Comment/analysis: Climate change is an existential crisis. Aside from some on the fringes, or in the White House,  few informed people doubt that it requires action, and quickly.

In New Zealand, cows, sheep, and tourists equal money, but also a drastically warming planet. If we want to stop that, the country needs to make fundamental adjustments in a radically short period of time. A new political movement believes a less ideological and more “business-friendly” path can guide us there.

That group, the Sustainable New Zealand Party, announced their almost-existence recently and made the media rounds, pitching a centrist, environmentally-focused body willing to work with either of the major parties to promote more sustainable practices. Their website laments their counterparts, the Greens, forlorn that they have hitched their wagon to Labour-led governments.

The party is aware that tackling climate change in New Zealand requires a monumental shake-up of our enormous agricultural and tourism economic pillars, sectors that have long relied on and emitted large amounts of harmful emissions. A “business-friendly” plan to address global warming, then, may sound oxymoronic, but the notion of a new party that is both more centred on the ideological spectrum and willing to compromise with those industries is far from unwarranted.

Cosying up to business and staunchly supporting the environment may sound like an exercise in futility. After all, tourism is built on transport and agriculture on the backs of belching animals, both of which are highly pollutive, and in their ideal world they would stay that way. That is troubling for dairy. New studies suggest that global temperatures will still rise in response to declining carbon dioxide levels as long as those levels remain above zero, New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute director and climate change professor Dave Frame says.

“Both tourism and agriculture are pretty exposed to consumer whim: if tastes change such that they decide flying or eating meat or dairy is morally dubious, then there might be big adjustments ahead for New Zealand.”

But if New Zealand’s methane emissions – like those produced by cows – drop by more than 0.4 percent a year, we can expect a lower rate of increase in the planet’s temperature. Maintaining a friendship with the agricultural sector while acting on that science may prove tricky. However, these businesses need customers, and what is in vogue may just force them to adjust anyhow. “Both tourism and agriculture are pretty exposed to consumer whim: if tastes change such that they decide flying or eating meat or dairy is morally dubious, then there might be big adjustments ahead for New Zealand,” Frame says.

To a certain degree, that is already happening. A recent Colmar-Brunton poll found that for the first time in a decade, those concerned about climate change tipped 50 percent. One in ten New Zealanders now go either mostly or entirely meat-free, a sharp seven percent increase in twelve months, and 40 percent are now committed to living “sustainable lifestyles”. Changing tides may give a so-called blue-green party a mandate to force the sector’s hand.

Consultation with business is crucial. Adequately fighting global warming requires the world to turn on a dime and fundamentally change the way we do business. That is a stunningly complex shift both in mindset and practice, as University of Otago emeritus professor and Otago Climate Change Network member Colin Campbell-Hunt notes.

“I have sympathy for the vulnerability of this economy. We’re a small, open, trading economy. Decisions we take on climate change in the short term until we’ve got some substitute industries in place are going to hit us. If we really got stuck into dairy the way the rest of the world may want us to get stuck into it, that would cause a huge hit,” he says.

One area where a business-friendly party could capitalise on its relationship with the private sector is in fostering sustainable innovation. The need for those substitute industries should have business leaders licking their lips with glee, because such a colossal shift provides fertile ground for entrepreneurship to bloom.

The dairy industry may be threatened by increased urgency around the issue of climate change, but it could prove a chance for entrepreneurs to blossom. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“You’ve got to look at this situation from a business point of view with considerable excitement,” Campbell-Hunt says. “These are exactly the kind of transformational times when enormous fortunes are made…. these situations where you get a radical change in economic activity. Think of the computing revolution in the early eighties.”

That blooming of ideas could extend beyond the private sector, too. Frame believes that New Zealand can seize the opportunity to affect international change with ideas, saying: “It is important to be aware of how we might matter.” Using the 1990s as an analogous example, he points to New Zealand’s revolutionary development of the independent central bank, a concept that proved attractive to countries around the globe. “I think, actually, the best ideas are the most portable ones. It’s through initiatives that other countries might copy because they see it being in their interest and a smart way to do things,” he says.

