Why are we still dragging our feet on climate change?

Gareth MorganEnvironment

Climate change deniers have well and truly been given the flick yet political commitment to policies to reduce carbon footprints remains limp. Given the Government’s quick and dirty climate change consultation (it is 4 weeks long, logically flawed and doesn’t include any proposed targets), they appear to be continuing their ‘do the least possible’ approach. Why is that?

In this first blog we will strip back the rhetoric and take a dispassionate look at the facts of climate change, and from that, think about what that means for our strategy as a nation. Future blogs will look at what that means for our emissions targets and ultimately the policies we put in place here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

A small group of deniers cling to an evaporating argument

Firstly to the small, vocal but shrill community of deniers. There are two common objections to the weight of evidence. The first is that either there’s not enough evidence yet. The second is that it’s fair game for any lightweight to blithely dismiss climate models because after all, they’re “just a model, not reality”. That’s it, that’s as deep as the deniers (what’s left of them) can manage to put up these days. Pathetic.

Science and policy are never 100% certain

Models try to provide an attributions analysis as to how much of the changes we’re observing are due to what factors. That’s great in terms of trying to improve our understanding of causation but we don’t have to rely on models to tell us what we can observe in the real world.

Of course the observational evidence by definition is all past tense, so it can only provide a basis for looking to the future, and even then with uncertainty. The whole challenge for policy is to make a reasonable – never, ever 100% certain – assessment of the current state of our understanding – and use this to extrapolate forward, assess consequences and then design policy to mitigate the worst outcomes. That is no more nor less the reality for designing climate change policy than it is for creating appropriate economic or social policy. Certainty is never assured, the evidence is never all in, it’s about weight of evidence and risk-adjusted scenarios. Waiting for certainty is just an excuse for doing nothing.

Observational evidence stacks up with each passing year

The observational data is factual – global temperatures are rising (at a rate faster than any past ‘natural’ changes – known as Milankovic cycles), sea level is rising too and we’re seeing more extreme weather events. For many years sceptics enjoyed pointing out that 1998 was the hottest year on record – claiming there was a ‘hiatus in warming’ – until 2014 racked up record temperatures. The fact is that both record years are irrelevant; it is the long-term trend that matters – as this comedy sketch points out there is a difference between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’

Once we have observational data, then models get used to understand the most likely cause of this rapid upswing in global temperatures. And on that, the greenhouse gas explanation provides the most plausible explanation of why the planet is warming so quickly.

Where does that leave the role of public debate on this issue? Pretty well in the trash insofar as any added value. Certainly it’s always been irrelevant to the scientific community and these days is marginalised to the fringes of talkback radio and the prophesies of right wing religious fanatics (sorry, “conservative libertarians”). Which is where it should have been confined years ago. US talk show host John Oliver sums it up succinctly in this video.

Thankfully the deniers are now marginalized

This is why the deniers nowadays comprise few scientists and virtually none who are eminent in fields relevant to climate. Even that portion of the business community that has most to lose from reduction of fossil fuels, and was ‘as loud as’ when it looked like their businesses would be threatened, have matured enough not to keep beating a drum that opens them up to such ready ridicule.

So why are we still doing nothing?

Despite this maturing of the public’s understanding of climate change, political inertia still stands in the way of coherent policy. The standard explanation is that being a global phenomenon there is no benefit in any one nation making sacrifices if others don’t. This commitment to “doing the least we have to” has typified policy in both New Zealand and Australia of late. In short we are waiting for the big guys – the US and China – to provide the rest of us with leadership. But this strategy is a short term one – it doesn’t stand up to any long-term scrutiny.

The current strategy is a short term, and short-sighted one

The ‘doing the least we have to’ strategy rests on the assumption that change is costly, and we should therefore delay it as much as possible. There are two problems with this – it ignores the possible benefits of moving early on climate change, and the fact that mitigating technologies will be more likely developed and employed if the carbon pricing policy reflects their importance. Certainly subsidising fossil fuels combustion is extremely regressive with substantial risks of high national costs, in such an environment.

Are there benefits to moving early on climate change?

The Government’s approach to the current consultation focuses entirely on the costs of mitigating climate change. While it is valid to look at the costs, any stage 1 economic student would ask if there are benefits as well. Does New Zealand have any competitive advantages in a low carbon world? Could our businesses or unique geography have anything to offer the world? For example, we have encouraged oil and gas exploration to come here, why don’t we encourage marine, wind and thermal electricity generation industries to locate here too? Given our renewable electricity generation and rapidly growing transport emissions, could we become a testing ground for electric vehicles.

This doesn’t require Think Big style subsidies like the Green Party have put forward, just government taking a leadership, facilitating role as it already does for mining, oil and gas. In the US there are a plethora of new technologies like this one, already in place on a large scale commercial basis doing something to reduce atmospheric carbon. The US policy settings are directly contributing to such new industries. New Zealand policy is miles behind in terms of thinking at this level.

And we’re not saying by any means that the US is a paragon of virtue with its greenhouse gas policies. On the one hand Presdient Obama says the US has to become more self reliant on energy and that’s why he’s opening up the Arctic to drilling, while on the other hand he has just stated climate change is a threat to national security – apparently because so many US military establishments are sited within range of sea level rise.

Similarly in New Zealand, getting royalties from fossil fuel discoveries has a direct economic return, while all the while we know fossil fuel dependence has to fall. Right now we’re keen as mustard on the former, and more than a little tardy on the latter.

Once we accept that climate change is happening, this creates two possible future scenarios: We either tune policy settings so that acting pre-emptively becomes a profitable endeavour; or we wait for the disaster count to rise so far that policy action is forced. The problem with the latter course, which is the one we’re on – is that by then taking action to reduce emissions (known as mitigation) will be a lot more expensive. By then we will have to either make expensive changes to our way of life, pay other countries to offset our emissions, or simply accept climate change as inevitable and invest in adapting to the change rather than preventing it.

There are some who believe that New Zealand is so small that delay is the only realistic option for us. That view controls policy right now. The problem with it, is it is closing off profitable opportunities for firms to exploit development and commercialisation of mitigation techniques.

You can take part in the Ministry for the Environment’s consultation here.

If you are pushed for time, our friends at Generation Zero have prepared this handy little online submission form.
Why are we still dragging our feet on climate change? was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.