Questioning Nick Smith on climate change

Last week I attended a seminar on climate change and the prospects for the Cancun summit in December.  I know that in our post-Copenhagen catatonia we all prefer not to think of climate change, but that will not solve the problem.

The seminar was comprised mainly of government officials, academics and think tank experts.  There was a high-level of knowledge and acuity around the table on the subject.  The Minister (Groser) came and spoke, then left.  There was a general air of malaise in the air, a feeling of fin de siècle, of disempowerment. We were busy with the deck chairs – sorting where they should be arranged – maintaining the system since we only have the system.

I remained silent for nearly all of the meeting but surrendered to a comment at the end.  The issue, I suggested, was not one of degree but of kind.  We cannot solve climate change by more feverishly re-arranging the deck chairs.

It is a paradigm thing.  We can only solve climate change by treating it for what it is – an unprecedented alteration to our human existence on Earth – both causally and consequentially.  Unless we step out of one paradigm (business-as-usual but tinkering at the margin to ameliorate the problem) and into another (going onto a war-footing where everything else is subordinate), nothing will change.

The others nodded uncertainly.  I understand that, after I left to return to the House, they returned to the deck chairs.

Yesterday I sought to inject a sense of paradigmatic change into the Parliament.  I asked a question of Minister Groser about Cancun.  He was overseas promoting free trade so Minister Nick Smith responded.  We learned from Dr Smith a few things:

  • The Govt. remains committed to a global legal agreement with binding cuts.
  • It does not expect this to be achieved at Cancun.
  • Climate change negotiations are very much the art of the possible, because they require the agreement of over 190 countries on a complex issue.
  • New Zealand’s announced cut of 10%-20% off 1990 levels by 2020 is a ‘hugely challenging’ target.

The conclusion is that taming global climate change is an art – the art of what might be possible.  It is not possible for New Zealand to go beyond its ’hugely challenging target’, notwithstanding that it is less than half of its required share of the global target.

We are thus authorised by Her Majesty’s loyal ministers to explain to our children, in 20 years’ time, that while we recognised the magnitude of the challenge, we only did what we thought possible at the time.

Sorry, kids, it was not possible to pass on the planet in any kind of decent shape because there were 190 of us, and we found it too damned difficult to get agreement.

As I said in the General Debate that followed, we are all suffering from cognitive dissonance. Every so often, we see the magnitude and imminence of the threat, and it is simply too frightening to accept individually and politically, so we basically return to business and government as usual. We mumble about bigger cuts later and avoid looking into our children’s eyes.

Have mercy upon us.

8 Comments Posted

  1. Dear Kennedy

    One issue that I believe causes the cognitive dissonance that exists, is the fact that the decison makers and most of their constituents- myself included, have investments which earn income on which our livehood/ and or retirement are based. No growth economies are scary propositions requiring major paradigm shifts. That they will happen, either with planning and some management, or catastrophically, is inevitable. We prefer the managed option. One begining step to produce jobs , reduce imports and thus the current account deficit, and to make us more self sufficient in NZ before end of oil prices surge, would be to give govermnet support to rpoduce more essential here. Look ast what we ijmport and try to make as much of it here as possible. Organise areas so that essential production can occur in regions- the move to ship South island milk to north island thenback as cheese etc is i n the long run counter productive.

  2. Kennedy

    I suspect that complaining of “cognitive dissonance” will be like banging your head against a brick wall silently – they won’t listen. You may well be correct, but perhaps something more colourful, less cerebral will catch more attention. How about “the future fuzzies” where everything more than 3 years out is too blurry for them to see, “the massive headlight” bearing down on us that they don’t want to look at in case it’s too bright.

    Not to be completely pessimistic – there’s a chance the headlight isn’t heading straight for us, but less so if we don’t measure how fast it’s moving (like properly measuring sustainability, wellbeing not just $ – keep it up), and driving more defensively (analogy not literal although that would be good too) rather than putting the foot down harder.

    Perhaps it’s time to bring some of those kids to parliament/Cancun so their eyes can be looked into directly, now. Ok so there’s the colourful image that sprout picked up on (looking into our childrens eyes), but sometimes I suspect it gets lost in verbosity.

  3. Kennedy

    Thank you for breaking the ground on this. This will read as truly prophetic in a decade hence and that on its own is important.

    My two cents worth. Could even 1 MP, one celebrity, announce that they are cutting the single biggest source of personal emissions and announce no more overseas trips by air? Or stop flying all together? just 1?

    Or even a drastic effort to slash flying, and a big move to teleconferencing?

    Or publish and update regularly the carbon footprint of MPs.

    I am convinced our biggest need right now is personal commitment from those who lead us. Thanks for your work.


  4. Which do you deal with first? the Barracuda in your bathtub or the Great White out in the bay. Economic considerations are the Barracuda.
    …and the mechanism that put them in the bathtub with us is Fractional-Reserve banking. As environmentalists we ignore this at our peril. We aren’t having these problems getting people to do what they SHOULD do because we are inept or others are malevolent, the system is designed so that nobody can do what they should do without hurting themselves.
    We will not solve the environmental problem without fixing the economic problem. The assumption underlying our social/political/economic system, that debt is money.


  5. They always answer smoothly about the decision, the solution and the determinations. However, they haven’t done so much about what they have said. In my country, Vietnam, every year the water level increasing higher and higher 🙁

  6. “We mumble about bigger cuts later and avoid looking into our children’s eyes.”
    Great line, Kennedy, and so horribly, horribly true!

  7. If only there was someone to have mercy, we might have a chance. As it is, we’ve created this mess ourselves, are refusing to fix it ourselves, and will reap the dire consequences ourselves too. We can’t even beg forgiveness “for we know not what we do”, because we know all too bloody well what we’re doing.

  8. What is possible depends on the rules we accept.

    The rules we accept place economic growth ahead of environment.

    This is a function of the monetary system we have adopted.

    There is no way to change what is possible without changing the rules.

    Fortunately, changing the rules is only unthinkable for most of us, not impossible.


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