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The merchants of doubt and delay should bear an outsize share of the blame for climate catastrophe

In the aftermath of the Auckland floods and the still-unfolding catastrophe of Cyclone Gabrielle, the media are asking whether New Zealanders (correctly) see these events as linked to climate change. "Does Cyclone Gabrielle have you thinking about climate change? You're not the only one," writes the excellent Kirsty Johnston, at Stuff.

These articles always seem to crop up after climate disasters, and as climate change intensifies, we’re seeing them more and more frequently. In them, the physical processes behind climate change are usually outlined accurately, in some detail. Where they fall down is the human causes. In all these pieces is a missing piece: the identification of those most responsible for climate change. They often offer a vague "we" to identify those causing emissions — which is technically correct, in the same sense as the statement “we humans cause war” — and then suggest "changes at an individual level" that can help too.

But it's not just "we". The main cause of climate change is emissions from fossil fuel use and agriculture. And the main proponents of the agricultural and fossil fuel industries in NZ are specific people, with names and job descriptions, who lead or belong to organisations who work to delay meaningful climate change action. In this opposition, they too bear an outsize share of the responsibility — for not only the damage climate change has caused, but the far greater damage it will inflict in the future.

In "Will this be the climate crisis that finally spurs action?" economist Bernard Hickey, writing for The Spinoff (syndicated from his fantastic newsletter The Kaka) correctly points out that the current Labour government should shoulder blame for failing to use their absolute majority in Parliament to take action on climate. But as insightful as it is, this article doesn't mention the ongoing influence campaign against meaningful climate action, conducted almost entirely by right-wing political parties and think-tanks, often in service to agricultural and fossil fuel interests — who frequently work together as one big team.

I feel like that's a gap that needs filling.

They are Federated Farmers, who have for years successfully opposed meaningful climate action on New Zealand's greatest source of emissions: agriculture.

Their CEO is Terry Copeland.

They are the Taxpayers Union, who are not a union, and who have an intentionally opaque funding structure that allows them to (im)plausibly deny that they are funded by fossil fuel and tobacco interests, among others. The Taxpayer's Union is a member of the international Atlas Network, an association of right-wing think-tanks sponsored by the likes of the Koch Brother (formerly known as the Koch Brothers, before one of them went to his post-death reward). This fake union's hobby is gaming news media by chundering a vast quantity of press releases on contentious topics that editors find irresistible and, in partnership with David Farrar’s polling firm Curia, undertaking expensive political polling activities. They indulge in a form of soft climate change denial, where they weaponise insights gleaned from Curia polling and focus groups to whip up public rage and resentment against climate-friendly projects like cycleways. It is my sad duty to report that they have a podcast, hosted by climate change denier Peter Williams. In its latest, dire episode, it was graced by Federated Farmers’ Mark Hooper and Paul Melville. (In a classic Kiwi 2-degrees-of-seperation twist, I went to Uni with Paul.) His position is Principal Advisor, Water & Environment Strategy. One wonders what his principal advice is, given that dairy farming has ruined New Zealand’s waterways and filled our groundwater with bowel-cancer-linked nitrates.

The director of the Taxpayer’s Union is Jordan Williams, who is perhaps best understood by an opinion uncovered in Nicky Hager's The Hollow Men: "women: if they didn't have a fanny between their legs they'd have a bounty on their heads." Their co-founder is David Farrar, a long-time National Party operative and pollster and fellow star of The Hollow Men.

They are the Act Party, who indulged in outright climate denial for years and now advocate for renewed offshore oil and gas exploration in New Zealand and for the wholesale repeal of the Zero Carbon Act.

The leader of the Act Party is David Seymour.

They are the National Party, who oppose meaningful emissions reduction policies in agriculture and who, along with Act, have sworn they will repeal the New Zealand offshore oil and gas exploration ban.

The leader of the National Party is Christopher Luxon.

They are the New Zealand Initiative, who advocate strenuously against all forms of climate action except the Emission Trading Scheme. (Emissions trading schemes are dubiously effective, and at worst are scams designed to allow the worst polluters to pollute indefinitely.) They too are members of the right-wing, Koch-funded Atlas Network. They too published outright climate change denial for years, and are now wrongly portraying all non-ETS-based climate action as ineffective.

The head of the New Zealand Initiative is Oliver Hartwitch. The chief economist for the New Zealand Initiative is Eric Crampton, who hews to the Austrian / Chicago Boys school of freemarketism and is frequently given a platform by New Zealand media. The author of the Initiative's Pretence of Necessity report, economist Matt Burgess, is now Chief Policy Advisor to National Party Leader, Chris Luxon. Luke Malpass, who is Stuff's political editor, formerly worked with the Initiative, helping them right back at their origin — a merger between the New Zealand Institute and the much-loathed Business Roundtable. Here he is working for the Initiative, before he grew his cool hipster moustache and got a job at Stuff sneering at "lockdown lefties".

Luke Malpass representing the NZ Initiative on Prime News, 2012

They are Energy Resources Aotearoa, a fossil fuel lobby and greenwashing group who recently changed their name from the deeply unfashionable yet far more accurate PEPANZ (Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand). They lobby against restrictions on fossil fuel exploration and production in New Zealand.

Their Chief Executive is John Carnegie. Their communications manager is the fascinatingly-named Ben Craven, formerly of the Taxpayer's Union.

