Our decades of climate change denial

Last time we looked at who the New Zealand merchants of climate doubt are. Now let's see what they've accomplished

I have no words for just how terrible the effects of this climate-change-exacerbated cyclone have been. As I write this, 11 people are confirmed dead, including a two-year-old child, who was swept away as her parents tried to escape the flood.

My son is two. A quirk of location and fate and that could have been my family. It could have been anyone. Horror beyond horror.

I want to say how anguished and sorry I feel for all those who have lost lives and family members and pets and homes and property and precious things. I also want to take this moment to remind everyone that there is a long history of responsibility for our lack of climate mitigation, preparation and adaptation that goes back decades. Those responsible for this crisis aren’t just a nebulous “we;” they are specific people, who through a mixture of cowardice, incompetence and (too often) sociopathic malfeasance have given us the crisis we now face.

In the wake of the latest climate disaster, the malfeasants are already at it, with Act party leader David Seymour already loftily declaring that we need to stop focusing on climate change mitigation.

“Our climate change response needs to shift from mitigation to adaption. New Zealand can't change the climate but it can better adapt, and unfortunately we're getting a really big lesson in that right now,” Seymour said.

This is, of course, unmitigated bullshit. New Zealand has both internationally agreed and profound moral obligations to mitigate climate change, especially given we are the world’s sixth greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, per capita. But, more to the point, if the world doesn’t mitigate climate change, it will create a catastrophe that’s impossible to adapt to.

On that note, let’s keep looking into who’s responsible for our lack of both climate change mitigation and adaptation. Last post, I detailed who some of New Zealand’s merchants of climate doubt are. The following post — copied with permission from No Right Turn — shows just how successful they’ve been.

Climate change: The lost decades

Originally posted 15 February 2023 at No Right Turn

Over the last few days Aotearoa was hit by ex-tropical cyclone Gabrielle - the second tropical cyclone to hit us in just two months. Huge chunks of the country have been flooded, 225,000 people have lost electricity (some will be without it for two weeks), and at least two people are dead. The economic impact is estimated in the tens of billions. Before Parliament adjourned so MPs could go and help their constituents, Climate Minister James Shaw gave a speech drawing the obvious link to climate change [video], and warning that we are now entering "a period of consequences":

I have to say that, as I stand here today, I struggle to find words to express what I am thinking and feeling about this particular crisis. I don't think I've ever felt as sad or as angry about the lost decades that we spent bickering and arguing about whether climate change was real or not, whether it was caused by humans or not, whether it was bad or not, whether we should do something about it or not, because it is clearly here now, and if we do not act, it will get worse.

I've been recalling, actually, a quote from a different time about a different crisis: "The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences." And there will be people who say, you know—just as the National Rifle Association in the United States does about shootings over there—it's "too soon" to talk about these things, but we are standing in it right now. This is a climate change - related event. The severity of it, of course, made worse by the fact that our global temperatures have already increased by 1.1 degrees. We need to stop making excuses for inaction. We cannot put our heads in the sand when the beach is flooding. We must act now.

Newsroom's Marc Daalder has talked about this period of consequences - or, as he put it, Alt title: Fuck around and find out. But I'd like to look at the "fucking around" part. Because there is a lot here to be angry about, and people we need to hold to account.

Way back in 1992, the then-National government endorsed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in which they promised to reduce emissions. They followed this up in 1998 by signing the Kyoto Protocol, committing us to a binding emissions reduction target. Environment Minister Simon Upton did a lot of work, developing a fully-formed, all-gases, all-sectors emissions trading scheme, but his National colleagues - farmers and climate-change deniers - fucked around, chickening out of implementing it at the last minute, leaving the problem for future governments.

In 2002 the then-Labour government ratified the Kyoto Protocol. They then fucked around, switching from an ETS to a carbon tax and then dumping it under pressure from their coalition partners. They chickened out of making farmers pay a minimal levy on agricultural emissions, while repealing existing regulatory solutions to reduce emissions in favour of a "perfect" price mechanism which didn't exist yet. They then switched back to a partial emissions trading scheme (wasting another three years in policy development), which they loaded with pollution subsidies and opt-outs, and did not pass until literally the last days of their term. It was then immediately gutted by National.

