It has been a week of climate change.
A quarter century, actually, since the US Senate and the Brundtland Report put the issue on the international agenda. We’ve had, since then, Rio and Cairo, Kyoto and Marrakesh, Copenhagen and Cancun and Durban, and Rio again.
But the past week has been especially intensive, and this for two reasons. The NZ Parliament is conducting hearings on the Government’s bill to amend the ETS, in response to the Advisory Panel’s report of 2011. And, concurrently and with no strong causal link, the latest scientific findings of climate change are reported in.
So, in the past week, I have asked two questions of the Government on climate change. Taken together, they traverse the range of the issue – the NZ Government’s domestic instrument for combating climate change, and its appreciation of the global reality out there.
The first questioned the Government on what the Green Party critiques as a weak emissions trading scheme, ‘subsidising polluters’ and incurring considerable net fiscal cost to the taxpayer. The second queried whether, in drafting the latest amendments to the ETS, the Government had sufficiently taken into account the latest scientific findings.
In short, the Government’s response was as follows:
– The amendments defer any strengthening of the ETS because we live in fragile economic circumstances and it is ‘not a stellar time’ to increase charges and taxes. The changes did not amount to ‘subsidies’, and indeed New Zealand was on track to more than meet its five-year Kyoto obligations.
– The Government had, indeed, adequately accounted for the latest scientific findings, but it has to take into account a whole range of factors such as the global developments and employment levels in New Zealand.
This is as close as it gets to a meaningful exchange in the NZ Parliament on the future of the planet. I acknowledge that Ministers Groser and Bridges are well-meaning and competent. I count them as friends. Tim Groser, in particular, has huge international experience and reputation.
That does not make them necessarily right in what they are doing. It is possible for such people to be egregiously wrong, fatefully, fatally.
Effectively, the ministers are acknowledging that the amendments weaken the ETS in the sense of deferring sectoral obligations, and seek to explain why – protection of jobs, firms and investment at home against risk competitiveness during tough global economic times.
That is circular logic, and it rests on an erroneous premise. We are entering the Global Ecological Crisis. An ecological crisis means an economic crisis. They are one and the same thing. You do not defer measures to combat an ecological crisis because you are in an economic crisis. You deal with them as one crisis, and seek to resolve ‘it’ immediately.
The latest scientific findings are alarming. They possibly portend a new era for humanity – one where dangerous anthropogenic climate change may arrive within half a decade out, not half a century.
– Arctic ice extent, as measured this month by the US Snow & Ice Data Center, is 49% below the past 30-year average. Between 2007 and ’11 it has dropped from 4.17 m. sq. km to 3.41 m. sq. km., an 18% drop in four years. The different trends in Antarctica, where there is some cooling and ice-accretion, is understood by scientists to be consistent with an increase in average global temperature.
– Russian scientists on the Viktor Buinitsky research vessel have found methane fields in the Laptev Sea of 1 km. in diameter. Methane deposits in the seabed near Spitzbergen are effervescing to the surface.
– This has been described by Cambridge University scientist, Prof. Wadhams, as ‘terrifying news’. It facilitates the release of potent methane gas from land-based tundra and seabed floor, reducing Earth’s albedo effect, risking a positive feedback loop on temperature increase that can breach unpredictable tipping-points. While we must await the IPCC’s 5th assessment report in 2013, the latest specific findings are of far-reaching concern.
I confess I experience my share of surreal moments in the NZ House of Representatives when I ask these questions and receive the answers I do. It is as if we truly are, my National MP colleagues and I, on different planets.
For I am asking questions, in as measured tones as I can, of what appears to me to be about the future of the planet and humanity, and they are answering as if (a) it is just another problem and (b) I am something of an irritant.
No-one will be more relieved than I shall, if the science proves to be wrong or excessively ominous. I shall simply look stupid. That will be my preference, since my grand-children will have a decent future.
But I do not see how that can be the case.