Failure to understand and accept basic scientific facts raises serious questions about the judgment of prospective legislators, Marc Daalder writes
Comment: National Party MP Maureen Pugh echoed an old adage of climate deniers on Tuesday when asked about her belief in human-caused global warming.
The climate, she said, has always changed, but she was still awaiting evidence that humans are causing changes this time around.
This is a classic example of paltering – the use of selective truthful statements to create a misleading overall impression. Scientists are aware the climate has changed in the past, and it is the reality of these past changes that make our current situation so concerning.
The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, New Zealand had crocodiles, Central Otago was hotter and more tropical than Queensland is today and conifers lined the coast of Antarctica. Human civilisation has never before seen a world as hot as Earth is today – let alone the 2.6C of warming we are on track for.
Clearly, past climates are not reassuring. But the human impact here is clear as well. Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is increasing at the fastest observed rate in 66 million years of records.
It is incontrovertible that human burning of fossil fuels is the primary driver of climate change and global temperature increase. That’s the conclusion of 234 experts from 64 countries who wrote the latest review of scientific evidence for climate change for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They reviewed 14,000 scientific papers, responded to 80,000 comments from peer reviewers and produced a 2400-page report, as well as a summary for policymakers approved line-by-line by 195 countries.
The first line of that summary?
“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”
If that isn’t enough, consider that the Royal Society of New Zealand first backed the scientific consensus on climate way back in 2001, back when Pugh had been a local councillor for just three years and before her nine-year mayoral term or seven years as an MP. It was joined by 33 other national science academies from around the world.
There’s also the World Meteorological Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the United Nations, the American Geophysical Union, the European Federation of Geologists, the American Meteorological Society, the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, the Royal Meteorological Society, the American Medical Association and dozens of other expert groups.
When Pugh said she was awaiting evidence from Climate Change Minister James Shaw on the human influence on the climate, why were the views and research of tens of thousands of practising scientists worldwide not enough for her?
Now, of course, Pugh says it was all a misunderstanding. “Human-induced climate change is real,” she now says. She had been “unclear”, she says.
Pugh wasn’t unclear, she was crystal clear on Tuesday morning. She was asked point blank whether she believed in human-caused climate change. She didn’t say “yes”, she said she was waiting for Shaw’s response with the evidence.
It is not credible that Pugh accepted the scientific consensus on climate change when she gave these answers, which inherently contradict her later claim that she had seen all the evidence she needed.
“I’m not waiting on the evidence,” she told reporters on Tuesday afternoon, three hours after she told the same reporters, “I am waiting on the evidence”.
It’s not credible either for her to have missed or ignored two decades of scientific research on climate change, only to have reviewed the science over lunch on Tuesday and come around on the whole climate change thing.
Neither what Pugh wants the public to believe nor any alternative generous interpretations of her swift about-face are feasible.
Even putting aside this dishonesty, the situation raises greater questions about the quality of our representatives.
Pugh is of course an example of the historically poor quality of National’s candidate vetting.
When she first arrived at Parliament, she said she didn’t believe in pharmaceuticals. In 2021, she was one of the last of the party’s caucus to get vaccinated, saying she had not yet booked a doctor’s appointment. During the Parliament occupation, she briefly wrote in support of the protesters before deleting the social media post.
The climate issue is perhaps the most significant question mark over her record, however.
In 2023, as climate-intensified storms and cyclones have already killed 15 people, rendered thousands homeless and caused billions of dollars in damage, not accepting the scientific basis for anthropogenic (human-caused) warming is unacceptable in a legislator.
It speaks to both a callous disregard for the mounting toll of victims of climate change and an irrationality we wouldn’t allow on other issues. Would anyone trust an MP who was a flat earther to make the best decisions for their constituents and their country?
Legislators make decisions on policy that have concrete effects on people’s lives and the country’s climate response. It’s clearly untenable for people who deny the fact of climate change to be making those calls.
The rapid backlash to Pugh’s statements and her unconvincing retraction show that the public and most sitting MPs also see climate denial as an automatic disqualifier for holding office.
But it’s not much better to be in the situation we now find ourselves in, where Pugh’s true views are clear but everyone pretends her clarification is her position.
Christopher Luxon had an opportunity to show how seriously he takes climate change, particularly in light of the cyclone, by handing down serious consequences for Pugh. Instead, he’s let her get away with it – keeping the door to Parliament open a crack for any future climate deniers who may seek a seat.
This isn’t a problem that’s going away for him. The symbolism was almost too perfect on Tuesday as he delivered his first political speech in Parliament since the resignation of Jacinda Ardern and the devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle. Sat directly behind him in the House, almost looming over him, was Pugh.
Luxon didn’t mention climate change a single time in his 20-minute speech.