts to bend down New Zealand’s rampant emissions curve.
Drying less milk in Aotearoa would also drastically reduce the country’s coal consumption and imports—Fonterra alone, the country’s second largest user, burns 180 000 tonnes of coal a year. It is a measure of the yawning gulf between climate action reality and dogma that New Zealanders tolerate coal consumption ruinous to the prospects of a survivable climate yet proudly deny the one zero-carbon power source available the industrial-scale task of drying nearly two million tonnes of milk powder per year: nuclear.
For New Zealanders to overcome their irrational fear of nuclear power, they would first need to be more terrified of the legacy they are leaving their mokopuna’s mokopunagrandchildren’s grandchildren, to use the term quoted by Dr Wright in her Stepping Stones to Paris and Beyond. But whenever the unalloyed perturbation of climate scientists is published, those of soft-science psychology bent scold that alarming messages, such as contained in stellar long-form journalist David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, are counterproductive; that they simply turn people off and make them less likely to begin baby-steps towards reducing their carbon-heavy footprints. This is akin to blaming Winston Churchill for the United Kingdom’s failure to confront Adolf Hitler until it was very nearly too late, because he had been so consistently and articulately warning of the threat that the National-Socialist German Workers’ Party posed. Except that the analogy is imperfect, because in the case of Nazism, the outcome was not set in stone, whereas climate science is unambiguous about the magnitude of the consequences—although considerable uncertainty remains as to both how quickly climate is changing, and to whether an unsurvivable climate might prove, by 2017, to have already been unpreventable.
If Dr Jan Wright’s call is heeded by Parliament, and a climate action commission is formed, there is a real danger that political parties will use it as a cloak to carry on with business as usual. This is certainly the case in the United Kingdom, where one of Theresa May’s first moves after muscling her way into the Conservative’s top job was the disband the Department of Energy and Climate Change—a move the department’s first secretary of state, Ed Miliband, tweeted was:
Plain stupid. Climate not even mentioned in new dept title. Matters because depts shape priorities, shape outcomes.
As much as the demise of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and what it represents, is to by lamented, New Zealand’s climate action challenge is not only about energy, given its pastorally heavy greenhouse gas emissions profile. But given the outrage of some in the agricultural sector at any suggestion of being held to account for its methane and nitrous oxide footprint, expect to see the New Zealand National Party under intolerable pressure to not meaningfully oblige the departing Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, much less Generation Zero, which front-footed the concept, in April. In any event, it certainly didn’t work for Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett, who’s supercilious response was to give the can a swift kick down the road:
Bennett appears to believe that the time to plan future climate action is——in the future. It is instructive that a political party, with, until yesterday’s youthquake, every prospect of governing for an unprecedented—for National—12 years straight, has so little appetite for addressing issues beyond the immediate news cycle, much less the three-year electoral cycle. Those who imagine that longer parliamentary terms would magically elicit more long-term thinking, such as Gareth Morgan’s evidence-free enthusiasm for four-year terms, should reflect that the United States House of Representatives has a two-year term and that the Chartists called for annual terms—something that, 179 years on, would be a doddle with online voting. Certainly the nearly 58% of Americans who disapprove of Donald Trump must be wishing they could cast a vote this November, whereas they are obliged to wait until November 2020 to be rid of the United States most preposterous ever presidency.
What of course is even more preposterous than the unpresidential Mr Trump is the arrogance of the Democratic Party that persisted on inflicting the deeply despised Hillary Clinton on a clearly reluctant electorate. This arrogance is a trait shared by New Zealand’s Labour Party. At the untimely death of incomparably charismatic Norman Kirk, about the least telegenic politician imaginable, Wallace Rowling, was his woefully miscast replacement. With Labour on the ropes less than eight weeks before the general election, an equally uncharismatic leader was holding the door open to three more years of centre-right—continuing the unrelieved, literally suicidal neoliberal policies it unleashed 33 years ago. Labour’s brief rediscovery of its moral compass, under David Cunliffe, was quickly and effectively undermined by his caucus colleagues, predating the unsuccessful efforts in the United Kingdom of Labour Party parliamentarians to destabilise Jeromy Corbyn.
Rogernomics was inflicted upon New Zealand’s youth at just the time realisation was dawning that a huge task lay ahead to build zero-carbon infrastructure and to improve the resilience of coastlines and communities, and particularly of coastal communities. Most at risk, the dune sections of New Zealand’s 15 000-kilometre coastlinePublic Access to the New Zealand Coast: Guidelines for Determining Legal and Physical Constraints, Bell and Gibb, 1996 generally require replanting with indigenous sand-binding plants. Regardless of how much mechanisation was deployed, this alone would ensure that meaningful work was available to every young job seeker. Long-term the beaches will all be lost—in human timescales, they have no means of reforming tens of metres higher—but ahead of rampant sea-level rise, they at least deserve the care that can be cost-effectively bestowed. At a more mundane level, and without leaving the main centres, there is billions of dollars of work needed retrofitting insulation, double glazing, and smart-metering that benefits the consumer and the environment—as opposed to purely the power utilities. No youth should have died, since 1984, as the consequence of being made to feel surplus to requirements. It should have been, and more than ever needs to be, all hands to the pump.
Notwithstanding its dubious contribution to emissions reductions in the United Kingdom, Dr Jan Wright is fundamentally correct to advocate for a climate action commission. But her report is uncharacteristically starry-eyed in its recommendations, and should have strongly warned of the very real danger that a commission could serve more as an opportunity for political parties to park climate, and avoid drawing the fire of noisy pastoralists determined to sow doubt and spread disinformation.
Dr Jan Wright will be a hard act to follow. To date, all three commissioners have been appointed by Labour-led parliaments, and were non-politicians. National, with the support of Labour and the Greens has appointed ex National Party minister Simon Upton, to take over in October, to the intense displeasure of New Zealand First. But Upton had recently been promisingly critical, in his role as environment director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, of New Zealand’s problematic growth model:
National, to its credit, cannot have been counting on an easy ride, but with the gamechanger of Jacinda Ardern suddenly becoming Labour Party leader, by the time Upton has his feet under Wright’s old desk, he might not be National’s problem.
Meantime, the emergence, in November last year, of a political party dedicated to evidence-based policy-making should have been able to count on the vote of every New Zealander who realises anthropogenic global warming is the, existential issue not only of this millennium but of this civilisation. Part of its brilliance was to predicate its entry into the electoral fray on evidence that the party would not waste votes—unless its support was such that it was confident of clearing the undemocratic and arbitrary 5% threshold, the Opportunities Party swore it would not contest the election.
As it is want to do, a funny thing happened on the way to the hustings. Gone was the prerequisite for 5% reasonably assured support, gone was the resolve that candidates were to be list only, and with it, gone was the opportunity to drum into voters that—except in Epsom and other done-deal electorates, and in the Māori seats—only the party vote matters.
From a forgone conclusion of three more years of National-led government, with the only unknown being whether New Zealand First had the whip hand in that government, a Labour-led coalition is now firmly back in contention.