Calling for a productive dialogue on NZ carbon descent

14 May 2017


The Productivity Commission has recently been engaged to review "how New Zealand can maximise the opportunities and minimize the costs and risks of transitioning to a lower carbon economy". Bearing in mind the urgent radical need for climate crisis mitigation and adaptation, here’s a few of my preliminary thoughts which I hope everyone will give serious consideration to in terms of public engagement and the design of the Government's carbon descent plan moving forward.


The Nexus Between Social Services and Climate Crisis


One has cause to hope that the Productivity Commission’s “dispassionate” assessment will reflect and align with its findings and recommendations with its 2015 “More effective social services” report, the complexities of which I observe holds many similarities to climate crisis, and the need to make our energy production and economy more effective. 


To give an idea of what I mean, here’s some quotes from the Commission’s media release relating to its 2015 report:

  • “Tinkering with the current system will not be enough to help disadvantaged New Zealanders”.

  • For people facing complex multiple problems, “it is not enough just to make the current system work better. A new approach is required that puts the needs of  people and their families at the centre of decision-making. This will require a shift in thinking and structures.”

  • “Early intervention is a central theme of the Commission’s report.  The commission believes that better use of data and analytics will help the government target those most in need early – putting a fence at the top of the cliff rather than an ambulance at the bottom.”


Red Flags


Despite my optimistic point of departure concerning this review initiative, here’s some red flags to keep our radar out for.


First, notice how the Government’s review focus relates to its climate “change” work programme that will enable Government to “properly assess the economic trade-offs that we’ll need to make to meet our ambitious 2030 Paris Agreement target”.


This is classic dumbing down language.  The truth is, even if we began a radically disruptive program of carbon reduction today, the planet would keep warming due to cause-effect lags associated with positive feedback loops with various natural processes that have been in train now for some years. 


In other words, such disingenuous language keeps the population asleep and lulled into this deadly false sense of security that we have time to sort our predicament out: but nothing could be further from the truth.  Being in ‘action deficit’, time is something that’s definitely not on our side.  We’re not in an era of climate “change”: we’re in a climate “crisis”; ergo the aim can’t merely be to transition to a “lower” carbon economy – it must be to urgently shift to a “zero” carbon economy, if not one that’s a “net negative” carbon economy and therefore restorative of this planet’s Life support systems (as opposed to merely being “sustainable”: another term we need to eject from this conversation, or start using it in a correct context – either one).


Moreover, regarding the Government labeling its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets as “ambitious” is overly generous. Naturally, fossil fuel and energy distribution corporations prefer to continue making their billions and trillions of profits (which they’ve become desperately addicted to), and therefore would see any significant change as “ambitious”. 


However, if we frame the idea of “ambitious” against a different metric – i.e., what New Zealand needs to be doing to give us the best shot at maintaining a functional society in the face of the clear and present danger of our and humanity’s extinction – our Government’s Paris targets were anything but ambitious, and no-where near “the pace and scale required” (as the Royal Society of New Zealand and leading climate scientist Professor James Renwick remind us).


Two Key Solution Design Challenges


And this goes to the heart of two key challenges facing our civic population, i.e. how to:


1. Powerfully disrupt the critical mass of cognitive dissonance (re environmental protection values vs economic success values) which keeps our so-called political ‘leaders’ impotently spinning their wheels while the world goes to hell in a handbasket; and


2. Urgently make the narrative around climate crisis more honest so that people realise:

  • It’s an existential crisis that’s here now – we don’t have 50 or 30 or 20 years to pretend like we don’t know the answers when in fact the answers have been out in the open screaming at us for years; and

  • That we have to “trade off” environmental protection for economic growth is a dangerously insidious, manufactured false dichotomy.  Not only can economic growth be ENHANCED with aggressive environmental protection measures, but we don’t actually have a choice. Without a viable habitat with which to support human life, there is no economy – end of story; having said that

  • You cannot have infinite economic “growth” on a planet of finite natural resources – at least, not the kind of industrialized resource extraction-based growth that we’ve been ‘enjoying’ up till now that ultimately externalized devastatingly destructive costs on our environment and society, and ruthlessly expanded financial inequality between the oligarchic elites and the 99%.  This suggests that a larger more transcendent purpose beckons than merely optimizing the demonstrably failed current economic paradigm.  But what could be bigger than that?  The answer, of course (in the tradition of Buckminster Fuller’s transcendent thinking and Richard Wolff’s calls to do better than capitalism), is to create a new economic paradigm entirely – that, and to re-create the way society is organized.  Both these areas must go hand in hand with climate justice /energy production transformation if our noble aspirations for humanity’s next stage of evolution are to be realized.



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