Sustainable New Zealand’s website stresses over and over again that they will be centrists to the core, castigating the Greens as too left and New Zealand First as too craven. Partisan attacks aside, moving climate change as an issue into the centre and making it less ideological would be an invaluable contribution.

Frame emphatically pushes back against the idea that it is an issue solely prioritised by the left, as solutions to environmental woes have been borne from either end of the political spectrum. “It’s just untrue to think the best ideas on the environment are somehow tied to the left – in the US, acid rain was most effectively addressed by a permit scheme introduced by the Republicans under Bush the Elder,” he says, adding that New Zealand’s greatest contribution to emissions reductions was likely the Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform programme – a National-led policy.

If sustainability is the focus, removed from more polarising identity politics, it presents an opportunity for moderate voters to choose a party intent on addressing climate change in a manner without any drastic economic pitfalls. There is value in that, says Frame. “In my view, you’ve got to have that median voter and then a buffer on side for your climate policies. So, there is no point to policies that only appeal to a fringe and alienate a large majority. It’s just going to be electorally self-defeating, and that’s a loss.”

‘The more the merrier’

Adelia Hallett, Forest and Bird’s climate advocate and a longtime environmental journalist, is quick to stress that advocates would welcome the addition, saying: “The more the merrier.”

“This problem doesn’t belong to any one group; it belongs to all of us, and we need all of us doing everything we can. Look, you want to come and work on climate? Brilliant! Come along,” Hallett says.

That support would still be there even if large concessions had to be made in order for Sustainable New Zealand to be elected. “Any reduction is going to help, so we wouldn’t say no its either all or nothing… but just because we mightn’t agree on everything, that doesn’t mean we think you shouldn’t be there.”

Campbell-Hunt echoes that sentiment. “I would hope that it would become far more central in the political debate… I don’t really care about where that comes from. I care much more about whether they’re actually engaging with the huge political choices that all societies will face over the next decade.” So, too, does Frame. “I think a party that gave prominence to climate and the environment while holding to liberal views on economic issues would potentially be a very good thing.”

But time is truly of the essence. Last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report painted a damned, dystopian picture – the elimination of essentially all coral reefs, the extinction of a plethora of insect species, ice-free arctic summers every decade, widespread famine.

“If you think about, if you’re driving a car at a wall, if you wait until the last minute to break and you hit it really hard, the impact is huge.”

The report, which reviewed over 6000 studies, estimated that the half-degree difference between 1.5 and two degrees would be dire. The world has twelve years to cap warming at 1.5 degrees, it warned in 2018, to lessen what can only be described as catastrophic consequences.

Hallett stresses the importance of that deadline multiple times. “If you think about, if you’re driving a car at a wall, if you wait until the last minute to break and you hit it really hard, the impact is huge.” Strong language is typical for any advocate, but scientists – usually reluctant to speak in such stark terms – and UN officials have compared it to a “deafening, piercing smoke alarm” and a “speeding freight train”.

When asked what the report tells us about our current approach to climate change, Frame succinctly declares it sub-par. Our policy settings will not allow us to meet our current domestic targets, let alone any new one imposed by the 1.5-degree target. Campbell-Hunt notes: “Factually, as we stand at the moment, we are well behind the play. Our policy stance on climate change is no cause for pride.”

Frame stresses that even the haunting and apocalyptic description of the harm global warming will cause still does not guarantee action. He views the Paris targets as mere goals, not something the world will necessarily achieve.

“There’s a somewhat haunting line from the international relations scholar Kenneth Waltz which I often think of in relation to this question – ‘Necessities do not create possibilities’. Just because we know we really ought to limit warming to 2C or less does not provide a means to do so. That means has to be built, not just assumed.”

Despite all the lucid warnings, global emissions jumped by 2.7 percent last year, according to the Global Carbon Project. If New Zealand’s industries accept the reality that climate change is a threat, that it must be tackled and they prove willing to work with a party they find friendly to foster ideas and means dedicated to that end, and if that party inspires some of us to get out and vote for that, then the more the merrier indeed.

Leave a comment