Friday, March 31, 2006

New kiwi blog

The Big News, which should not be confused with Dave Crampton's blog of a similar name...

Climate Change & Governance: Wednesday Afternoon

More notes from last week's Climate Change and Governance Conference, from the Wednesday afternoon policy sessions.

Lord Ron Oxburgh and Professor Ralph Sims (Massey University) gave back-to-back talks on biofuels and their potential to replace or partly replace fossil fuels. Lord Oxburgh outlined the big picture, then talked about using ethanol as a transport fuel. Making ethanol from crops such as corn is highly inefficient (he estimated that with US farming practices, the energy payoff is only about 20% - meaning that you get back only 20% more energy than you put in to grow, harvest, and process the crop). But it's far more efficient to make biofuels out of rubbish. In Canada, a company called Iogen has a pilot plant producing ethanol from waste straw, which is about to be ramped up to full-scale production. This sort of process would remove the current competition between food and fuel crops, and give us a secure source of transport fuels for the future. Ralph Sims then outlined the situation in New Zealand: we could supply 7% of our diesel needs right now from animal tallow, and waste wood could provide 50 PJ a year, or just short of half our petrol needs. All that is required is for the government to create a market by establishing a target for fuel companies; once that is done, the market will do the rest. He also echoed other speakers in arguing that the government's R&D investment did not match the enormity of the problem (this seemed to be one of the key themes of the conference, along with the need for a carbon tax and for a cross-party agreement to provide policy stability).

Associate Professor Ralph Chapman (VUW) spoke on "policy options for New Zealand in the absence of a carbon tax". The first part of ths covered the misleading stories we tell ourselves - or rather, that vested interests tell us - to justify inaction on climate change. These were systematically eviscerated. The second part dealt with the outlines of a credible policy program. A key point here was the need to avoid policy switches and what analysts call "dynamic inconsistency" - policy changing with every election. This sends conflicting signals to the market and prevents businesses from making the required investments in new technology, as they cannot be certain of profiting from them. He also saw it as absolutely vital to put a price on carbon for as broad a segment of the economy as possible (his preferred method was emissions trading, with credits being allocated per capita to ordinary New Zealanders rather than grandfathered to vested interests). In its absence, he thought we should establish a goal with some international "signalling value" (as in it would signal to other countries that we were taking the problem seriously). His suggestion here echoes that of the Greens' Turn Down the Heat package [PDF]: a fully renewable electricity system by around 2030 or so (the timescale being chosen to allow the change to take place by the slow retirement of existing infrastructure). He also suggests setting immediate achievable biofuels targets (5% for diesel and 3% for ethanol), and regularly increasing them - again on a timeframe to allow for the turnover of capital stock. Finally, there was a need for government to build a constituency for change - to stress the urgency of the problem and the necessity of dealing with it, and bring the public with them. This was again a point made again and again over the course of the conference (even by Tony Blair). Unfortunately, the current government favours political cowardice.

This was followed by a series of responses from a panel and some discussion:

  • Alan Milne (Mayor of Kapiti District Council) lamented the lack of planning by local businesses in his region.
  • Molly Melhuish (Sustainable Energy Forum) noted that certain business interests seem to have a stranglehold on policy, to the extent that the environmental movement was not even consulted on the recent review of climate change policy (compare that with the Climate Change Office's frequent "stakeholder engagement days", which were almost entirely with business and industry groups).
  • Peter Neilson (Business Council for Sustainable Development) noted that many businesses simply aren't planning for climate change, and are not including it in their strategic plans. There was widespread ignorance of current policy (many businesses had not heard of the proposed carbon tax until the day it was scrapped), and a belief that it would all just go away at the next election. The BCSD thought that the first part of any policy was to get businesses to measure their emissions, on the basis that management requires measurement. Beyond that, they favoured an internationally-tied emissions-trading regime, coupled with a projects mechanism of positive incentives for reductions before it comes into effect. Naturally, as a representative of mostly established businesses, he favoured grandparenting of credits (which would be a massive wealth transfer to those companies).
  • Dave Brash (Ministry for the Environment) said that policy needed to focus on agriculture and forestry, with the energy sector a distant second. He hinted at movement on nitrous oxide in the very near future as the co-benefits for water-quality were so great (basically, too much fertiliser and cow piss is why we can't swim in our rivers). He stressed the need for policy to be durable in the long-term (that is, not change every election), and that it must look beyond Kyoto (or rather, beyond CP1). And of course he thought that there needed to be a price put on carbon, and the sooner the better. Finally, he noted that a focus on adaptation would sharpen the minds of farmers and developers, and possibly bring them on board (the prospect of your livelihood becoming much more vulnerable tends to do that).

The subsequent Q&A session was fascinating. Someone raised the prospect of a social marketing campaign from government to stress the problem, and this was generally agreed with by the panel (though it would require buy-in from the environmental movement - a plea for less friendly fire?). Someone else noted that Tony Blair was showing leadership on climate change, and was struck by the fact that Helen Clark and the New Zealand government weren't doing the same. The absence of politicians was noted, and it was suggested that it should have been the Prime Minister of New Zealand speaking at the conference, rather than the Prime Minister of the UK. Someone asked whether subsidising wind power would work, to the general answer of "it doesn't need it". There was a suggestion for an independent panel or task force to suggest policy and provide durability, but I suspect that no government would agree to that. The question of how cross-party support for durable policy could be obtained was met with a deep silence (nobody trusts National, it seems). But the most interesting comment was made by Peter Neilson, who noted that

When I was a Minister [back in the Rogernomics days - I/S], I would get backbench MPs coming to me because they had five handwritten letters from constituents saying that [a particular issue] was a crisis for them.

Which immediately suggests a solution to the current political deadlock. If we want credible, durable, sane climate change policy, we have to make ourselves heard, and quickly.

Has justice failed?

Clint Rickards, Bob Schollum and Brad Shipton have been found "not guilty" in the police rape trial. I wasn't in the courtroom, so I don't know all the evidence - but from media reports, the case against them was strong. There are going to be a lot of people feeling that justice has failed here, that these men have got away with repeatedly raping and victimising a young woman all those years ago because they wore a police uniform. But the reason they have "gotten away with it" is because the evidence did not convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt - that the case simply wasn't strong enough - and because we operate on the principle that it is far better for the guilty to go free than see the innocent wrongly jailed. Today's acquittal is, in a sense, the price of that principle. It's shitty, but its what happens when we deliberately try and avoid one sort of miscarriage of justice at the risk of creating another.

I am sure that that is no consolation whatsoever to Louise Nicholas. But she may be able to take consolation in the fact that this trial will taint her abusers for the rest of their lives, and that Clint Rickards will almost certainly never get to be Police Commissioner. And she might also be able to take consolation in the fact that some of her abusers might not have gotten away with everything. It's not enough, any more than seeing Slobodan Milosevic die before his trial was complete was enough for his victims - but it is at least something.

The cost of Kyoto

Radio New Zealand this morning had a story about the expected cost of our participation in the Kyoto Protocol doubling to a billion dollars due to Treasury increasing the expected cost of buying carbon credits on the international market. All I can say is that this has been in the pipeline for a long time: Treasury valued carbon at around $8 a ton, when they were currently trading between $9 and $25 a ton. They've updated their cost estimate to a midrange figure of $16 a ton, but even this is probably too low: at the moment, carbon is traded at around 25 Euro a ton on the European emissions market - around twice Treasury's estimate. Which suggests we're going to be facing another revaluation in the future, and we should probably start buying at least some credits now to hedge our bets against future price rises.

This is causing the usual outpouring from the right about "having to pay a billion dollars to the Russians", and its worth pointing out three things: firstly, that this is around a seventh of a percent of GDP a year, meaning that the overall cost is hardly crippling (its a medium-sized spending programme, but not enormous). Secondly, that we don't necessarily have to give that money to the Russians - we could, for example, spend it on making emissions reductions here. And thirdly, if the price of carbon goes up as expected, that one billion dollars could become two - which makes it all the more important to pursue solid domestic emissions reduction, as a way of reducing our exposure to the international market. Unfortunately, the government and business sector just don't seem to get this - they think it is all just too hard and too costly (whether financially or politically), and are hence unwilling to support any significant domestic emissions reduction policy. And arguably, that is precisely why we are in this mess in the first place.

