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Searching for a consensus on climate change: seeking a genuine dialogue with National

by Kennedy Graham

Part 1:

Friday, 7 June, is the day I am convening the Conference on Climate Change in the NZ Parliament.  It is being held in the Legislative Council Chamber – the elegant upper chamber that has been mostly empty since the Upper House was abolished in 1951.  It is the second conference of the kind – the first having focused on a sustainable economy, in November 2010.

The reason I convene these conferences rests on an underlying ‘philosophical’ view on the nature of democracy.  In the lower chamber (with green carpet), MPs debate strongly in an adversarial manner.  This is defended, and explained to horror-struck school-children in the Public Gallery, as ‘free and robust debate’ that is essential for the health of democracy.

That may or may not be the case.  My own view is that the rules of debate (the Standing Orders) might be strengthened for greater civility to the benefit of democracy.  Be that as it may, adversarial politics is the nature of the democratic pursuit in the NZ Parliament. I can live with that, although I believe the country is to some extent demeaned.

But I also believe that adversarial democracy needs to be complemented with consensual democracy.  We need an avenue, even if an informal one, where MPs can come together, in a different atmosphere, to exchange views in which we seek common ground – what unites us rather than what divides us.

Consensual politics is surely most critically important when it comes to crisis situations.  The Green view is that the world faces a global ecological crisis, the importance of which transcends partisan politics.  All the more reason, then, to have this kind of conference in the Legislative Council Chamber, red carpet and all. Let’s see if we can find common ground, between the Greens, Labour and National, all of whom have been invited to participate in the political panel.  Herewith the programme.

Regrettably, neither National’s Minister Tim Groser nor Associate Minister Simon Bridges was available.  The seat will be there, in case either one is able to free himself and participate.   Labour has accepted – climate change spokesperson, Moana Mackey, will be there.

Yet on Thursday, 6 June, I had the opportunity to question the Minister on climate change issues in the House.

That is the adversarial half of democracy.  Here is the exchange.

The exchange was quite a substantive one, if short.  That is what democracy is about – at least the adversarial half.  It had been my hope that we could have an exchange that sought to find common ground, if any in fact exists.  That is the consensual half.  His absent chair will make this difficult.

So, in Part II of this blog, I shall develop a conversation, with the Minister, based on today’s question exchange, to see whether we can find any common ground.

Part II:

I had occasion to question Minister Tim Groser yesterday about climate change and his Government’s policy.  This followed from Russel Norman questioning him 30 minutes earlier.

Given that he has declined to come to my conference in Parliament today for a cross-party dialogue on climate change, our question-and-answer in the House, together with this blog post, is as close as we may get to the adversarial-consensual style of democratic exchange that I am advocating.

So let me lay out my best effort at a ‘dialogue’ between National and Green views on climate change.  I shall do my best to accurately reflect the National view, as it is articulated in the House.

What we agree upon

National have acknowledged, through signature of the 1992 Framework Convention, the existence of climate change as a global problem, and the common objective of stabilising GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will avoid dangerous interference with the climate system.  So do the Greens.

National has acknowledged, through the ‘common but differentiated responsibility principle’ (CBDR) in the Framework Convention, and through signature of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, that the developed countries, with higher per capita emissions and greater historical emissions, must take the lead in reducing emissions.  So do the Greens.

[This presumes that the Key Government perceives the phenomenon of climate change in broadly the same way as the Bolger Government did. This is not entirely clear, given that John Key said in 2005 that he was suspicious of climate change, some 13 years after his predecessor’s Government had formally acknowledged it.]

What we partially agree on

National appears to acknowledge the scientific findings about climate change, at least as set out in the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report of 2007 (even though it was in opposition then).  And, in Government, it has agreed with the UN decisions from Cancun (2010) to Doha (2012): thus the likely temperature increase and sea-level rise in the 21st century, based on projected global emissions, and the threshold of 450 ppm CO2 atmospheric concentration and 2°C temperature rise.   The Greens agree.

National, however, appear reluctant to accept that scientific findings since 2007 carry any new significance – such as the faster polar cap ice-melt, the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets, and the emerging evidence of potential large-scale methane release from the northern tundra and seabed.  It refers to ‘uncertainty surrounding the numerics’.  And it refuses to label the phrase ‘climate change’ to the extreme weather events, claiming instead that farmers are traditionally used to adapting and can adapt in the future.

The Greens contend that the precautionary principle requires the international community to accept the latest scientific findings as evidence of unacceptable danger or potential thereof, requiring action.  It contends that, while a specific extreme weather event cannot be proven to be causally related to climate change, their increasing frequency and intensity fits the pattern of climate change, thus warranting immediate action.

What we disagree on

In recent years, National has developed the following policies:

1. The distinction between the global North (developed) and South (developing) has blurred in the past 20 years to the point where the CBDR principle no longer applies – China and India are catching up with the US and Europe in economic power and emissions;

2. There is therefore no justification for any 2nd Kyoto commitment period in which Europe, Japan, North America and Australasia have a legally-binding obligation to cut emissions, unless the South does also;

3. New Zealand will therefore take a non-binding target for 2020, joining the ‘other 86% of global emissions, and will concentrate on the negotiations just starting for a global agreement post-2020.

4. Meanwhile, the ETS will remain with modest settings to avoid New Zealand getting too far in front, and suffering from any short-term economic pain.  This includes aligning the domestic carbon market to ‘international market’, virtually without exception, even when the prices are seriously depressed through over-supply of units or economic recession.

The Greens advocate the following policies:

1. The North-South distinction remains valid, through the Kyoto 2nd commitment period (2013-20), because the per capita differentiation remains significant, historical emissions and projected emissions have not equated; and because the present decade is the critical one for peaking of global emissions;

2. There is therefore a requirement (under the Framework Convention) for the North to assume a continuing legal obligation to cut a second time, ahead of the developing world, and that the international community can be treated as one economic unit for mitigation purposes in the global legal agreement post-2020;

3. New Zealand must therefore accept the UN target of 25-40% reduction off 1990 level by 2020, as a legally-binding obligation under the Kyoto Protocol’s 2nd commitment period (2013-20);

4. Meanwhile, the ETS requires strengthening immediately, or replacement with a carbon charge; and failure to do so leaves New Zealand behind in the collective transformation to a low-carbon economy.  This includes separating the domestic carbon market from the negative effects of the international carbon market, whose over-supply of units grotesquely depresses the domestic carbon price.

National opposes ‘alarmism’ over climate change and will proceed with great caution and deliberation in national policy.  Failure to do so threatens the short-term financial interests of established economic sectors.

The Greens see the scientific evidence and UN policy prescriptions as requiring greater and faster national action by New Zealand and contend that failure to do so constitutes a breach of inter-generational responsibility. In short, it threatens the planet.

These are the commonalities and differences in perception and policy between National and Green views, as I understand them to be.

I would not have thought it would be impossible to have a reasoned dialogue on this matter.  Failure to do encourages polarisation of party policies and a lack of predictable national policy as a result.

watch a live video feed of the conference online.

06/11/2013 – 10:27


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