Not content with gutting the ETS, the new National government elected in 2008 set up a "review" of climate change policy packed with climate change deniers to undermine policy even further, while repealing the thermal electricity ban and biofuels obligation. They then gutted the ETS even more, adding even more subsidies for polluters. At the same time, they announced a "50% by 2050" emissions reduction target, and ratified the Paris agreement. But they fucked around, and did nothing to meet their obligations.

In 2017, then-Labour leader Jacinda Ardern called climate change "my generation's nuclear free moment". In 2019 the government she led passed the Zero Carbon Act, ostensibly committing us to long-term emissions reductions, with plans, budgets, reviews, and all manner of bureaucratic bullshit. And then they fucked around, repeatedly fucking with the carbon market to keep carbon prices low, repeatedly delaying making agricultural polluters pay for their pollution (and then only at the lowest possible level), and introducing even more subsidies for polluters. They've now pissed all over their carbon budget by subsidising petrol.

All of these governments fucked around. There's a common theme of hard-working climate ministers - Simon Upton, Pete Hodgson, and James Shaw - being betrayed by their Cabinet colleagues and having their plans dumped (Nick Smith is a malignant exception to this, being a collaborator with climate change deniers). There's another of constantly grovelling to farmers, a dirty, inefficient sector which receives more in subsidies than it pays in taxes, and which when you factor in the costs of its pollution, seems to be a net drain on New Zealand. And there's a common theme of them viewing climate change as a problem for the future, a mess they can leave for someone else to clean up. The consequences of that irresponsible short-term thinking can be seen on the East Coast today.

They all fucked around, and we're now finding out. And the people who fucked around got knighthoods and big pensions and posh post-political careers with banks and SOEs and crown entities. They got rich, while kiwis got flooded and left in the dark. And it’s time we held them accountable for it.

Can we stop calling deniers “sceptics” now please

Cyclone Gabrielle Lashes New Zealand. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory
Pretty hard to be skeptical of this.

Me again. Thanks again to Idiot/Savant for permission to reproduce his post. Please check out No Right Turn; it’s one of New Zealand’s best political blogs.

In related news, journalist Charlie Mitchell is one of Stuff’s most consistently excellent writers and he has a great piece on denial that I encourage you to check out, but that I also take some issue with. Mitchell correctly identifies the role of mainstream media opinionists in driving false narratives about the cyclone and climate change, but he calls this phenomenon “Cyclone Gabrielle scepticism.” It’s part of a long media tradition of calling climate change deniers “climate sceptics,” when they’re anything but.

A sceptic (also spelled skeptic, which I like better for some reason, so I’ll just use that from now on) is someone who suspends belief in any dogma that lacks evidence. Essentially, skepticism is the thinking behind the scientific method. The idea of climate change deniers being skeptics is a joke, as the scientific evidence for human-caused climate change is overwhelming. And if you’re feeling, uh, skeptical, here are the NZ Skeptics on climate change, forced to make a clarification because of misidentification with so-called “climate skeptics:”

The New Zealand Skeptics Society supports the scientific consensus on Climate Change. There is an abundance of evidence demonstrating global mean temperatures are rising, and that humans have had a considerable impact on the natural rate of change. The Society will adjust its position with the scientific consensus.

The news media should stop using “climate skeptic” and similar terms immediately. It confers climate change deniers a legitimacy they really shouldn’t enjoy, as they are demonstrably following a dogma rather than engaging in critical thinking. If they’re looking for a more accurate term, they could simply use “climate change deniers” or if that’s too on-the-nose, why not settle for “climate cynics?”

Thank you for reading The Bad News Letter. If you want to see climate change denial out of our media, please share this piece.

Voices for Climate?

Thanks for the discussion that took place under the last post. A particular shout-out to Tamara who wondered if there could be some kind of “Voices for Climate” who could fight against climate disinformation disseminated via the media. Bloody good idea. I was less stoked to see someone trying to sneak in some climate doomism. Just no. I’m about as tolerant of doom as I am of denial. It’s unscientific and unhelpful, as it drives decent people to despair and helps provide a perverse “well, if we’re all screwed, we may as well keep drilling” social license to the fossil fuel industry. But it’s quite different from expressions of sadness or even despair, which are entirely fine, especially now we find ourselves firmly in the “finding out” stage of climate change. If you feel the need to vent, go for it.