Human stupidity and the 2011 election

I’ve been writing about climate science and policy for the last five years, and taking an interest in the subject for far longer, but I’ve seldom read more depressing news than Fiona Harvey’s Guardian article last week — Rich nations ‘give up’ on new climate treaty until 2020. According to Harvey, expectations for the UN conference in Durban are low:

…most of the world’s leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020.

Unfortunately for all the inhabitants of this planet, the atmospheric carbon load is increasing fast and unless emissions peak soon — no later than 2020 — we will be committed to dangerous, and quite possibly uncontrollable future warming. How in the name of your favoured deity did we allow that to happen? Here’s a clue: a few sentences taken from the environment policy statement of New Zealand’s National Party, who led the outgoing government, and who on current polling will lead the next after Saturday’s election:

We’ve introduced a more balanced approach to climate change … Ensured New Zealand is doing its fair share on climate change … Amended Labour’s ETS to strike a better balance between New Zealand’s environmental and economic interests.

The National Party document also claims the last (Labour-led) government “set an impractical goal of carbon neutrality”. Well, have I got news for you, John Key and Nick Smith. Carbon neutrality is not an impractical goal — it’s what the evidence tells us we need to achieve, not just in New Zealand but around the whole world.

Here’s the first bit of evidence, taken from the NZ Climate Change Centre’s first Climate Brief, on The Challenge of Limiting Warming to Two Degrees:


This graph illustrates the practicalities of global emissions pathways, based on a simple idea — in order to give ourselves a 50/50 chance of staying under a 2ºC increase in the global average temperature, we can only emit 1,445 gigatonnes of CO2 from 2000 to 2050. If emissions had peaked last year, an annual decline of 1.3 percent would be all that’s required, but if we leave it until 2020, then annual cuts of 5 percent will be required, and global carbon neutrality will be necessary by 2050. Leave the emissions peak until later, and you rapidly run into impossible to meet rates of emissions reductions, and face having to suck prodigious amounts of carbon out of the air to meet the goal.

Carbon neutrality is therefore not an impossible luxury, but likely to be a necessity for the planet and New Zealand. A “50 by 50″ target just doesn’t cut it.

The National document also makes much of the idea of “balance”. They’re taking a “more balanced” approach to climate change, “striking a better balance between NZ’s environmental and economic interests”. There are actually two kinds of “balance” here, and they’re both radically mistaken. With respect to climate policy, and in particular emissions reductions, the government has chosen to ignore the best current evidence and pursue a watered-down set of objectives. This is portrayed as not so “extreme”, as if there were a middle course to be steered between doing what is necessary and doing nothing.

Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment.

Then there is the idea that you can strike a balance between environmental and economic interests. This assumes that the two things are separate and separable, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can only have an economy because the planet provides us with resources of all kinds — and not all of them are renewable on an annual basis. Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment. The environment therefore imposes limits on what we can do, and we ignore those limits at our peril.

Accepting this fact is hard for most politicians, wedded as they are to the idea that economic growth as we currently understand it can somehow continue ad infinitum. Some pay lip service to the idea of sustainability, without understanding what it really means — living within our environmental means. There’s a real challenge here: how to design steady-state, truly sustainable economies that can give people fulfilling lives, and I can’t really blame our current crop of politicians for failing to realise that’s what they’re going to have to do sooner or later. They are a product of their times — as are we all — and these are the last years of the great human bubble.

Most politicians aren’t stupid, but they are very skilled at avoiding or ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their ideology or which they suspect might be unpopular with their supporters and financial backers. Apart from selecting a new government this Saturday, NZ’s voters are also being asked to vote in a referendum on our proportional voting system, MMP. I would much rather be voting in a referendum designed to require politicians to produce evidence-based policies — that is, policies that are informed by the facts and the evidence, as the PM’s science adviser discussed earlier this year. Evidence-based climate policy would be a long way removed from what we see both in New Zealand and in the machinations around the post-Kyoto deal-making.

A final thought: humans can be individually brilliant but collectively stupid. What we are seeing in the politics of climate policy, nationally and internationally, is the latter, writ large. This weekend, New Zealand will vote for the politicians it wants to govern the country for the next three years. Climate policy — beyond some facile jockeying for position on the details of a watered down emissions trading scheme — has hardly figured in the campaign of either of the major parties. It has certainly not been fought over, or accorded the prominence you might expect of an issue that is going to shape human destiny over the next century.

At times like this, you can either laugh or cry. I choose laughter.

This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.