Climate isn’t a can we can just keep kicking down the road – every delay escalates the scale of the catastrophe, and diminishes the time and resources left to address it.
In a couple of months the Government will make an unprecedented announcement: its first official response to the Climate Change Commission’s advice on emissions targets.
This pivotal moment in our history is a singular chance to help secure a liveable future for us all. The Government must do this with ambitious, fail-safe strategies that ensure we do our bit to help keep global heating below the critical 1.5C threshold.
But if history is anything to go by, the Government will lack the necessary understanding or courage (or both), and will fall well short. Our children’s children will have less than a sporting chance of a half-decent future.
On releasing the commission’s advice last May, the chair Rod Carr noted “now is the time for accelerating action”. Since then, the Government has extended its own time to respond from seven to 12 months, issued a questionable revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) before COP26, and in essence admitted we’ve failed to find a “feasible” way to lower our own emissions, instead lining up huge offshore carbon offsets.
While I hope Government proves me wrong, I am far from alone in holding these concerns.
In January, two eminent climate specialists sent me a paper. It made sombre reading – which is unsurprising given its title, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future – but still it brought me up with a start.
Written by 17 international scientists, the opening paragraph set the scene, reporting “three major and confronting environmental issues that have received little attention and require urgent action”:
* Future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed.
* There may be no political or economic system able, let alone willing, to handle the predicted disasters.
* This places extraordinary responsibilities on scientists to speak out (in ways they are unaccustomed to).
While the paper’s opening is readable enough, the main text is in the less-accessible language of a heavily referenced academic paper (159 sources by my count). Thankfully there is a more readable version, written by some of the original authors, and an even more readable one published by the respected German state media organisation Deutsche Welle.
But in case we think 159 references aren’t enough, or that the 17 authors may be isolated in their views, there are many other examples.
Lawyers for Climate Action are in our High Court pursuing a judicial review of the commission’s advice, which they claim is inadequate because of parts being incorrectly founded.
And anyone feeling okay about New Zealand’s climate performance should ponder our “highly insufficient” rating at the Climate Action Tracker (below). Predating the November 2021 update to our NDC, it still reveals a deeply flawed approach to climate strategies.
Then there’s the 2019 Existential Climate-related Security Risk report from the Australian think-tank Breakthrough. It concluded that “the world is currently completely unprepared to envisage, and even less deal with, the consequences of catastrophic climate change”, and that a military-centred response (like the Marshall Plan after World War II) may be necessary to achieve social and economic transformation on the scale needed for effective climate action.
Breakthrough is saying we’re doing a lousy job of even figuring out where the climate crisis may be taking us, which brings to mind the old adage “if you don’t know where you’re going, any step feels like a step in the right direction”.
Maybe that’s the kindest potential reason why the Government felt okay proposing such a feeble NDC, okay to delay its response on the commission’s advice, and okay to offset our profligate emissions with massive offshore carbon credits.
New Zealand is typically at the wrong end of the OECD range on per capita emissions and on emissions reductions, and we’re global arch-villains on private vehicle usage.
In his prophetic book Homo Deus, the historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote that “Nobody knows where the brakes are” on our collective inability to slow our suicidal, growth-addicted consumer economies. New Zealand epitomises that malaise, celebrating much of the latest business-as-usual economic boom despite the PM, at the latest resumption of Parliament, noting: “Our economy cannot afford to return to business as usual.”
Were we doing even a half-decent job of the “envisaging” that Breakthrough advocates, our policy settings and priorities would be very different. We’d be choking on Government thinking Covid-19 made it okay to extend its deadline for responding to the Climate Change Commission.
Leading such new policy settings would be a massive priority and funding for sustained climate effort, which is a far cry from having a Climate Change Minister outside cabinet with his hands tied behind his back.
And rapid leaps forward in other policy areas quickly come to mind, such as in energy, transport, construction, and education, each of which has huge opportunities ripe for speedy and bold implementation by a government with the necessary gumption.
This is not saying Covid-19 is unimportant, but “reasons” are not always “excuses”, and Covid-19 is no excuse to defer urgent and ambitious responses to the greatest challenge to face humanity. It’s salutary that the IPCC Sixth Assessment report that landed this week highlighted the tiny and closing eight-year window for critical response. The Government’s five-month delay has in essence chewed up 5% of that time already.
This may seem a harsh take on a community that is hurting, or on a government grappling mightily not only with a major pandemic but also with a corrosive opposition intent on undermining them at every turn.
However, the scale of the climate challenge is such that we must find the courage and capacity not only to respond effectively in good times (and we’ve fallen well short, even then), but also to sustain our resolve and action under the rolling maul of setbacks that will inevitably mark our journey into the future.
In just the past 15 years we’ve been rocked by the GFC, the Christchurch earthquake, the Kaikoura earthquake, Covid-19, and now the horrific war in Ukraine. And those don’t factor in localised traumas such as bushfires and floods, the Mosque attacks, Pike River Mine disaster, or the Whakaari/White Island eruption.
The unfolding climate disaster doesn’t halt for these, and neither must we in our climate responses. Climate isn’t a can we can just keep kicking down the road – every delay escalates the scale of the catastrophe, and diminishes the time and resources left to address it. If politics is the art of the possible then this is the pivotal moment politicians of all hues must ensure that addressing climate doesn’t morph into something demanding the art of the impossible.
The chart above, from the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, shows the dire impact of failing to reduce our CO2 emissions. The colour-coded Shared Socio-Economic Pathways show, left to right, best to worst emissions reduction scenarios. Check out the pale grey rather than the colours because it shows the CO2 emissions staying in the atmosphere. If ever we needed motivation to slash our emissions, that should be enough: SSP5-8.5 (worst case) results in seven times the additional atmospheric CO2 compared with SSP1-1.9, bringing with it massive additional overheating.
The severe mismatch between knowing what to do and actually doing it was highlighted recently in The Conversation by three seasoned climate scientists. Professors Bruce Glavovic and Iain White of New Zealand, and Tim Smith of Australia, went so far as to call for a moratorium on climate research until governments take truly effective action.
And the New York Times has just picked up on their cry of protest, noting “the article gets at questions that plenty of climate scientists have asked themselves lately: Is what we’re doing with our lives really making a difference?”
Regardless of whether halting climate research is a good idea, such a seriously considered call by people immersed in the field must, at least, be taken as a cry of informed exasperation at the gulf between an abundance of scientific knowledge and a paucity of effective response.
Surely an intelligent Prime Minister has no option but to find the courage of her convictions and propel her numerically powerful Government to actually treat climate change as the emergency it declared, as the nuclear-free moment she claimed. In that quest she could do worse than heed Winston Churchill: “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.”
Assuming she finds that courage we should see a worthy set of responses to the advice of the Climate Change Commission.
And I would be presented with a big slice of humble pie that I’d be delighted to eat.
Kia kaha for the climate, dear PM.