Climate Change 2009: Hope Abroad, Farce At Home

When I started this blog, I used to interrupt my regularly-scheduled programming quite often to talk about my other interests, including climate change, energy policy and the need for a sustainable transport system. I stopped doing that after a while, figuring that I’d stick to my knitting on this blog and post about those issues elsewhere, but at the start of a new year I think it’s a good time to take a peek at the year ahead in climate policy.

My starting point is that climate change is real; that all or almost all of the recent sharp rise in average temperatures is human-induced; and that it is one of the most pressing dangers facing our planet – all the more so because it exacerbates other problems, such as food shortages and species extinctions. Climate change and oil depletion (“Peak Oil”) are two sides of the same coin: both result from our gluttony for fossil fuels.

The Audacity of Hope

My overall assessment is gloomy for New Zealand, and a little brighter for the world as whole. To take the brighter part of the assessment first, world climate negotiations have been mired in despond ever since the Bush administration came to power in the US. Whereas Bush was a climate change denier by both conviction and association, President-elect Obama appears to grasp the reality and the seriousness of climate change, and his appointments reflect this.

If Obama is serious about action on climate change, and if he can use the clout of a newly-elected president effectively, it may not be too late for a meaningful climate change agreement (“Kyoto II”) to be negotiated in Copenhagen in December 2009 – an agreement that would commit both developed and developing countries to meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

But the bigger question is whether this is too little, too late. Gaia proponent James Lovelock thinks that a major shift in the climate is already irreversible, and that human existence will only be possible at the poles and in the circumpolar regions before too many more decades have passed. Lovelock’s view is still very much on the fringe, but even such a mainstream figure as NASA climate scientist James Hansen has sent an open letter to President-elect Obama urging him to grasp the seriousness of the climate situation and the need for radical action.

It’s a sad irony that the recent economic recession may have done more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the whole raft of recent international negotiations. Given that most of the world’s energy consumption is still derived from fossil sources, growth in greenhouse gas emissions is strongly linked with economic growth; so although the downturn has led to the suspension of some non-fossil energy programmes and a push to “get back to basics” on energy policy (i.e. “let’s forget about all these silly renewables and burn lots of coal”), I expect that it, and the preceding period of high fuel prices, will have caused greenhouse gas emissions to level off and perhaps decline a little. But the basic impetus of the world economic system is to grow as far and as fast as it can, and then collapse when it runs up against its limits. One outcome is unsustainable, and the other lethal. To make true progress on the world’s problems, we have to get off that treadmill.

The Absurdity of Hide

After such gloomy musings, it’s almost a relief to turn to the low comedy of the New Zealand political scene, where the incoming National-led Government has let a jester in a canary yellow jacket – ACT leader Rodney Hide – lead the way in rolling back the modest climate policy gains made under the previous Labour-led Government, which lost power in November 2008. National’s core supporters in the farming and business communities want the Government to do nothing on climate change, except to compensate them for any losses they might suffer due to its effects.

National’s strategy has been to let the climate change deniers of ACT make the running on climate policy while painting themselves as the moderates. However, this cunning plan hasn’t escaped the notice of New Zealand’s trading and diplomatic partners, and new National Prime Minister John Key is rumoured to have got at least one broadside on the subject during his recent overseas travels.

Over the next couple of months, a “special” Select Committee will be meeting to review New Zealand’s stance on climate change policy. The likely outcome will be a great deal of hot air, more opportunities for Rodney Hide to grandstand, and the previous Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme to be trimmed of some of its potentially effective provisions but allowed to proceed.

New Zealand is only responsible for about 0.2-0.3% of world greenhouse gas emissions. That’s no excuse for inaction: the situation is too urgent for countries like New Zealand to be free riders on the efforts of others. But it is a relief in one sense: if New Zealand’s politicians (with a few very honourable exceptions) were in charge of climate policy for the whole world, I’d know we were stuffed. As it is, there’s still a chance we might pull through.

If you’re interested in following up the issues raised in this post, and groups working on various ways of addressing them, see the Energy and Climate section on the left of this blog.