They are NZME, who intentionally and cynically give climate change minimisers, doubters and delayers like Mike Hosking and Heather du Plessis-Allan a rarefied platform to foment conflict and garner listeners by promoting disinformation about renewable energy and climate adaptation and manufacturing consent for the continued and expanded operations of the fossil fuel industry.

HDPA, 14 February 2023: "So yeah, for a lot of people, I reckon this will be the final piece they need to convince them something needs to be done..... Not so much that they need to give up their fossil-fuelled cars, because come on, we all know NZ isn’t going to do much to change global emissions."

Mike Hosking, 10 February 2023: "The theory was we would use EV's and batteries and solar and wind and sunflower seeds. But the reality is none of those things are reliable enough or available enough. As they currently stand, they aren't actual answers. They are alternatives of a temporary nature and, given that, there is no point in getting all angsty about profits and wanting to put a windfall tax on them that is talked about... The zealots are asking us to do something we won't do, which is go backwards. We will not do it and we are not doing it. Our reality, and its smooth operation, will trump ideology every time."

Oh and just for fun here is fellow NZME stable-mate and wife of Mike Hosking, Kate Hawkesby, indulging in some deeply unfortunate pre-catastrophe amateur meteorology on Instagram.

An image of a cloudy sky overlaid with text that says: katehawkesby With all the anxiety inducing alerts and warnings & breathless media coverage I'm just wondering where this cyclone is? Let's hope it stays this way.. Overcast, light rain, bit windy #CycloneLite Where are you Gabrielle?'
I hope the fact that Hawkesby deleted this post means she now understands what “calm before the storm” means.

The CEO of NZME is Michael Boggs. Its Managing Editor is Shayne Currie.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are plenty more.

These organisations, the people who staff them, and the people who run them, are —  whether they outright admit it or not — advocates for continued agricultural emissions, for the continued use of fossil fuels, and the further expansion of the fossil fuel industry. They are merchants of doubt who seed climate delay propaganda, using their enormous resources and platforms to sway New Zealanders against climate action.

This is far worse than the climate change denial of the past. Now that the causes and effects of climate change are impossible to deny, and the coming ravages are clear, these people are committing a far greater evil. They know exactly how destructive climate change already is, and yet they act to make it much worse.

So, name them. Blame them.

An outsize share of future climate catastrophes are their fault, and they must be held accountable.

“Will this be the crisis that finally spurs action on climate change denial?”

It'd be nice if it was, wouldn't it? A silver lining to the raging cloud the size of half a continent that darkened our skies over the previous week, destroying the livelihoods of thousands. Let's look at how it could work:

Think tanks

The climate-delay-advocating think tanks work by injecting their message into the media, and from there it is carried to the public. While they do have some public following via social media, the think tanks still overwhelmingly rely on mainstream media manipulation to get their message out. This could be stopped if news media simply agreed to stop platforming people who seek to delay climate change action. When it is necessary — for genuine newsworthiness reasons — to report on a fossil-fuel-affiliated, climate-change-delaying think tank, the piece can be accompanied by heavy disclaimers identifying the known affiliations and motivations of the think tank. As a bonus, it would mean that we would never, or hardly ever, have to hear from that fake union of people who object to even the concept of taxes.

Political parties

On the surface, this is much trickier. Although climate inaction stands to displace, ruin, or outright kill billions of people in the not-particularly-distant future, parties that deal in climate delay or soft denial are still seen as politically legitimate. But this is a flaw in the media lens; journalists and editors could quite easily start telling the truth, which is that failing to mitigate and adapt to climate change is both economically expensive and morally unconscionable. I imagine that in this near future, we may see climate deniers and delayers a bit like we view Nazis now; as wholly illegitimate parasites on the body politic. As things stand, vowing to re-open offshore oil and gas exploration is viewed not as a crime against the future of humanity but in terms of "you may not like it, but it's smart politics." Political journalists should not simply repeat what politicians say and assign points; they should frame the statements of politicians by how well they relate to observable reality. In other words, they should tell the truth. Let's see how that could work in practice, with this story from the Herald. Here's how it reads currently:

Christopher Luxon has reaffirmed National's policy of overturning the ban on issuing new permits for offshore oil and gas exploration, saying it is a solution to New Zealand's energy crisis.

Luxon said gas could be used as a bridging fuel, and said the Government should scrap its 2018 decision to stop issuing permits for oil and gas exploration offshore.

And here's how it could read if political journalists were interested in reporting reality:

Christopher Luxon has reaffirmed National's policy of overturning the ban on issuing new permits for offshore oil and gas exploration, saying it is a solution to New Zealand's energy crisis. However, scientists and expert bodies such as the International Energy Agency say that no new fossil fuel extraction can be carried out if the world is to stay within Paris Agreement goals of 1.5 degrees C of warming.

Luxon said gas could be used as a bridging fuel, and said the Government should scrap its 2018 decision to stop issuing permits for oil and gas exploration offshore. However, the IPCC has made clear that practically all fossil fuel use must stop in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, and the notion of a "bridging fuel" is simply a fossil fuel industry talking point.

There. FTFY. There's much more to write on the way that political journalism adopts a frame wherein politics is scored like a cricket match, and policies are praised or decried only in terms of how well journalists predict the public will perceive them, but that can wait. In the meantime, the public should demand that the media simply stop legitimising climate change delay and denial.


Here's an easy one: stop taking fossil fuel industry advertising money and running fossil fuel industry ads. Done.

This will probably not happen overnight, but for meaningful change to occur, it has to. It’s time we demanded it.

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