The big drought has put the government on the spot when it comes to acknowledging the need for action on climate change.
Recent rain has done little to dent the drought that’s gripping the entire North Island and parts of the South. While the media have noticed that there’s a clear expectation that the incidence of droughts will increase as the planet warms, the government — in the shape of deputy PM Bill English and minister of everything and Novapay Steven Joyce — has done its best to avoid acknowledging that threat to New Zealand agriculture. The reason is simple enough. If you don’t understand the issue — or you don’t want to understand the issue — then you can’t design sensible policy to deal with it. Bill and Steven and their friends are locked into a bubble of unreality, one they’ve been blowing around themselves since they took power.
There are two ways that every country has to react to the climate problem. First you have to cut carbon emissions, to reduce (and eventually stop, then reverse) future warming. But cutting emissions is not enough. The world won’t stop warming as soon as emissions start dropping. That will only happen when atmospheric carbon levels stop increasing, and the planet comes back into thermal equilibrium.
The bad news is that there’s a lag built in to the system. It will take around 30 years to see temperatures stabilise, because the oceans have to catch up with the warming effect of all the extra greenhouse gases. In other words, continued warming cannot be avoided.
What does this mean? It’s straightforward enough for any politician to understand. Warming is going to continue for the foreseeable future. 30 years plus the time it takes the world to put a lid on atmospheric carbon. At a guess, I’d say 60 years, though we could probably cut that by a couple of decades if we took the sort of wartime action on emissions that is nowhere on the international horizon at the moment.
If we forget all about reducing emissions — or just accept that nothing we do in New Zealand is going to do much to change the big picture — then that still leaves the country with a very big challenge. We will have to adapt to all the climate changes that take place over the next 60 years whatever happens.
We will have to work out how to cope with increasing frequencies of intense drought, more flooding, sea level rise and ecosystem changes. That’s no small challenge, and yet there’s precious little sign that this government is taking it seriously. English says that the government will not be able to support farmers thorough droughts for ever, and that they will have to change their farming systems to adapt. That’s certainly true. But where is the joined-up thinking on this issue? By keeping agriculture out of the emissions trading scheme, the government effectively subsidises high emissions agriculture — dairy farmers, that’s you — which is also the highest user of water.
Whatever warming brings for New Zealand, we will also have to adapt to the effect that climate change has on the rest of the world. NZ Inc is now so tightly linked into the global economy that economic disruption in our key markets will hit us hard.
The answer, for the future well-being of both agriculture and our economy — not to mention the welfare of the people of this place — is to develop resilience. We have to build an economy that can cope with the extremes that warming will bring, that eases the transition from cool climate to warm climate agricultural practises, from high water use systems to water conservation. We need to focus on building and maintaining a truly local economy that delivers good lives for New Zealanders whatever disasters and economic shocks happen here or overseas.
Unfortunately, inside Bill & Steven’s bubble global warming is sort-of-real, but it isn’t serious. The government can pay lukewarm lip service to the need for action without doing anything really inconvenient. It believes it can get away without doing anything that might upset its big backers or trample on right wing ideology. This is a huge mistake, and a radical miscalculation. The government is betting all our futures on its mistaken judgement of the risks that climate change presents to the country.
We urgently need to burst their bubble.