As an economist, I get a bit annoyed about inefficient spending (which the Roads of National Significance are), and frustrated at the lack of economic thinking that goes into party policies (all political parties come out badly here – e.g. Labour’s Working For Families seriously messed up marginal tax rates and incentives to work more for mid-income earners). But I’m deeply troubled by the dismissive attitude displayed by the current government towards what I see as the biggest challenge of our time, and probably the biggest market failure the world has ever experienced. I’m talking about climate change, by the way.
Climate change isn’t really getting a lot of coverage these days. It’s not forming a big part of the media debate, or political conversations, or everyday conversations from what I can see. One of the few people who has been writing about climate change is Brian Fallow, the Herald’s economics editor. In 2013, he wrote that “the Government’s refusal to do much of anything to curb New Zealand’s emissions is as economically myopic as it is morally contemptible”, but he’s written a number of other insightful articles. Unfortunately, those who don’t read the Business section of the paper may have missed them.
Someone shared a link on my Facebook a couple of weeks ago – it was an image from Generation Zero, our collaborators on the Congestion Free Network. It reads: ‘Last night, we asked Bill English: how will you act to prevent the impacts of climate change?”‘ The reply reads: “it’s a non-issue because there are more pressing concerns”.
I wasn’t at the event where this question was asked, and I’m not sure if it’s a quote or paraphrased somewhat, and at any rate the Minister of Finance probably isn’t the best person to field this question. Nonetheless, the exchange above is a pretty accurate summary of National Party policy on climate change. Essentially, there isn’t one, except to ease back on the schemes put in place under the previous Labour government, which weren’t sufficient anyway.
Unfortunately, it seems that climate change is much less of a pressing concern for people these days. Unfortunate, because it continues to happen whether we’re thinking about it or not. Thanks to a Google tool called Google Trends, you can actually look back and see how interested in climate change people were, based on their Google searches. The following graph shows indexed interest in the terms “climate change” and “global warming”, compared to each other and over time, worldwide:
In 2007, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report was released, everything was going pretty swimmingly in terms of the economy, and it seemed like global warming was always in the news. Environmental stories started to get crowded out in 2008, when the world recession hit, and haven’t really made a comeback – the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, being released over 2013-2014, was barely a blip.
The graph below shows the same stats for New Zealand, from 2007 onwards – the data before that is patchy. The results are similar to the worldwide graph:
These trends fit with some Gallup poll results which show that, around 2008 and once the recession hit, Americans became generally less concerned with global warming, and more inclined to think it was exaggerated or made up altogether. I’m sure I’ve seen similar results for New Zealand in a report done by Roy Morgan or someone, but I can’t lay my hands on it right now.
I heard Simon Bridges (the Minister of Energy and Resources, and Associate Minister for Climate Change Issues) speak at the NERI Energy Conference in March. His keynote address was filmed (I don’t recommend watching the whole video – skip to the questions from 22 minutes in; the speech text is here but not that interesting), and Professor Ralph Sims later pulled out some of Simon’s key quotes for use in his own presentation:
“Our mixed and balanced approach to energy means that I am motivated by the opportunities petroleum development presents for New Zealand socially, economically and environmentally.”
“But remember, New Zealand is only responsible for 0.14% of global greenhouse gas emissions”.
Simon was also asked about the “90% renewable electricity by 2025” target, which was initially set by Labour but also supported by the current government. I never got round to writing the follow-up post to the one where I talked about the technical feasibility of getting to 100% renewables, but long story short, there’s wide agreement that the 90% target won’t be reached without government intervention, which National has not been willing to provide so far. Simon made some valid points in his reply, but again long story short, the government isn’t likely to change anything. In fact, the one thing it has done in this area is lift the moratorium on new thermal (non-renewable) generation, so if anything that would make the target harder to achieve.
Similarly, Simon didn’t have much to say on what the government planned to do on climate change in NZ, and again I note that they have eased back some of the measures set in place by the Labour government. Simon said there would be an announcement on the subject later this year, and we still haven’t seen anything on this, but presumably there will be something announced before the election. Since the government has gone all in on the “more roads” approach to transport, I’d imagine any policy would involve electric vehicles.
The thing is, we can’t go on just ignoring climate change, wondering whether it’s still an issue, or putting it in the “too hard” basket. We need to take steps to reduce our climate impact and figure out ways to transition our economy appropriately. For New Zealand, that means concentrating on transport and agriculture. Building more motorways is clearly not going to help us reduce our transport emissions. And subsidies for electric cars won’t help much either. We’ve got to invest in public and active transport, and allow our cities (especially Auckland) to intensify. There are so many good reasons to do this; the climate is just one of them.
The government needs to show some initiative on this, and overhaul its transport policies. But we, the public, have to make this a talked-about issue again. Tell the politicians, the MPs and the political parties that climate change is an issue we care about. Tell them that they need to change their policies if they want to earn our votes. Whoever you’re voting for this election, or whether you’re voting at all, tell them what you think, and if they hear enough people talking about it, climate change will be back on the agenda.