More power to Parliament

Every Thursday when Parliament is sitting, the government makes a "business statement" setting out its agenda for the next sitting week. Something interesting turned up in yesterday's one: there is likely to be a Privileges debate on Thursday. This isn't interesting because someone (most likely TVNZ) is going to be dragged over the coals; it's interesting because of the timing. Traditionally, reports from the Privileges Committee were presented on a Tuesday and debated on a Wednesday. As Wednesday is also Members Day, this tended to cut into the time to debate Members' Bills. But now the government has lost control of many of the select committees - and particularly, the Privileges Committee - that has changed. The other parties have already shown a strong desire to protect members time (witness last years' filibuster by National and ACT to force consideration of Sue Kedgley's flexible working hours bill after the government killed debate so they could go off and attend a state banquet), and this is another stage in the process. And the result is to shift more power from the government back to Parliament - which in the long run can only be a Good Thing.

No place for gays in Howard's Australia

Last week, the government of the Australian Capital Territory introduced legislation to recognise both same- and different-sex civil unions. As with the New Zealand legislation, this will be "marriage in all but name", with existing laws being tweaked to ensure that such unions are treated exactly the same as marriage. Unfortunately, the federal government views this as "undermining marriage", and is now promising to block the legislation. The message this sends is crystal clear: that there is no place for gays in Howard's Australia, and that they will never be treated equally. For a country which prides itself as being a modern democracy, that is simply an appalling message to send.

Progressive bills: next steps

The progressive bills thinktank has come up with a number of ideas for member's bills, some of them even viable. Among these are:

  • Reforming abortion legislation;
  • Annual CPI adjustments for benefit or Community Services Card income-test levels;
  • Tweaking the ERA to better cope with outsourced labour and "independent contractors" by focusing on the concept of "worker" rather than "employee" (as is apparently done in UK legislation);
  • Barring political donations from blind trusts;
  • Electoral reform to allow preferential voting for candidates (would require a supermajority or referendum);
  • Introducing a carbon tax.

(There were other ideas, but these are the ones I thought were most interesting or achievable).

The next step is talking to politicians. While it may seem like we should be drafting legislation and trying to wonk out the details, what we actually need are MPs willing to take up these ideas and introduce them to the House. So, I'm after suggestions on specific politicians to approach for each one - and more importantly, people willing to adopt a bill and ask those MPs whether they would be willing to put it up.

So, any volunteers?

Climate Change & Governance: More from Wednesday

More notes from the Climate Change and Governance Conference, this time from the policy sessions in the middle of Wednesday. This was a parallel session, so I only got to see half of it - but fortunately it was the half not available on the web. Video of what I missed can be found here (the slide labelled "Australian Action on Climate Change").

Joop Oude Lohuis (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency) spoke on "the logic of European action on climate change" - basically, a brief overview of EU and Dutch policy. The EU has used Kyoto's Joint Implementation mechanism to form a "bubble" and redistribute their overall target of an 8% cut in emissions among themselves - with the result of enormous variation in targets. of the original EU states, Germany and the UK accepted responsibility for deep emissions cuts - around 20% and 15% respectively - while Spain, Portugal and other poorer EU states emissions are allowed to grow. The new members, being mostly former communist states in Eastern Europe, have accepted very deep cuts (Poland 34%, Czech Republic 15%), but as their economies collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union, they should be able to make them, and it means more carbon credits for them to sell. Currently, the EU will miss its target by 2%, but should make it if planned measures are actually implemented. Their key policies are a vigorous emissions trading scheme linked to the international market (the ETS), renewables and energy efficiency targets, and a large switch from coal to gas (or in some cases, nuclear) for electricity generation.

The ETS policy is fascinating - basically they picked out 11400 significant sources of emissions, capped them, issued certificates, and told the companies to sort it out amongst themselves. So far the price of carbon has hit around 25 Euros, but price changes seem to have been driven mostly by changes in government policy (as for example when Italy decided to reduce its overall cap - that drove the price up quite significantly). The market seems to have stabilised now, and they're looking at expanding it to allow other countries to join. As a side-comment, this sort of solution has been proposed for New Zealand (and its currently being considered as a replacement for the carbon tax), but there are worries about whether the local market is large enough. Linking in to a larger market, whether the ETS or one created with Australia, would be a good way of solving the problem if we want to go down that route.

65% of the Netherlands' population and a larger proportion of their GDP lies below sea level and is highly vulnerable to climate change, so they have a strong incentive for action. One thing they're doing is ensuring that new infrastructure projects - new power stations, roads etc - are located so as not to be so vulnerable. Its apparently a message New Zealand businesses and the New Zealand government are yet to pick up on.

Kirsty Hamilton (climate and business consultant, UK) gave a fascinating talk on "climate policy and business investment". Her key starting points (and this will sound repetitive) is that the debate on the science is over, that a large segment of the international business community has accepted that climate change is real and that they need to structure their investments to cope, and that what is needed is a fundamental transformation of the energy sector. A key statistic was that the energy sector will be needing US$17 trillion of new investment over the next 30 years - and the challenge is making sure its the right sort of investment. This requires government to set policy to push the market, and to provide consistency so that the business sector can make those investments. Policy has to be "loud, long, and legal" - clearly designed to set incentives and impact returns, stable in the long-term, and backed by force of law and a strong regulatory framework. In other words, exactly what we haven't got in New Zealand.

Climate change is increasingly forming part of (sensible) business' strategic planning, and they are looking for strong signals from governments so they will know what to do. And whether a business is prepared for climate change is increasingly factoring into the decision-making of large institutional investors. A group of them have formed the Carbon Disclosure Project to effectively audit the businesses they invest in on this question - and next year they'll be scrutinising the NZ SX50. It will be quite interesting to see what answers they get...

Elayne Grace (IAG) talked about "lessons from the insurance sector". The insurance sector is paying attention to climate change, because it will cost them money. They are in the business of pooling risk, and climate change will increase that risk. This leaves them with the options of either raising premiums, reducing cover, or reducing the risk. The first two may put them out of business (or at least significantly affect their profits), and so they're interested in the latter. It's quite refreshing to see outright selfishness working for good for once...

The statistics are sobering: the cost of global disasters is increasing dramatically, both in terms of insured losses and total economic losses, and while some of this is simply due to people being richer and having more stuff to lose, and more people living closer to the coast, there is a climate change signal there as well. Worse, the largest cause of disaster-related damage is weather. 8 of the top 10 disasters in terms of insured losses between 1970 and 2005 were weather related (the other two being the 1994 Northridge earthquake and 9/11) - and five of them happened in 2004-5. The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which broke all sorts of records for nastyness, really made insurance companies sit up and pay attention - and they don't like where things are headed. Locally, IAG has noted that Queensland now seems to be in danger from tropical cyclones, and is worried about the potential costs. This gives them a serious reason to push for action. She summed up by quoting from the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: two-thirds of our environment is being degraded or used unsustainably, and we are treating the Earth like "a business in liquidation", in that it doesn't appear on anyone's balance sheet. And unless we stop doing it, it is going to cost us all in the long run.

Next: transport, biofuels, and New Zealand's response.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Climate Change & Governance: Wednesday Morning

Some notes from the second day of the Climate Change and Governance Conference, which wrapped up yesterday in Wellington. Where day one had focused on the science, day two focused on the policy, as ought to be obvious from the below.

Professor Will Steffen (ANU) spoke on "sleeping giants: surprises in the climate and earth system". The key idea here is tipping points - and the key problem is that we don't know where they are. Three large areas of uncertainty were discussed: climate sensitivity (how strongly the climate responds to increased CO2 levels), cyrospheric instability (melting icecaps), and ocean acidification. The latter is the sleeping giant of the global climate system; the ocean is an enormous carbon sink and absorbs a large amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. But part of this involves the formation of carbonic acid, which dissolves the calcium carbonate shells of coral, phytoplankton and other marine organisms. Normally, the variation of CO2 concentration between 180 and 280 ppm between glacials and interglacials produces a variation of 0.1 in pH. We've already seen that, and with CO2 concentrations now well outside the normal range, we'll see more. The consequences could be a massive die-off of marine life (phytoplankton is the base of the marine ecosystem), and the loss of almost all the world's coral reefs. As an aside, this has happened before, around 55 million years ago, and precisely because a marine clathrate eruption caused runaway global warming. The CO2 this liberated from elsewhere in the system then turned the oceans acidic, causing a mass-extinction. The consequences can be seen in marine sediments, where the white carbonate (the skeletons of those marine mammals) suddenly turns to red clay, and only gradually shades back to normality over 50 - 100 thousand years. That's where we could be headed, and the prospect is quite frightening.

