In an interview broadcast on TVNZ’s One News a couple of days ago, the renowned naturalist David Attenborough was asked about the politics of climate change. He answered by remarking that when he started making tv programmes, the global human population was only one-third what it is now. The clear suggestion is that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is caused by the growth in numbers of humans.
On the One News report, as usual, the Overseas Expert’s viewpoint went entirely unquestioned; to the casual observer it would seem the issue is simple and clearly understood. And so it follows that the solution to climate change is population reduction.
This idea could not be more wrong.
On its climate change information website, the New Zealand government explains how:
An emissions trading scheme (ETS) introduces a price on greenhouse gases to provide an incentive for people to reduce emissions and enhance forest sinks. Emissions trading provides flexibility in how participants comply with their obligations, enabling a least-cost response.
There are, of course, other ways to reduce emissions, such as traditional regulatory mechanisms. Pejorative phrases such as ‘command-and-control’ are usually used in the brief moment before regulation is dismissed from consideration. Indeed, the NZ Ministry for the Environment (MfE) asserts that imposing a price on greenhouse gas emissions is advantageous because:
It harnesses the market dynamic by providing automatic incentives for firms to invest in reducing emissions and to shift to lower-emissions products and services.
It provides flexibility for firms and fosters innovation and the seeking out of least-cost emission reduction strategies.
But something rather important is being glossed over here: An ETS doesn’t provide an automatic incentive for all firms to reduce emissions.
And, it turns out, this simple observation leads to some very awkward conclusions that have not been part of the carbon trading debate.
Climate change is what is known as a ‘wicked’ problem . That’s not a street term – it is a formal academic term for problems which suffer from:
— incomplete description,
— changing parameters, and
— complex interdependencies,
to which we might add
— a limited time frame to reach solutions,
— the lack of a single authority to implement solutions, and
— our own involvement in generating both problem and solutions.
Furthermore, a solution to one part of a wicked problem can reveal or cause new aspects of the problem.
NEF have released the latest version of the “Happy Planet Index” (HPI – which, I’m afraid, just begs to be tagged as the Hippy Index…). The HPI is a composite index constructed out of three sets of data: life expectancy, life satisfaction, and ecological footprint (explanation starts p.52 of the Report Appendix, which can be found here).
Among other things there is a neat animated graphic showing countries’ performance on the index vs GDP over time (select the countries you wish to observe in the tick box menu on the right, then push the ‘play’ triangle bottom left).
Looking at New Zealand’s performance since 1961 (when the data set starts) what is striking is just how poorly we have performed on both counts: there was a steep rise in our HPI number, while GDP grew at only a modest rate. I thought it might be interesting to look more closely at the three indicators, using the background data NEF has made available here.
This is the era of ‘post-ecologism.’ On the one hand, we have:
“a general acceptance that the achievement of sustainability requires radical change in the most basic principles of late-modern societies.”
And yet, on the other hand, there is
“a general consensus about the non-negotiability of democratic consumer capitalism – irrespective of mounting evidence of its unsustainability” .
This crazy paradox is, undoubtedly, an accurate summation of the societal self-deception we live with: “a realm where the management of the inability and unwillingness to become sustainable has taken centre ground.” And so the disturbingly ambiguous politics of unsustainability holds sway .
Well over a year ago now, Barry wrote about how irony is the only sane response to a world of paradox and ambiguity. But it is a response that is easier to manage at a personal level than at the level of organised politics. So how are green parties coping with this situation?
In a paper that has been around since 2004, and that has not attracted, in my opinion, anywhere near the attention it deserves, Robert H. Frank makes the case that more progressive taxation benefits the economy (at least for indebted nations such as New Zealand and the United States), society, and the environment.
The reason lies in the peculiar characteristics of what he calls “positional goods” – those goods whose primary consumption benefit is that they signal ones place in the social pecking order: