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:
Should we dam the Mokihinui River on New Zealand’s South Island?
The state-owned enterprise behind the plan, Meridian Energy, says we should build the proposed NZ$300million 85m high dam because it will generate around 310-360GWh per year of zero-emission electricity, and provide security of electricity supply to the South Island’s west coast. Surely that has got to be better than another generating plant running on fossil fuels.
There are, of course, other ecological issues to consider, such as biodiversity. Opponents of the scheme, such as the Green Party, argue that “The Mokihinui River is NZ’s seventh most significant river for its biodiversity values. It is home to 12 species of native fish including the chronically endangered Longfin eel. Hundreds of thousands of longfin live in this river and they will be disastrously affected by the planned construction of a 85m high dam and the drowning of 330 hectares of native podocarp rain forest.”
The Royal Forest and Bird Society notes that, because Meridian is a state-owned enterprise, “with political will” other energy options can be pursued. However, last year the Environment Minister (in the previous government) decided not to intervene because the Economic Development Ministry and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority both support the project. The Greens have urged the current Conservation Minister to take action, given his own department opposes the project.
How can a decision be made on an issue such as this? Such decisions are difficult, undoubtedly. However, looking at such problems of environmental decision-making in broader terms, Tasmanian researcher Paul E Smith argues that the representative institutions of liberal democracy are set up to fail the environment.
Many political columnists, editorial writers and others, informed or otherwise, seem base their expectations of support for green parties on their perceptions of public concern about the environment. Such concern undoubtedly is widepread. That the electoral success of green parties around the world falls far short of these expectations then provides a handy stick with which to beat green parties: something is wrong in the way the greens are presenting themselves. Very often the ‘analysis’ (I use the term loosely) boils down to criticism of the left orientation of green parties or of particular politicians: “If only the greens would stick to being an environmental party as they are supposed to be,” cry the commentators.
This suggestion is nonsense, as I have discussed previously. The left orientation of green parties around the world is a consistent and coherent representation of green ideology, and the ecological worldview that underpins it includes and integrates a concern for social justice.
So, what other explanation could there be for the performance of green parties in national elections?
If we pay even the most casual attention to what is happening around us, we observe enormous ecological destruction. Recent events in the ‘100% pure’ ‘clean and green’ tourist paradise of Aotearoa New Zealand reveal industrial pollution dumped on marginalised urban communities, wetlands drained and forests logged to make way for dairy farming, rare species killed by introduced predators, rural river courses reduced to stinking drains by dairy farming run-off, and well-advanced plans for remote valleys to be mined for coal or dammed for hydropower … I could go on.
Should we consider each one of these incidents in isolation? They are very often treated this way, both in their reporting and in the responses to them – isolated and independent events that vividly demonstrate the ignorance, greed and stupidity of certain individuals or corporations. However, much of the writing on wellsharp has aimed to move beyond this sort of interpretation, to show that individual acts of ecological destruction are far from disconnected. They are intimately connected through an underlying systemic cause – capitalism and its pathological growth obsession.
But how is one to prove this? Getting a handle on the relationship between environmental performance and capitalism as a system is far from easy, but doing so in a way that moves beyond theorising is essential if the argument is to convince a wider audience. Ilgu Ozler and Brian Obach of the State University of New York at have taken up this challenge.