Dr Steve Hatfield-Dodds (CSIRO) gave a very interesting and wide-ranging talk on "interpreting the economic impacts of reducing greenhouse emissions". This began with a discussion of how economists model costs and with the idea of opportunity cost. Economist's models typically price Kyoto as costing 1-3% of GDP over 10 years, and stabilising global carbon emissions at 0.5 - 0.8% of GDP over 50 years (meaning that expected GDP in 50 years will be that much below where it would be if we did nothing). They also tell us that how we get there matters; late action is more expensive than early action, and emissions trading helps a lot. But its worth noting that these models do not include the expected costs of business-as-usual emissions (making them essentially a strapped chicken), and they do not incorporate technological change; they focus solely on reducing emissions by reducing consumption.

There was a diversion into the happiness literature (basically, how happiness varies with GDP; the answer is "not much" after around US$10,000 per capita) - and what this tells us is that if the goal is utilitarian (as economics covertly assumes), then high growth is not necessarily better than low growth, or even no growth at all - and that people care about a hell of a lot more than money. This then led on to a discussion of economic psychology: the models assume that the valuation of costs and benefits is symmetric, that is that the amount people are willing to pay for something ("willingness to pay", or WTP) is exactly the same as the amount they would accept as compensation for losing that thing ("willingness to accept", or WTA). This simply isn't the case: real people (as opposed to the ones economists assume in their models) are highly loss-averse, with WTA typically being twice WTP. This loss-aversion increase dramatically for catastrophic losses, with subjective valuation ratios of ten or even a hundred times between WTA and WTP. In other words, their answers accept moral judgements rather than valuation of costs and benefits.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the real point: that the framing of climate change policy in terms of cost is highly misleading, and risks a misunderstanding of the real consequences. According to some empirical research, cost-framing underestimates support for action on climate change by 25-50%, and overestimates opposition by 50 - 100%. Which is I guess why those opposing action do it. But its worth noting two key points: that no scenario for dealing with climate change involves any reduction in living standards, and that all scenarios involve increases in living standards, only at a slower rate. Dealing with this problem is not going to make us poorer. Not dealing with it almost certainly will.

The conference was then taken over by TV3 for their live-link-up with Tony Blair. I'm sure you've all read about it already, so I won't talk about it. The video is here if anyone wants to see it.

Murray Ward (consultant) gave a presentation on "framing policy action in the short and long term". His key question was "why are we stuck" - and his key answer was that governments had failed to prevent climate change policy from being presented as burdensome. As a result, we've had poor policy implementation, as governments have tip-toed around powerful vested interests, which has increased the costs of action overall. This has also resulted in business being stuck, as without clear policy signals they have no certainty and no guidance for the long-term investment decisions necessary to solve the problem. And the public is stuck because we (wrongly) fear the costs of action more than the effects of climate change, and do not appreciate the benefits and co-benefits of such action. His answer to this was to stress that action can be taken without affecting living standards, and that it is really all about technological transformation rather than reducing consumption.

(As you might have guessed from his job description, this was a fairly lightweight seminar, and rather disappointing compared with the other high-quality material on offer).

Simon Upton (former Minister for the Environment) gave a very information-packed talk on "what sort of contribution can a small country make?" His answer was "very little", but that it could be a useful little. Upton starts from the premise that the US, India and China, whoa re sitting on top of large piles of coal, will burn it - the former for energy security, the latter two because they need energy and they cannot afford to do anything else if they are to develop. He regards the right to develop as unquestionable. What this means is that policy has to focus around long-term transformation, on technology, and on making that technology available cheaply to developing nations. That really is the only way this potentially massive source of emissions will be limited.

Internationally, Upton thinks that as most developed nations are going to miss their CP1 targets, CP2 targets will be modest and probably immediately deliverable. As for new Zealand, he thinks that we should be focussing our diplomatic resources on ensuring that larger nations commit sufficient resources to R&D on technologies such as "clean coal" and carbon sequestration. Credibility requires that we be seen to be acting ourselves and that we have something to bring to the table - that we can "add value" - and here he thinks that we can definitely make a contribution on ways to reduce animal emissions. Unfortunately, we're not spending enough money on it - a paltry $4 million - and from discussions with scientists (he was also a former Minister of research, science and technology, remember), he thinks it needs to approximately double. Domestically, he thinks it is essential to put a price on carbon, and while in the past he favoured emissions trading, he now favours a carbon tax as the simplest measure. He also noted that if oil price hikes have failed to crash the economy (the headline in this morning's Dominion-Post was "Petrol price hits record high"), then a carbon charge at the levels being discussed is unlikely to. Finally, he called for a cross-party accord on the issue, so that policy wasn't dependent on who won the next election and business had the certainty to make the necessary investment decisions.

Upton got to the right place, but there was a little weirdness along the way. He seems to think that dealing with climate change requires massive lifestyle reductions in industrialised nations - while at the same time thinking that the long-term solution is all about technological transformation. And while he thinks that nation-states must push their markets to make the right decisions (that's what putting a price on carbon is all about), he's utterly dismissive of international treaties as a way of getting them to do that. Maybe his time in the OECD and watching the EU has made him a cynic about such things - but I'm wondering exactly how he expects to see the necessary coordinated global action unless its via such agreements.

Next up: the Dutch, risk-managers, and the insurance industry.


The usual ballot for Member's Bills was held today, and the following bills were drawn:

  • Local Government (Rating Cap) Amendment Bill (Rodney Hide)
  • Consumer’s Right to Know (Food Information) Bill (Jeanette Fitzsimons)
  • Marine Reserves (Consultation with Stakeholders) Amendment Bill (Eric Roy)

These have all been previously discussed, the local government and marine reserves bills here, and the food information bill here. I'll add full links once they go up on Knowledge Basket.

Meanwhile, the ballot is beginning to thin. There were only 30 bills this time, and no new ones. Which suggests we should try and extract something useful from the progressive bills thinktank and start pushing bills at politicians.

No such communication

People might remember that earlier in the month I received a rather unclear response from the National Party on their position on Guantanamo. It carefully evaded the question of where exactly National stood on Guantanamo, but did at least say this:

Our Foreign Affairs spokesman, Murray McCully, has raised the matter with the Minister of Defence, Hon Phil Goff. Please be assured that we will continue to keep an eye on the situation in the future.

I was interested in knowing exactly what Mr McCully had said to Goff - so I asked, submitting an OIA request explaining the letter and asking for all communications between McCully and Goff on the issue. The response?

There has been no such communication.

Clearly, someone isn't being straight with us - and given the requirements of the OIA, it isn't the Minister.

Update: Upon receiving further information from the National Party, it seems the the Minister's OIA response was more than a little misleading. I have posted a retraction here

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

But was anybody listening?

Over the past few days, 400 scientists, officials, NGO representatives and academics have been meeting in Wellington to discuss climate change and governance. But one group was conspicuous by their absence: the politicians. With the honourable exception of Jeanette Fitzsimons, who played an active role (she left only to vote on her Resource Management (Climate Protection) Amendment Bill), there was no serious interest from MPs and Ministers. Pete Hodgson and Nick Smith made only token appearances, and there was no sign of any other MP or Minister (not the acting Minister of Energy, Trevor Mallard, or the Minister of Forestry, Jim Anderton, or any of the other parties' spokespeople on environment, climate change, energy, transport or forestry). Likewise - again with the exception of the Greens - there was no-one present from any of the political parties' policy units or Parliamentary staff. As far as our political parties were concerned, it just wasn't happening...

There could be all sorts of good reasons for this, of course. They could be busy. Or already briefed. But you can't help but notice the glaring discrepancy in the amount of attention paid to an issue which is quite possibly the most important challenge faced by humanity this century, and the question of who stuffed a tennis ball into whose mouth twenty years ago...

Climate Change & Governance: The rest of Tuesday

More from the first day of the Climate Change and Governance Conference. I should point out that apparently they'll be putting video of the various presentations on the web over the next few weeks, so if you're interested (and have bandwidth) you can watch them yourself.

Dr Kevin Trenberth (US National Center for Atmospheric Research) spoke on "observed changes to the climate and their causes". I ended up missing the first half of this, and came in just as he was talking about hurricanes; there's some evidence that hurricane intensity (and hence damage) has increased along with the rise in average sea temperatures. He also talked about the big picture - retreating glaciers, the decline in sea ice and snow-cover, and the effects of lower snowpack on water supplies and droughts (generally bad). His overall conclusion was that natural forcing does not account for warming after about 1970.

Dr Myles Allen (Oxford University) spoke via videolink on "climate change modelling and projections". His first point was that there is strong agreement among scientists (including those critical of global warming) on the expected level of warming to 2040 or so. Where people disagree is on the sensitivity of the climate (how strongly it will react to extra CO2) and the long-term response. His second point was that the nature of the problem makes the models difficult to validate; CO2 levels this high are unprecedented with the current configuration of continents (and hence global circulation patterns), so we can't check a run of the model (with appropriate inputs) against the geological record. And of course we don't have the luxury of having a control. All we can do is try and be as rigorous as possible, and use ensemble forecasting to try and get a grasp on the uncertainties.

This causes problems for trying to set a "stabilisation limit" for greenhouse gases (e.g. trying to stabilise GHG concentrations at twice the preindustrial level, or half of it, or any other arbitrary level), because we won't know whether we've chosen the right limit until it is too late. Worse, the models all have large "tails" of high warming with reasonably high probabilities. For example, stabilising total GHG concentrations at 40% of 1990 levels still leaves us with a >50% chance of more than 2 degrees of warming. But this isn't the case for a "containment limit", in which we limit the total amount of GHGs we dump into the atmosphere; here, we have far more certainty about the consequences and whether they will be dangerous.

His conclusion was that the idea of a "sustainable per-capita emissions limit" is scientifically indefensible, because we cannot tell if it is in fact sustainable. By contrast, a total emissions cap is sustainable, in that we can predict the effects with a far more certainty. We're emitted about 500 GigaTonnes of GHGs so far, and Dr Allen's suggestion was that if we wanted to limit warming to less than 2 degrees, we should try and emit less than a trillion tons.

(There's a PDF presentation here with the graphs and charts he used, though I think its for the same talk given elsewhere).

Professor Ronald Prinn (MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change) gave an interesting talk on "predicting future climate through the integration of science and economics". Much of this was about the MIT Joint Program's Integrated Global System Model, which incorporates a sophisticated economic model which feeds into (and gets feedback from) a climate change model. This allows the effects of various policies to be tested on a global scale. He likewise pointed out the uncertainties in the models - that long "tail" of extreme warming due to various levels of feedback in the climate system. One key fact to emerge from his modelling was that globally, strong climate change control policies don't have much effect before 2050; instead, the payoff come around 2100, in the form of dramatically reducing those uncertainties and the probability of dangerous levels of warming. So it is very much a long-term project. As for the cost, he used the metaphor of "wheel of climate change", a game-show where a wheel is spun to produce various levels of warming. Policy gives a new wheel, with different (and better) odds. Whether we do it or not is a question of how much we are willing to pay to avoid those disastrous scenarios.

After lunch the conference split into several streams. I listened in to talks by Dr David Whitehead (Landcare Research) on "the role of forests in climate change mitigation" (which was mostly about the prospects for "carbon farming" on marginal East Coast land by returning it to native forest), Dr Mark Howden (CSIRO) on "climate change and Australian agriculture" (their wheat industry will probably be badly affected due to increased temperatures and drought, though there's a small probability that they'll come out ahead if everyone moves their farms to follow the climate), Professor Blair Fitzharris (Otago) on New Zealand's vulnerability to global warming (basically, our farming paterrns will have to shift, and coastal communities will face significant risks), and Dr David Wratt (NIWA) on water and adaptation in NZ (its either too much or too litle, with potentially very costly effects). Finally, there was an interesting talk from Dr Harry Clark (AgResearch) on animal emissions and the prospects for controlling them (difficult given our farming practices, but not impossible).

There was also a talk from Penehuro Lefale (WMO) in another stream on the effects of climate change on small island states which was apparantly very interesting, but which I didn't get to go to. I do however have hardcopy, and I'll post anything interesting later.

The conference dinner had a very interesting and wide-ranging talk from Lord Ron Oxburgh (former chairman of Shell, among other things) on "the climate change challenge". It also had an excellent chocolate mousse pie.

Climate Change & Governance: Tuesday Morning

The first day of the Climate Change and Governance Conference focussed on the science. Here's a rundown of what was covered in the first session:

Professor Peter Barrett (VUW) spoke about the long-term climate record, as seen in the geological record. 65 million years ago, the Earth was 6-10 degrees warmer, and CO2 levels were significantly higher than pre-industrial levels. Since then, there has been a long-term cooling trend, mirroring and mirrored by a long-term decline in CO2. We now seem to be reversing that trend. Particular attention was paid to the record of the growth and shrinking of the Antarctic ice-cap, which fluctuates in the long-term according to the Milankovitch cycles, with CO2 tracking the change within a certain natural band. We are now well outside that natural band of fluctuations, with a CO2 level unprecedented for at least a million years. This is expected to produce climate change not seen since the age of dinosaurs.

Dr Dave Lowe (NIWA) spoke on the changing composition of the atmosphere and the atmospheric greenhouse gas record. He first talked about the Keeling curve - that lovely set of measurements of atmospheric CO2 from Mauna Loa - and then his own data collected over the last 30 years from Baring Head near Wellington. The upward trend in atmospheric CO2 concentration is consistent across multiple data sets and increasing; the long-term growth rate was a mere 0.5 ppm/year when measurements first started, and is now 2 ppm/year (with Baring Head showing 2.5). It tracks the increase in fossil fuel use, and isotope studies show that that is very definitely where the carbon is coming from. what's frightening is that fossil fuel use continues to increase at 2% a year.

Professor David Vaughan (British Antarctic Survey) talked on Antarctic de-glaciation and the global climate system, and particularly about the Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctic ice shelf. While other parts of Antarctica are cooling and thickening, the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed significantly, and 87% of the glaciers in the area are in retreat - a change which does not seem to be part of any natural cycle according the geological record. More concerning, the West Antarctic ice sheet is thinning, and would need to thin only a little more in order to float free of the seafloor and break up, causing significant sea-level rise. Studies of the underlying geology show the areas this is likeliest to occur, and all they can do is watch. Vaughan made the point that while in the developed world sea-level rise will simply cost money (on flood defences, seawalls etc), in the developing world it will kill, as these societies simply lack the resources to cope with or protect against it.

That's all for now; maybe I'll post more later, when I've had a chance to digest it all.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Thinktank: progressive bills

A No Right Turn Thinktank is where I solicit comments and try and start discussion around a small political project - in this case, Member's Bills. I've been devoting quite a bit of coverage to them this year, and its been pointed out to me that Parliament is working its way through them at a cracking pace. Unless MPs and researchers come up with some new ones, they might run out!

So, here's a plan: we could come up with some ideas for bills here, and then try and sell them to the politicians. An example of grassroots democracy in action.

The ideal Member's Bill is short - two pages at most, including the explanatory note. It must be extremely simple to understand, and therefore have a clear and limited aim - like repealing blasphemy or sedition, for example (for professional examples, see Jeanette Fitzsimons's Resource Management (Climate Protection) Amendment Bill, or Gordon Copeland's New Zealand Bill of Rights (Private Property Rights) Amendment Bill). We're not trying to fundamentally change the world - just one small part of it.

So, any suggestions? What would you like to see changed?

(Useful resources:

Update: Bump. I'm keeping this at the top of the page over the next few days to give a decent chance for discussion. Otherwise it'll just get lost...


No posts for the next few days, as I'll be attending the Climate Change and Governance Conference in Wellington. Please continue the discussion in the progressive bills thinktank - I think its been quite productive. When I get back online, I'll comment or post about next steps to possibly see some of this stuff on the Parliamentary agenda.

If you're interested in climate change, there are a couple of talks in Auckland and Christchurch over the next few days. If you are in Auckland, Lord Ron Oxburgh (a distinguished geologist and former chairperson of Shell) will be speaking on "Energy and Climate – Time to Act" at 6pm, 31st March in Lecture Theatre 1-439, Level 4, 20 Symonds St. If you're in Christchurch, he'll be speaking on "The Climate Change Challenge: Shaping the Energy Transition" at 7.30pm, 30th March in the Limes Room, Christchurch Town Hall. Both lectures are free.

New Fisk

Lessons from the ghosts of Gallipoli

Monday, March 27, 2006

Petty traditionalism

While browsing the Office of the Clerk's website, I also noticed that the Government Administration Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Oaths Modernisation Bill. As can be guessed from its title, this bill modernises oaths and declarations, such as the Oath of Allegiance, so that they're not quite so archaic (unfortunately it does not remove the most archaic feature of all - the fact that people swear allegiance to the Queen rather than the people and constitution of New Zealand). The committee was unable to reach agreement on the bill, and so has not suggested amendments, but they have made comments. While some are quite useful (why should written affirmations be different in form from spoken ones?), most seem driven by nothing more than petty traditionalism and a love of purple prose. For example:

  • The bill would modernise the form of affirmation (currently "I, A B, solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm") to "I, [name], solemnly and sincerely affirm". This is deemed insufficiently solemn. More like insufficiently purple.
  • Currently, s4A of the existing Act allows the oaths in the Act to be made in Maori provided a translation is specified by regulation. The bill generalises that provision so that where any Act also provides a Maori version of an oath or declaration, it is considered equivalent to an English version. This is considered to be "not immediately understandable" (note that while the report references s4A(2), they are very clearly talking about 4A(1). Though I'd expect the petty traditionalists to be outraged at 4A(2) as well, as it allows oaths in Maori to "be effective" even where no translation has been provided, just as oaths are "effective" regardless of religious belief. ).
  • They don't like the Maori Translations, as "Maori groups" might interpret them differently.
  • They don't think the phrase "to act fairly and impartially" should be included in the judicial oath, as it is supposedly a part of "doing right according to law". But it is also very much what being a judge is all about - executing the laws impartially without fear or favour - and it is worth reminding people of.
  • The proposed Parliamentary oath would require MPs to be "loyal to New Zealand and... respect its democratic values and the rights and freedoms of its people" as well as to the Queen. The National Party specifically considers these phrases to be vague and undefined. They seem pretty clear to me - and a hell of a lot clearer than, for example, "bear[ing] true allegiance" to the monarch.

At this stage I think it is worth pointing out that the government did not have a majority on the committee, and the report was essentially written by the National Party. The question is whether they'll have a majority in Parliament to pass the bill, or whether this too will join the legislative gridlock...


Riverbend has been nominated for the BBC's Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction for her blog. Normally, the prize is only given to books.

I gues it shows that you can do worthwhile work inthe blogosphere, and it gives us all something to aim for.

Buried II

The Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee has released its interim report [PDF] on Sue Kedgley's Employment Relations (Flexible Working Hours) Amendment Bill. While they agree on the need for flexible working hours, they disagree on the means. Instead of reporting back, they've decided to delay the bill for a year to allow officials to

undertake further work to collect and collate reliable information on New Zealand workplace practices regarding flexible working hours, and to consult more widely on both the principles of and delivery mechanisms for flexible working hours.

As I noted last week, what this means is that Sue doesn't have the votes to pass it, and has hit the pause button rather than see it fail. And I suspect the Maori Party's cosying up to ACT is the reason why.


David Haywood has an excellent piece on Public Address calling for the entrenchment of the Bill of Rights Act and its elevation to Supreme Law. He makes a strong case. As he points out,

These two extra features are obviously essential. After all, what is the point of a Bill of Rights that is not entrenched? If a government wanted to violate a protected right then - by the simple majority that enables it to govern in the first place - it could merely amend the Bill of Rights to make its actions legitimate. Even more nonsensical is a Bill of Rights that is not supreme law. This gives a determined government carte blanche to ignore the Bill of Rights altogether, and simply overrule it with other legislation.

Parliament claims the right to do this on the basis of "Parliamentary sovereignty". But in a democracy, it is the people who are sovereign, not Parliament. And I think its clear that we want a government which not only does not, but can not (legally) torture and kill us, interfere with freedom of speech or religion, discriminate against us on the basis of political belief, religion, race or sexuality, or deny us the right to natural justice and a fair trial. Ensuring this means binding Parliament, whether the politicians want it or not.

Haywood suggests a referendum on the subject at the next election. One way of doing this is by the indicative referendum procedure under the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993. The other is by passing legislation providing for one. The former allows people to express ownership of their constitution by pushing for change from the bottom up. The latter might actually be effective. Personally, I'd go for both. I wonder if any of the Greens are willing to push for such a bill...?

Chaotic policy and squandered opportunities

It looks like its not just greens who are upset at the government's about-face on climate change. Kevin Patterson, a senior energy modeller for the Ministry of Economic Development, has publicly criticised "chaotic policy" in the area:

Dr Patterson was distraught at the dropping of the carbon tax, which he said would have solved about 75 per cent of our global warming problems.

The decision meant New Zealand had no realistic hope of meeting its protocol targets, as other policies, like projects to reduce emissions and encourage more efficient use of energy, were "not very effective".

"They're dreaming if they think it's going to make a difference."

Unfortunately, our climate change policy never seems to have been about making a difference - instead, it's always been about collecting windfall profits from the sale of carbon credits. And now that those credits have disappeared, we're left rather exposed. It's immensely frustrating when you consider that effective measures - one way or another of internalising the cost of carbon and making emitters pay for what they are doing - have been developed and then repeatedly delayed over the past decade. We were supposed to have a carbon tax in 1997 as a way of meeting our UNFCCC obligations. It was paradoxically put on hold at the last minute because we'd adopted a binding emissions reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol. We had another chance in 1999 when the National government wanted to introduce one as an interim measure to precede a full emissions-trading regime. It was dumped on the floor by the incoming Labour-Alliance government. Labour's carbon tax, hashed out over 2001-2002, was to be introduced in 2007, only to be dumped before even having a chance to work. The first two times, policymakers could appeal to the mirage of anticipated carbon credits. Labour has no such excuse.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, we are required to either reduce our net greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, or take responsibility for the excess by acquiring credits off other parties. While the government is promising new climate change policies after the review (which finishes up sometime this month), if they're ruling out a broad-based carbon tax, then its hard to see what they can do which will make a real difference. Instead, we now seem to be firmly committed to the latter path of buying credits. Given the opportunities we have squandered, I can understand Patterson's frustration.


The marriage between United Future and Outdoor Recreation New Zealand seems to have ended in divorce, with Outdoor Recreation citing irreconcilable differences. Apparantly, they didn't like being proselytised at by Christian fundamentalists.

The merger was a marriage of convenience anyway, driven primarily by MMP's undemocratic threshold rather than any real common ground between the parties. At the same time, it also seemed to be part of a project by Peter Dunne to broaden his party's base away from being a purely religious party towards the middle of the road party he'd always wanted. Outdoor Recreation's departure basically brings that project to an end, and probably means that United Future is likely to remain a small party for the forseeable future.

ACT's new VP

Progblog has emerged from its post-election hibernation with some comments on ACT's rather scary new vice-president - who seems to be even more of an underpant-sniffer than Rodney. Ordinarily, Mr Loudon would be a harmless communist-obsessed kook - except for this bit:

Don Brash has put Rodney Hide on the brilliantly described intelligence 'oversight' committee. Prog Blog has no quarrel with the security services. But imagine what these 'liberals' could do with the security services when they are motivated by such obsessive interest in the political history of New Zealanders.

It doesn't really give much reason for faith in the "oversight" ACT will provide, does it?

Not left

Since its inception, people have wondered whether the Maori Party would be generally on the left or not.

I think we now have a definitive answer.

I wonder how this is going to go down at the flaxroots. And I also wonder why people like Matt McCarten are still working with them when they so clearly oppose his agenda. Wouldn't it be better to help a party which actually supports what you stand for...?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Protesting Blair

Tony Blair is coming to New Zealand next week - and GPJA Auckland, Unite, the Greens and others have organised a welcome for him.

Where: Auckland Town Hall
When: 6pm, Tuesday, 28th March

Flyer here [DOC].


Remember Takshila? The 16-year-old Sri Lankan girl who was forcibly sedated and deported back to her abusers because then-Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel refused to accept that the threat of being raped and killed by her own family constituted "a well-founded fear of persecution"?

According to today's Sunday Star-Times, she was forced to flee Sri Lanka within three months of being deported there. And she has now been granted refugee status by the UN, and is about to begin a new life in Canada.

This should be immensely embarassing for New Zealand, and particularly for Dalziel. She made the wrong decision, seemingly out of a desire to punish someone who was making her look bad - and as a result a refugee, someone we should have been granting safe haven to, was exposed to further danger.

Unfortunately, Immigration is completely unrepentant and refusing to admit that they even made a mistake in the first place. Which doesn't exactly bode well for ensuring that it isn't repeated in the future.

