Jeanette Fitzsimons

Town and Country at Loggerheads

by Jeanette Fitzsimons

There was a stark contrast between the Napier consultation meeting on our climate change target, and those in the major cities. We’re now reaping the consequences of several years of misinformation being fed to the farming community about climate science and it is driving the deepest town-country divide I have seen in my lifetime.

Auckland and Wellington had 3-400 people with a big majority arguing for an ambitious, science driven target. Rural and provincial areas are very different, with a very palpable fear of what such a target would do to their livelihoods. The Napier meeting was the only one I was able to attend, but it sounds from what I hear as though it was the one most dominated by climate change sceptics and misinformed, afraid farming folk. Farmers will of course be most disadvantaged by climate change, but if you think it’s all a myth and a hoax you wouldn’t be worried by that.

I suspect that any sceptics present at the city meetings felt intimidated by the large noisy majority arguing for a 40% reduction target. Certainly those wanting an ambitious target at the Napier meeting did not speak up, but voted for 40% in the show of hands at the end. And so the divide grows.

The arguments were very familiar and recycled, but no less deeply felt, for all that.

  • “The science is wrong”. The Governments of the world have sought out the most qualified climate scientists in the world to review all the credible, peer reviewed literature published in reputable journals and come to a widely supported, if not totally unanimous, conclusion – but some other scientists who have PhDs (often in unrelated fields) disagree so the IPCC must be wrong. Well, it’s not who you believe, it’s what the evidence says.
  • “There was more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the past than now” – yes, millions of years before there were humans. We probably wouldn’t survive going back to that.
  • “It’s all due to sunspots”. Well, they tested that one and it couldn’t explain the temperature rise.
  • “Cows are carbon neutral – they take in carbon from the grass they eat, and breathe it out again – they just cycle carbon so shouldn’t have to participate in an ETS.” Ignores the little issue of cows converting carbon dioxide into methane which is 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a climate warmer.
  • “Agricultural soils hold so much carbon we should get credits”. If that were true, why would NZ have opted not to count soil carbon when we agreed our target at Kyoto? Top soil is NZ’s greatest export, at something like 400 MT/y. Want to buy credits for that?
  • “We have to feed starving people so food production should be exempt. Our pastoral farming is the most efficient in the world – better to do it here than overseas.” Actually, none of our food goes to feed the starving. We feed the already well fed, as they are the ones that can pay the prices we expect to sustain our standard of living. Work has been done to compare the carbon footprint of our farming with that of the UK and we come off well in that. But there just isn’t the analysis to show we are more efficient than the rest of the world. Eventually the world has to face the fact that we can feed far more people with more grains and less meat and dairy, even leaving aside greenhouse gases.
  • And the old chestnut: “People in Siberia would like a bit of warming”. People in Siberia are adapted to the climate they have. What about water stressed Africa, where more drought will cause massive hunger, and Bangla Desh and South China where millions of people will lose their homes and food supply if sea level rises a metre?

You can’t blame people for recycling these myths when they read them daily in the farming papers and when Federated Farmers quotes them constantly. We heard them constantly in the select committee considering the ETS last year, and again in the ETS review committee this year. It’s as though town and country live in such different worlds they never talk to each other, let alone listen.

You can’t blame people for being frightened when they are told by Meat and Wool NZ, as one woman at the meeting claimed, that under the ETS legislated last year they would have to pay $150,000 a year to purchase carbon credits and this would bankrupt them. Turns out, on investigation, that this is in 2030 – 22 years away – when the free credits provided for in the ETS are planned to run out – if by then the rest of the world, or more particularly, our farming competitors – have a price on carbon too. That’s why the ETS has a built in five year review of the phase out. If by 2030 the rest of the world doesn’t have a price on carbon for farmers ours will have long since been dropped – and we will truly be facing climate chaos that will destroy farming as we know it.

Nick Smith did a good job in standing up to these claims and correcting the misinformation. But National has a huge job to do if it wants to take its farming community with it to an all sectors all gases ETS, even a weak one. Curiously, they may succeed, if they really try, where Labour failed. Farmers didn’t have to listen to Labour or the Greens because they thought National would bail them out after the election. Now, with National accepting climate science and the need to do at least something, they have nowhere to go but Act – and judging by the polls they don’t see this as an attractive alternative.

In the end, climate change will sink us all together. We need to bridge that town-country divide if we are to develop sensible policy. It would be nice if that policy could be based on reputable science.

Published in Environment & Resource Management | Society & Culture by Jeanette Fitzsimons on Mon, July 20th, 2009   

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