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For National, going backwards is way of going forward

As a crucial time approaches for action to avert the worst effects of a warming planet, Pat Baskett went to a National Party presentation to sound out the Opposition’s support for the deep structural changes we need to make.

Comment: Todd Muller, the National Party’s spokesperson on climate change, opened the presentation with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

The implication that there are two opposed ideas on climate change was either a generous gesture to the audience or a seriously inauspicious beginning.

The serious, slick presentation was one of 40 Muller has given around the country. On Auckland’s North Shore the event was hosted by MPs Maggie Barry and Erica Stanford and the audience of maybe 60 were mostly conservatively dressed, late middle age. Not a bad turnout for a wet night.

Looming in the not-too-distant future is the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill and the Climate Commission which will consist of up to 10 experts who will research and advise government on how to achieve the elusive zero emissions by 2050. In her introduction, Barry recognised that working cross-party will be essential to get this project off the ground.

The precedent for this sort of cooperation was set during the previous government with the establishment of GLOBE-NZ, a cross-party group of 35 members, who commissioned the report Net Zero in New Zealand: scenarios to achieve domestic emissions neutrality in the second half of the century. Muller was one of the 35, Barry not.

But she is no doubter. Climate change was responsible for the beech mast that now occurs every two or three years, with huge impacts on rat, stoat and mouse populations, said the former Minister of Conservation. We’re evidently taking a leading role in the Pacific, providing solar lighting in some island states and wind turbines in the Antarctic.

Muller also started positively. The problem of a warming climate is a collective one, he said. Predictions of temperature increase ranging from 1 degree to 3 degrees point to increasing catastrophe. At Paris, New Zealand committed to a 30 percent reduction from the 2005 level of emissions by 2030. When he pointed out that’s 12 years away, some in the audience took an audible deep breath.

National MP Todd Muller. Photo Lynn Grieveson
National MP Todd Muller. Photo Lynn Grieveson

So we might have expected a sense of urgency and exhortation to make individual and workplace actions to respond to the perilous future we face. Especially since Muller and some in the audience must have known that emissions, globally and locally, continue to rise. But what followed was an overview of the bigger picture tainted with National complacency and conservatism.

Like many of us, it seems Muller functions well with two opposed ideas – of the disasters science warns us about and which we see happening around us and the idea that life continues with its comforts and security.

Changes will happen, he seemed to be saying, but in some abstract way remote from our everyday existence. Somebody or some force will take hold of the six levers he said we have to pull to get our economy off oil and gas - energy generation, transport, industry/manufacturing, waste, agriculture and forestry. According to National Party credo these levers are unlikely to be pulled by government intervention or constraints.

Market forces, for example, will force farmers to increase efficiency and produce high value food that will compete with synthetic meats – rather than government regulation and assistance to reduce stock numbers and change land use practices. But is it a false security to suggest that since we’re in the top five food producing countries of the world, we should increase production of this kind of food? When the total picture of what we eat is calculated, food is the biggest contributor to global warming and therefore altering your daily menu is a simple way of making a change.

We’re fortunate, according to the way National sees our obligations, that our contribution to global greenhouse gases (GHG) is a mere 0.17 percent (never mind that we’re the fifth highest for GHG per capita). While that’s not a reason for inaction, Muller quickly pointed out, it is a reason for not getting accolades for doing things fast - which is what Minister James Shaw would have us do. This, said Muller, would be “economic lunacy. It’s a global issue and we need to move at the pace of our partners.”

Some of whom - France, UK - are doing better than us. But who knows what innovations might be coming that will fix the problem faster than making sacrifices now. Moreover, said Muller, climate science (he means the detail not the principle that it’s anthropogenic) is not “settled” so a wait-and-see attitude is justified.

But his use of methane as an example was unfortunate since the latest findings on that gas are even worse news, not only for farmers but also for the gas industry world-wide.

What had been considered a “safe” transition fuel for power plants switching away from coal – because burning the gas causes less CO2 than coal – has now been measured as hugely more dangerous. This is because more sophisticated measuring techniques show that methane leaks from all stages of its production and transportation and is a much stronger gas than formerly believed. For the first 20 years after its release methane’s warming strength has been measured at 86 times that of CO2. While it decays after that, the heat produced in those first 20 years remains.

Predictably, Muller believed that the Government had “jumped the gun” by banning further permits for oil and gas exploration. This, he said, should have been a question for the Climate Commission. (Nobody reminded him that we’ve got only 12 years.)

Question time brought to light the mixed allegiances of the audience as several deniers were allowed to make their scientifically vacuous statements – to brief bursts of applause. But the last question/statement came from a beekeeper who described how, over 50 years of beekeeping, he had seen the seasons and farming methods change. There were more flowers in the paddocks and cows produced more milk, he said, before the use of nitrogenous fertilisers became ubiquitous. We should look into farming methods, he said, because there are ways of sequestering carbon by incorporating it into the soil.

Going backwards is sometimes a way of going forward. Most of all we need agreement on the path.

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