Friday, March 24, 2006


This week's issue of Science is devoted to the latest news about global warming - and in particular about the state of our icecaps. And that news is bad. The West Antarctic ice sheet seems to be slowly melting. In Greenland, glaciers are rushing towards the sea faster than ever before. More generally, a study of the climate of the Eemian interglacial about 125,000 years ago suggests that the current expected level of global warming will result in significant melting - enough to produce a sea-level rise of 4-6 metres over 500 years, or about a metre a century. That's enough to put most of Bangladesh underwater, and threaten many of the world's coastal cities. Meanwhile, according to the editorial (the one part of Science not behind a paywall), CO2 levels are at the highest they've been for 10 million years.

Are we worried yet...?

Updated - Extra helpings of Fisk

With Robert Fisk being in the country there has been a feast of interviews this week:

Update: The five biggest lies the public have been fed about the War on Terror in Iraq with extra comment from Robert Fisk (5.5 mins from the same Campbell Live show).

UBI, employment law, and a vision for the left

Make Tea Not War has a long post up at Work Without End on Flexibility and the Guaranteed Basic Income. While the initial focus is on Sue Kedgley's Employment Relations (Flexible Working Hours) Amendment Bill (and whether it would be effective in helping those who need it most), the real target is the underlying paradigm of employment law. Traditionally, employment law has recognised that there is an imbalance of power between employer and employees, and aimed to correct this through regulation and the promotion of collective bargaining. However, while this helps, it doesn't change the fact that usually employees need to eat far more than employers need their work, and this is a fundamental limit on its effectiveness. And the bottom end of the employment market, where employees tend to be in greatest need of protection because they have few other options available, is precisely where that protection fails, because employers are able to use the threat of starvation to force "agreement" to conditions which noone would voluntarily agree to.

In this situation, MTNW thinks that a universal or guaranteed basic income - a universal payment given to every adult regardless of circumstances - would be the supreme equaliser:

How much easier would it be, for example, to say to an employer, for example, "I will need to finish work every day by 3 so I can be at home with my kids after school" if you weren't depending on that job to put food on the table? I feel pretty sure that if workers had genuine power of exit if their needs can't be accomodated rather than a token right to voice that more flexible working arrangements would evolve very quickly indeed.

And its very hard to disagree. Free people from the necessity of having to work to eat, give them real alternatives to shitty jobs or shitty employers, and the market will be forced to change to accommodate their needs. The work will still need to be done, and, apart from a few people who want to spend their lives surfing or blogging or whatever, people will still want to do it (we have to have something to do with our lives, after all) - but we won't have to put up with so much shit any more. From either party. As MTNW points out,

Equalising the bargaining power of workers would mean that the State could back right off on making rules concerning employment relationships thus reducing red tape and compliance costs significantly.

This is what we should be aiming for. It would dramatically increase the actual, substantive freedom of ordinary people to spend their lives how they wish - a key goal of the left - and end the nastiest practices of the employment market. Yes, we'd have to pay for it - Grey Shade had some interesting calculations on that which I think I still have somewhere - and it would result in substantial economic change; some shitty industries would (deservedly) go to the wall. But it would be well worth it in terms of human happiness and freedom.

Belarus: the batons come out

Since the sham-election in Belarus last weekend, a lonely contingent of protestors has kept a vigil in October Square in Minsk to protest the fixed result. Over the past few days, they've been continually harassed by police, and people travelling to join them have been arrested and imprisoned on spurious charges. The regime's intention was clearly to suffocate the protest (or "wring its neck like a duck", to use President Lukashenko's charming phrase) rather than stage a highly public violent crackdown. But this morning, that changed. Riot police stormed the square, dragged the protestors from their tents, and loaded them onto trucks. The Charter 97 website reports that many were beaten. It's unclear exactly what charges the protestors will face, but at this stage the regime's pre-election warnings equating dissent with terrorism are more than a little worrying...

Poison fruit of a poison tree, part II

Time and time again, whenever allegations of abuse and torture by US troops appear, we are told that it is just the actions of a few "bad apples", and that such treatment "does not reflect the nature of the American people".


A survey by the Pew Research Center in October showed that 15 percent of Americans believe torture is “often” justified, and another 31 percent believe it is “sometimes” justified. Add to that another 17 percent who said it is “rarely” justified, and you have two out of three Americans justifying torture under certain circumstances. Only 32 percent said it is “never” justified, while another 5 percent didn’t know or refused to answer.

So, two-thirds of the American public (and slightly more Catholics) are sadists - and we they wonder why we see scenes like this or this or this when they go to war. I don't think there's any reason to wonder: American torture is the poison fruit of a poison tree, the result of toxic social attitudes which tell people that it is acceptable.

Meanwhile, I think that the differential religious results - Catholics are significantly more likely to approve, "secularists" significantly less - ought to put paid once and for all to those Christian myths about religion, morality, and the valuing of human life.

It's going to be a long three years...

I tuned into The Panel [audio] on National Radio yesterday afternoon just in time to hear Chris Trotter opine on the reason for the current viciousness in Parliament: frustration from both parties at not being able to do anything. Labour is crippled by its dependence on Winston and United Future, and is unable to enact positive progressive policy. National came tantalisingly close to power, but lost out in the end and is likewise unable to impose its agenda. Which makes for a lot of frustration and anger on both sides, which can only be relieved by getting nasty and vicious and personal on each other in the debating chamber. Jeanette Fitzsimons is entirely right to point out that we really do have more important things to talk about - like the $11 billion a year we're shipping overseas to the foreign owners of our banks and other major companies, or what we are going to do to try and meet our Kyoto target, or how we can convince business-owners to ditch the "low wage, low skill, hire another warm body" paradigm in favour of actually investing in their businesses to improve productivity, or why food-bank usage is high even at a time of record low unemployment. Unfortunately, barring a Parliamentary realignment which either gives the government a clear legislative majority, or topples it, I don't think the current frustration-inducing situation is going to go away. Which means its probably going to be a very long three years...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Good news from Iraq

Harmeet Sooden has been rescued! He's now in hospital somewhere in Iraq, but at least he's alive. Now, provided the Americans don't shoot him on the way to the airport...

US military jury endorses abuse

What was that I was saying about having to wait for the sentence? Sgt Michael Smith, the Abu Ghraib dog handler who was convicted of maltreatment, dereliction of duty, assault and indecency, was sentenced to a mere six months prison for threatening prisoners with his dog, and having a competititon with his partner to make them shit themselves. His excuse?

"Soldiers are not supposed to be soft and cuddly"

But neither are they supposed to be monsters - and this one clearly is. He is absolutely unrepentant about what he did - and with his sentence, the jury has essentially endorsed his position. Abusing Iraqis just isn't a real crime worthy of serious punishment as far as they're concerned.

As with the verdict in the Mowhoush case, this makes it crystal clear that rather than being "bad apples", America's torturers are the poison fruit of a poison tree, the natural consequence of an administration and now a military culture which endorses torture and does not care what is done, provided it is done to non-Americans.

Climate change: even failure is better than nothing

There's an interesting - and pointed - question scheduled in today's Question Time:

Hon Dr NICK SMITH to the Minister responsible for Climate Change Issues: Which elements of the Government's climate change policies covering new taxes, restrictions on deforestation and energy efficiency would he describe as a success?

There's only one policy that I'd call an unmitigated success: the waste strategy. This has seen emissions from waste fall by 30% since 1990. Unfortunately, waste makes up only a small part of our emissions profile, so it hasn't had a large effect.

According to his answers to Jeanette Fitzsimons in Question Time yesterday, Hodgson thinks the Projects Mechanism has been a success, albeit a small one. Last year's Review of Climate Change Policies disagreed, finding that it was unclear whether there was actually any net reduction in emissions. The Projects Mechanism has helped "kick-start wind energy in this country", though only in a minor way; arguably the real push for wind has been from worries about future gas supplies and the cost of carbon tax, coupled with difficulties in getting other projects through the RMA process. The electricity sector is very much heading in the right direction in terms of what new generation it is building (with the notable exception of Marsden B), but the government has been lucky more than anything else. And with the demise of the carbon tax, we may see that progress disappear.

While the government has made some moves to push for energy efficiency, they have generally been hamstrung by their reluctance to intervene in the market. The building code has been tightened, but not enough, and steps to improve insulation in existing houses and fit solar water heaters have been limited by funding. Obvious steps - such as fuel efficiency standards or differential registration fees for cars to gradually improve the overall fuel efficiency of our transport fleet - have not been taken.

Negotiated Greenhouse Agreements (the "voluntary approach" favoured by big business and National) haven't resulted in any real savings. which is what you'd expect; business will never agree to voluntarily reduce its profits. They need to have their arms twisted.

