National has its own climate crisis

Ignoring the science and the broader public mood, National continues to take its 'do-nothing, know-nothing' lead from powerful party members desperately clinging to deeply vested interests in a high emissions economy, writes Rod Oram.

Judith Collins' recent Facebook post about climate change is a classic of its kind.

She asserts climate change is not nearly as serious as “media and the political left” say it is; we and other nations are incapable of sufficiently cutting emissions anyway; and she blames everyone else for this mess while accepting no responsibility of her own, either political or personal.

Her post also reveals much about the state of the climate debate within the National Party. It has attracted some 1,100 comments so far. The strong majority of them urge her on, a sign to National there are votes to be had from holding out against action on the climate crisis.

One sign of National’s enthusiasm is its reluctance to distance itself from Collins’ comments. Via Bridges’ chief media handler Rachel Morton, I asked him to identify which of Collins’ points were National Party policy and which weren’t. She refused to reply.

Bridges laid out National’s five climate policy principles in a speech at Fieldays in June of last year. They are: science-based; technology-driven; long-term incentives; global response; and economic impact.

In the 15 months since, National has given no policy examples of what it means by those themes. Instead it has simply said that whatever actions the Government is proposing are impossible to do and / or unfairly penalises people particularly those likely to vote National such as farmers. Moreover, it sees any attempt to tackle the climate crisis as an economic cost not as an investment in clean, better technology and a more sophisticated economy.

It has failed to flesh-out these skeletal themes. Last week, National’s climate spokesman Scott Simpson said they were still the operative framework. He and his party fail to acknowledge how rapidly climate science, action and public support are strengthening here and in many other countries.

He and his party also continue to use highly misleading data. Typical is its support for the claim from the dairy sector that it produces one-third of the emissions per litre of milk compared with the global dairy average. But the average is sharply skewed by some heavy emitters.

National, which failed to introduce any useful climate legislation in its most recent nine-years in power, also sharply criticises the Government for failing to deliver any climate legislation in its first two years in office. It blames the lack of progress on Labour’s need to keep NZ First on side on climate in the coalition. Actually, NZ First’s support is secured in their coalition agreement. The Government says it has the votes to enact the Zero Carbon Bill in early December.

There are two reasons the legislation has taken two years: the issues are complex; and such multi-decade legislation which is essential to guiding how business, government and civil society respond to the climate crisis needs all-party support to be enduring. That’s the lesson from more than 20 jurisdictions overseas, beginning with the UK in 2008.

The Government has spent a lot of time trying to persuade National to engage in a constructive, science-based and ambitious way. But at every step, National has taken its do-nothing, know-nothing lead from powerful party members who are desperately clinging to their deeply vested interests in a high emissions economy.

Most of the commenters on Collins' Facebook post urge her on, but citizen support for and involvement in climate actions is far greater than it was a decade ago, and growing fast. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Collins’ Facebook post is filling this blackhole in National’s climate policy. Consequently, National runs the great risk that voters who want action on the climate crisis, including those who are members of its party, will see Collins’ views as the party’s policy on climate. While that might buoy Collin’s ambitions to be party leader, it’s a big political negative for National.

Collins makes clear she distrusts climate science, writing, for example: “…assuming the IPCC models reflect the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming.”

That relationship, though, was established by two 19th century scientists, John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius. In the century plus since, climate science has developed vast knowledge and deep certainty about the climate crisis caused by massive increases in human induced greenhouse gases.

National’s only contribution is ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’ and ‘no’ from the side lines.

Collins’ post shows her ignorance of the science, or her willingness to ignore it. For example: “Scientists expect the impacts of 1.5c warming to be lower than 2c. But the same statement is true for the difference between 2.0 and 2.5 degrees.”

What she fails to state, or does not understand, is that climate impacts and risks are not linear. They escalate rapidly as temperatures rise. Therefore, we are far better off trying to keep the temperature rise to 1.5c rather than coping with much greater damage to the likes of farming systems at 2c or 2.5c and from tipping points into even greater impacts above those.

She also argues that: “The science of climate change is complex, but the economics are more complex again, and the domestic and global politics even more difficult again. We have to be able to have an adult debate on how we respond to the proposal we radically revolutionise the global economy. Economists and politicians have to be allowed to offer considered and balanced perspectives.”

Well, adults are having those constructive debates here and around the world. But National’s only contribution is ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’ and ‘no’ from the side lines.

... the Government would be making a serious mistake if it compromised the bill in order to secure National’s support. It would be far better in the long run to pass the best bill possible ...

If we reached domestic political agreement, we would progress quickly on the economics and practical responses to the climate crisis here in New Zealand. The next six weeks are utterly crucial. The environment select committee is deciding what changes to make to the Zero Carbon Bill before reporting back to Parliament. Then the Government will chose what final version to present to parliament.

While all-party support is important, the Government would be making a serious mistake if it compromised the bill in order to secure National’s support. It would be far better in the long run to pass the best bill possible, even if National didn’t vote for it. National’s failure to engage seriously on the science and economics of climate change, and to promote the benefits to society and business from doing so, should be immortalised in its vote against it.

Some might fear that when National next forms a government, it would seek to render the legislation useless, as it did with the Emissions Trading Scheme after it took office in 2008.

But National’s chances of nullifying the legislation when next in power would be minimal.

The support for the Zero Carbon Bill is far broader and deeper than was the support for the ETS. The companies that have signed up to the Climate Leaders Coalition generate some two-thirds of NZ’s emissions. They understand how much they can improve their businesses by shifting to cleaner technologies and deeper sustainability. They also know how fast many of their competitors are moving on climate. They know they need robust climate legislation.

Likewise, citizen support for and involvement in climate actions is far greater than it was a decade ago, and growing fast.

But National might not even get the opportunity to try. If it persists in its know-nothing, do-nothing climate strategy epitomised by Collins and the party’s weak leadership on the issue, it will lose more votes at next year’s election than it will gain from supporting sceptics and vested interests.

(Note: An earlier version of this column included a chart of emissions from only the processing of milk, whereas 90 per cent of dairy emissions are generated on farm)

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