Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Climate Change: The lost decades

Over the last few days Aotearoa was hit by ex-tropical cyclone Gabrielle - the second tropical cyclone to hit us in just two months. Huge chunks of the country have been flooded, 225,000 people have lost electricity (some will be without it for two weeks), and at least two people are dead. The economic impact is estimated in the tens of billions. Before Parliament adjourned so MPs could go and help their constituents, Climate Minister James Shaw gave a speech drawing the obvious link to climate change [video], and warning that we are now entering "a period of consequences":

I have to say that, as I stand here today, I struggle to find words to express what I am thinking and feeling about this particular crisis. I don't think I've ever felt as sad or as angry about the lost decades that we spent bickering and arguing about whether climate change was real or not, whether it was caused by humans or not, whether it was bad or not, whether we should do something about it or not, because it is clearly here now, and if we do not act, it will get worse.

I've been recalling, actually, a quote from a different time about a different crisis: "The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences." And there will be people who say, you know—just as the National Rifle Association in the United States does about shootings over there—it's "too soon" to talk about these things, but we are standing in it right now. This is a climate change - related event. The severity of it, of course, made worse by the fact that our global temperatures have already increased by 1.1 degrees. We need to stop making excuses for inaction. We cannot put our heads in the sand when the beach is flooding. We must act now.

Newsroom's Marc Daalder has talked about this period of consequences - or, as he put it, Alt title: Fuck around and find out. But I'd like to look at the "fucking around" part. Because there is a lot here to be angry about, and people we need to hold to account.

Way back in 1992, the then-National government endorsed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in which they promised to reduce emissions. They followed this up in 1998 by signing the Kyoto Protocol, committing us to a binding emissions reduction target. Environment Minister Simon Upton did a lot of work, developing a fully-formed, all-gases, all-sectors emissions trading scheme, but his National colleagues - farmers and climate-change deniers - fucked around, chickening out of implementing it at the last minute, leaving the problem for future governments.

In 2002 the then-Labour government ratified the Kyoto Protocol. They then fucked around, switching from an ETS to a carbon tax and then dumping it under pressure from their coalition partners. They chickened out of making farmers pay a minimal levy on agricultural emissions, while repealing existing regulatory solutions to reduce emissions in favour of a "perfect" price mechanism which didn't exist yet. They then switched back to a partial emissions trading scheme (wasting another three years in policy development), which they loaded with pollution subsidies and opt-outs, and did not pass until literally the last days of their term. It was then immediately gutted by National.

Not content with gutting the ETS, the new National government elected in 2008 set up a "review" of climate change policy packed with climate change deniers to undermine policy even further, while repealing the thermal electricity ban and biofuels obligation. They then gutted the ETS even more, adding even more subsidies for polluters. At the same time, they announced a "50% by 2050" emissions reduction target, and ratified the Paris agreement. But they fucked around, and did nothing to meet their obligations.

In 2017, then-Labour leader Jacinda Ardern called climate change "my generation's nuclear free moment". In 2019 the government she led passed the Zero Carbon Act, ostensibly committing us to long-term emissions reductions, with plans, budgets, reviews, and all manner of bureaucratic bullshit. And then they fucked around, repeatedly fucking with the carbon market to keep carbon prices low, repeatedly delaying making agricultural polluters pay for their pollution (and then only at the lowest possible level), and introducing even more subsidies for polluters. They've now pissed all over their carbon budget by subsidising petrol.

All of these governments fucked around. There's a common theme of hard-working climate ministers - Simon Upton, Pete Hodgson, and James Shaw - being betrayed by their Cabinet colleagues and having their plans dumped (Nick Smith is a malignant exception to this, being a collaborator with climate change deniers). There's another of constantly grovelling to farmers, a dirty, inefficient sector which receives more in subsidies than it pays in taxes, and which when you factor in the costs of its pollution, seems to be a net drain on New Zealand. And there's a common theme of them viewing climate change as a problem for the future, a mess they can leave for someone else to clean up. The consequences of that irresponsible short-term thinking can be seen on the East Coast today.

They all fucked around, and we're now finding out. And the people who fucked around got knighthoods and big pensions and posh post-political careers with banks and SOEs and crown entities. They got rich, while kiwis got flooded and left in the dark. And its time we held them accountable for it.