The carbon tax didn't even get a chance to get off the ground. Still, according to the review, it would have resulted in emissions reductions of 13.45 MtCO2e over CP1. The subsequent cabinet paper undersold this as "approximately 3 percent of New Zealand ’s total greenhouse gas emissions projected over CP1" - but it was fully a third of our then estimated deficit. It would have made a real difference, but has now been canned. And OTOH, the policy was flawed from the outset by having its introduction delayed until 2007. This sort of economic instrument takes time to have an effect, particularly on large-scale emitters (where the investment cycle tends to be about twenty years), and the longer the lead-time, the better. If we'd introduced the carbon tax back in 2004, the market would have had more time to adapt, and we'd be looking at lower industrial and energy emissions than we are now. And if we'd introduced it back in 1997, when National first planned to, we'd be a hell of a lot better off.

(It's ironic that the tax has been canned largely because of concerns about the popularity of sticking less than 4c/L on the price of petrol. Meanwhile, thanks to George Bush's Middle Eastern madness, we've seen a rise in petrol prices of around ten times that, which is shifting behaviour quite nicely. Again, the government has been lucky - though its a perverse kind of "luck" bought with a lot of dead Iraqis).

The enormous area of failure has of course been forestry policy. Since the beginning, our climate change policy has centred on offsetting almost all of our emissions with forest sinks. Unfortunately, we didn't take any real steps to ensure the necessary trees were planted; in the 90's, the government myopically believed that the market would provide, largely as a result of basing future projections on the last two points on the graph, and more recently policy has created a perverse incentive for deforestation (though low timber and high dairy prices coupled with pure spite on behalf of forest owners hasn't helped). we've also been bitten twice by reassessments of the figures; once in 1996 when we discovered we'd wrongly estimated our 1990 baseline, and then again last year when a further error and a rules clarification meant that a large amount of our post-1990 forest plantings didn't count as they'd been planted on scrubland. As a result, we've seen our projected carbon balance decline from a surplus of 34 MtCO2e (1999) to a deficit of 36 (2005) and now 60 MtCO2e (2006). And given the growing time of trees, its now probably too late to do much about it.

This is a fairly bleak assessment - a lot of failure, with most of the successes really down to luck. But its important to consider what the alternative is: nothing. National would withdraw from Kyoto, and make no real efforts to reduce emissions. Worse, their policy of gutting the RMA and their support for building coal-fired power stations to ensure cheap electricity (effectively an environmental subsidy) would ensure a large rise. Labour's policies have generally been a failure - but even that failure is better than nothing.

What does it mean for the portfolio?

One of the things that has been overlooked in the departure of David parker is what it means for his portfolios - and particularly (because I'm interested in it) the climate change portfolio.

For those who haven't been following it, climate change policy is currently undergoing a major review, sparked by a reassessment which saw our projected balance of units during CP1 plummet from a healthy surplus (allowing us to sell carbon credits on the international market) to an estimated 36 MtCO2e deficit. Since then, further worries about deforestation have seen that deficit grow to around 60 MtCO2e. This caused the government to throw out its entire climate change policy (and notably the carbon tax) and effectively start again with a blank sheet of paper.

Officials were supposed to report back to their Ministers on March 3rd with new policy options, and these were supposed to be hashed out into a coherent whole by a Ministerial Reference Group consisting of the Ministers of Finance, Agriculture, Forestry, Energy, Transport, Environment, Economic Development and Climate Change. The core of the resulting policy was supposed to be presented to Cabinet on April 3rd - less than two weeks away. Parker's sudden departure is likely to have thrown this whole process up in the air. And while the portfolio has been reassigned to Pete Hodgson, who has handled it before, his responsibilities as Minister of Health (a very heavy workload portfolio) may prevent him from paying it the attention it deserves. The change in Ministers may also result in a change in policy; previously, Parker had indicated a willingness to explore some new options (notably, using the RMA in the place of a national-level economic instrument, and actually doing something to promote efficiency gains in transport for once). The first of these was rejected during Hodgson's tenure, and the latter never really considered - and they may now fall by the wayside again, leaving us with no effective policy whatsoever to reduce or limit emissions just two years out from the start of CP1.


According to the latest list of bills before select committees, Sue Kedgley's Employment Relations (Flexible Working Hours) Amendment Bill has been effectively buried in committee, the reporting date having been pushed back by a whole year to 30th April 2007. This can really only happen with Kedgley's consent, and the reason seems to be that while the bill passed its first reading with the support of Labour, the Greens and Progressives, its majority disappeared with the election. In order to progress further, the bill needs the support of either the Maori Party or NZ First - both of whom voted against it originally.

It's disappointing to see this happen, but its better for the bill to be delayed than see it voted down. Meanwhile, perhaps someone would like to ask the Maori Party exactly why they oppose it...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Justice for the Caravana de la Muerte

In the aftermath of the Chilean coup of 1973, a death squad known as the "caravan of death" roamed the country, murdering socialists, communists, and other opposition figures, and burying the bodies in unmarked graves. It was a small but notorious part of Pinochet's oppression - and now it looks like there will finally be some justice for it. A Chilean judge has ordered the arrest of thirteen former army officers who participated in the killings; they will join about a dozen other officers on trial for murder. The message to former servants of members of the Chilean junta couldn't be clearer: one by one, they are going to pay for what they did.

New Fisk

The Iraq War: Three Years On

Nice conviction; what about the sentence?

Sgt Michael Smith, the US Army dog handler whose antics at Abu Ghraib shocked the world, has been found guilty on six charges relating to detainee abuse, including maltreatment, dereliction of duty and assault. This is good news, but we should wait to see the sentence before celebrating. In the last trial for detainee abuse - that of a US Army interrogator who suffocated a prisoner to death by stuffing him into a sleeping bag and sitting on him - the defendant was duly convicted, and then "sentenced" to a reprimand and a fine - for sadisticly killing someone. It will be interesting to see whether this contempt for justice is repeated, or whether the US military manages to effectively hold itself to account in this case.


Today's special ballot has been held, and Dr Jackie Blue's Human Tissue (Organ Donation) Amendment Bill has been drawn. I've discussed the bill here, and its one I generally approve of and would very much like to see passed.

For those wondering, today's ballot had 31 bills in it: 6 from the Greens, 2 from United Future, 4 from New Zealand First, 2 from ACT, 2 from Labour and 15 from National. While the latter seems large, it is only a third of the bills they could be putting up. Meanwhile, Labour is scandalously underusing their potential to legislate, and while they can pursue change through government bills, they really shouldn't be wasting their opportunities. As for the Maori Party, they're nowhere to be seen...

Of the 31 bills, only four had not been discussed in an In the ballot post:

  • Health and Safety in Employment (Limitation of Duties in Relation to Farm Land) Amendment Bill (Shane Ardern)
  • Conservation (Net Conservation Gain) Amendment Bill (Chris Auchinvole)
  • Local Electoral (Repeal of Race-Based Representation) Amendment Bill (Tony Ryall)
  • Land Transport Management (Public Private partnerships) Amendment Bill (Judy Turner, fronting for Gordon Copeland)

I actually have a copy of the last one, and am waiting for enough other bills to make a post. As for the first three, I've made repeated requests and haven't got anywhere yet. Still, 85% coverage isn't bad for a small project like this, and hopefully it'll grow as further ballots are held.

The politics of personal destruction

Brian Easton's Listener column this week has a snippet which is interesting in light of David Parker's resignation. After pointing out that oppositions frequently don't have coherent or concrete policies (as generally speaking, they don't need them), he goes on to say

The way of covering the policy deficit is an unremitting string of personality attacks, often based on thin allegations, punctuated by feeble calls of "resign", no matter how distant the Cabinet minister was from the alleged problem. It is surely enough to make a decent person shun a career in Parliament.

It's a point echoed by The Dominion this morning, in asking Who'd want to be an MP? Most people are not saints, and as Easton point out, these sorts of attacks undermine good governance, by both undermining faith in government as an institution, and by discouraging talented people from entering politics for fear that their personal lives will be dragged through the mud for political advantage.

Now, calling on Ministers to resign is what oppositions do. But you really have to wonder whether the dirt-grubbing of the current opposition (and its underpant-sniffing allies in ACT and Investigate) are getting a little over the top. It is one thing to hold the government to account for malfeasance or incompetence in office (as with Taito Philip Field, Lianne Dalziel, or going back further, Tuariki Delamere and Murry McCully) or personal failings while actually in Parliament (Ruth Dyson and Dover Samuels), or serious allegations which call into question their suitability to be a Minister (David Benson-Pope, before he dug himself a hole by lying to Parliament). It's quite another to dig up and inflate minor offences from long ago, as in this case. David Parker has behaved honourably in resigning, and he should have as Attorney-General simply to maintain credibility, but at the same time the Companies Office has pointed out that these offences are on the level of traffic offences, and only very rarely result in prosecution. If that's the new bar for holding a Ministerial warrant, then I think we'll find very few people able to be Ministers.

Or, to give this a concrete form, Don Brash admitted on live television last night that he had, at some unspecified time in the past, broken the speed limit. I don't think that makes him unsuitable to be Leader of the Opposition or Prime Minister - but by the Opposition's own standards, it does.

That's the problem with the politics of personal destruction - eventually it destroys everyone. And I think that National and its friends had really better watch out, because the precedent they're setting is really going to come back to bite them when its them on the Ministerial benches.

Special ballot and interesting motions

Remember the Human Rights (Gender Identity) Amendment Bill? For most of the past year, it has been hanging around at the bottom of the Order Paper, "below the line", having been postponed by its sponsor before ever receiving its first reading. This has taken up one of the slots for Member's Bills and prevented quite as many being introduced and debated. I have now heard from one of my spies that there is going to be a special ballot today so that four bills are available next Members Day. It will be interesting to see what gets drawn...

Also today, Parliament will be debating two rather interesting government motions relating to the Intelligence and Security Committee, the body which supposedly oversees the SIS. The first would add three new members - Michael CUllen, Winston Peters and Rodney Hide. The second would provide for the Committee to examine bills, petitions, financial reviews, estimates, supplementary estimates, treaties and any other matters relating to the SIS and GCSB - in other words, for it to act like a real select committee rather than a rubberstamp. Though I guess the proof of that will be whether it meets for more than 45 minutes a year...

Of course, this being the government on an intelligence matter, they were effectively moved in secret, appearing at the bottom of the Order Paper (the bit no-one checks) at 11pm last night, and they're likely to be rushed through today using the government's power to alter its own order of business. While I think both are positive steps, it would have been nice if they'd been handled in an open, democratic manner rather than blitzkrieged behind everyone's back...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

An interesting side effect

Writing in the Herald, international recruitment consultant Alan Charman argues that the government's tightening of immigration requirements has had an interesting side-effect: rather than being motivated primarily by better economic opportunities, the current crop of immigrants identify strongly with New Zealand's ideals - our independent foreign policy, commitment to human rights, and anti-nuclear policy:

There are Brits who see our society as colourful and integrated, there are Zimbabweans moved by equality, and Arabs by peace.

The attraction is no longer wholly economic but what the migrants believe about the nature of our society.

And these people will wait any amount of time to be allowed to move here, because this is genuinely where they want to live.

It's a nice side-effect, and its nice to know that we're seen in that way, but at the same time it would be nice to have a system that wasn't so unfair to non-English-speaking (meaning: non-white) immigrants, and which allowed the poor as well as the rich the chance to share the kiwi dream. Egalitarianism is after all one of the things that dream is all about.

Belarus: As expected II

The OSCE has condemned the Belarusian elections [PDF], citing a widespread climate of intimidation and harassment, significant restrictions on campaigning by the opposition, pressure and threats to force people to vote for the incumbent, serious polling irregularities, and a counting process which was not transparent and frequently directed by officials of the ruling party. Their summary:

It is clear that this election did not meet OSCE commitments and international electoral standards. The arbitrary abuse of state power, obviously designed to protect the incumbent President, went far beyond acceptable practice. The incumbent President permitted State authority to be used in a manner which did not allow citizens to freely and fairly express their will at the ballot box.

Both the EU and US have condemned the poll and called for new elections. Meanwhile, Russian observers have said it was "free, open and transparent". Which really makes you wonder whether they actually know what a free and fair election is supposed to look like...

Not raised

The issue of the US's arbitrary detention of suspected terrorists and "enemy combatants" in its Caribbean gulag at Guantanamo Bay is, as Keith Locke says, "an acid test of whether you really stand for justice and human dignity". So you'd expect a New Zealand government which claims to stand for those things to raise the issue with visiting US officials, right? Think again. At a press conference yesterday afternoon, Scoop asked visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill whether the New Zealand government had raised the issue of human rights in Guantanamo. This is how the exchange went (from the MP3, beginning at around 5:25 in):

Scoop: The UN recently issued a report on human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay criticising the United States quite heavily for the conduct of operations there. Was this raised at all in discussions with the New Zealand government, and do you think this is the sort of issue that should be discussed between very very good friends?

Hill: Well, first of all I think any friend has a right to bring up any issue they want, I have no problem discussing any issues. I must say our talks focused with the New Zealand government today on issues and areas we're going to try and cooperate more together in the future.

Scoop: So it didn't come up at all?

Hill: We did not discuss the issue of Guantanamo.

I think this shows exactly how much our government cares about human rights. Their policy really is one of shameful silence...

A landmark day for international justice

Thomas Lubanga is the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, an armed militia from the Democratic Republic of the Congo which is accused of widespread human rights abuses, including the torture, murder and rape of civilians and the use of child soldiers. Today, he made history as the first person to go on trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on charges of "conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities".

He's a monster fully deserving of prosecution and punishment for his crimes, but he's also a little fish. But hopefully his trial will lay the groundwork for the ICC to start going after some of the bigger fish as well.

No freedom of religion in Afghanistan

Four years ago, the US invaded Afghanistan and toppled its theocratic Taleban government. While primarily done as a means to an end (the end being getting Osama bin Laden - something they have spectacularly failed to do), the invasion was sold to the world partly on the promise that the new Afghanistan would be better than the old - free, democratic, and not run by theocrats.

Unfortunately, there's a contradiction between the last two - which is why there's currently a man on trial in Kabul for the "crime" of converting to Christianity. If convicted, he faces execution.

This is simply wrong. It's not wrong because he's a Christian and his oppressors are Muslims, or because he is facing execution (though that adds another layer of wrongness to it), but because religious belief is a fundamental expression of individual autonomy, a core part of who we are, and therefore something which no-one has any right to interfere in.

There's a strong argument that freedom comes from freedom of religion. Unless you're willing to accept that what people believe is their own business (or alternatively, between themselves and whatever gods you happen to believe in), then nothing else really follows. Freedom of thought and conscience is just freedom of religion writ large. Freedom of speech depends on an acceptance that being wrong is at worst stupid rather than sinful, and that therefore it is not a crime to disseminate "untruths". And once you accept that people have the right to think what they want and say what they want, it becomes progressively more difficult to deny them the right to do what they want as well. Unfortunately, by denying the freedom of religion, Afghanistan won't be able to tread this path. They may be able to find another way to freedom, but I'm not sure its one we can help them with.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Doing the honourable thing

Well, that was quick: allegations in the morning, and a resignation just in time for the six o'clock news. David Parker's decision to resign from the position of Attorney-General was very much doing the honourable thing, and entirely justified given the nature of the office. And by doing so he's preserved his future political ambitions and other Cabinet positions - at least unless he is prosecuted. I don't understand company law, but according to Investigate's press release the offence could carry a penalty of up to five year's jail - which under s55 (4) of the Electoral Act 1993 would be enough to force Parker to resign from Parliament if convicted, regardless of any actual sentence imposed. The reason this is relevant is that, while coming clean, he also seemed to be doing his best to dig himself a deeper hole on both Campbell Live and Close Up this evening.

It would be a shame if he was forced from Parliament; Parker is one of Labour's up and comers, and relatively talented at that (compare with Taito Philip Field or George Hawkins). But this is what happens if you fuck up in politics.

Meanwhile, the contrast with David Benson-Pope (both in his behaviour and the PM's handling of it) couldn't be any clearer...

Belarus: As expected

Things are going as expected in Belarus. According to preliminary results, Alexander Lukashenko has won a landslide victory, gaining 82.6% of the vote, compared with 6% for the leading opposition candidate. The opposition is already crying "fraud" and demanding a new, free and fair poll - and they have some evidence of electoral violations, though we'll have to wait a few hours until the OSCE election monitors report to find out just how widespread they are.

Despite threats that protestors would be treated as terrorists, there has been a large protest in Minsk, with about 40,000 people gathering in October Square. Further protests are scheduled for tomorrow night. If this election campaign has achieved anything, it has shown people that they can stand up to the government - a lesson they will hopefully be able to put to good use next time round.