As extinction looms, we must resist false choices and optimizing failed systems as ‘the best we can do’

23 Mar 2019


It was with mixed feelings that I attended the public seminar this week by Professor Myles Allen, a Coordinating Lead Author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) 2018 Special Report on 1.5°C.  The intention of Professor Allen’s talk was to provoke thought on how New Zealand could be world-leading in the fossil fuel extraction and industrial agricultural sectors when it came to achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.


I say “mixed feelings”, because on the one hand, while last year’s IPCC report was the most alarming to date regarding humanity’s climate crisis, I was none the less aware of the many failings of the heavily politicized (correspondingly scientifically problematic) Paris agreement and IPCC reporting which renders the UN-driven emissions reduction mechanism largely ineffectual (as rising global GHG emissions inarguably demonstrate).  Prof. Allen himself acknowledged that the Paris agreement’s wording of “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase” to 1.5 Celsius, as opposed to actually limiting temperature to 1.5C. was itself a politicized compromise.


On the other hand, I was excited at the prospect of learning something new that would help boost campaigning efforts to reduce GHGs.


Very appropriately, Prof. Allen opened with acknowledgement of the School Strike for Climate.  On 15 March, New Zealand should’ve given our attention to that nation-wide (and indeed, world-wide) action by our youth, but the day was sadly overtaken by other tragic events.   


He emphasized that the world has known about climate crisis since at least 1977 when economist William Nordhaus began publishing papers on the subject, in particular his projections of global temperature increase.  Unfortunately, the political community had ignored the situation this whole time. Urgent emissions reduction is therefore way overdue, but it has to be the right kind of action.  For example, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is calibrated wrong.  It’s not just that the ETS is appallingly missing its primary goal of reducing emissions.  Differences between various GHGs aren’t being equitably accounted for (e.g. farmers reducing stock numbers don’t get sufficient credit under the scheme). 


Simultaneously, despite increased consideration of agricultural methane emissions (which Prof. Allen admitted has incredible “gearing” properties), he believes carbon dioxide (CO2) remains the most important GHG that must be reduced.  The reasons for the difference between CO2 and methane is scientifically complicated, but the bottom line is methane’s impact on global warming is different to CO2’s, so the two need to be treated differently in terms of emissions reduction action.  This (perhaps unwittingly) offered a timely reminder on two fronts: first, that the way of framing issues can very much determine the solution (e.g. if the only expertise one has is with a hammer, then one is prone to frame issues and solutions only in terms of using nails, and not much else); and second, beware hidden or unintended consequences and costs (a major problem with complex systems modelling which is often so abstract and struggles to incorporate all relevant factors, that there’s a strong likelihood of producing incorrect data and analysis).


On that note, Prof. Allen cautioned about “least cost” GHG reduction pathways which failed to account fully for costs – e.g. switching from a high meat diet to a plant-based diet.  He followed with an observation that New Zealand, with our high reliance on agriculture, was well-placed to lead the world in methane reductions and be the first to position ourselves uniquely as ‘net zero’ beef exporters.  To achieve this, however, he advised that policy makers shouldn’t “piss off” the cows and the farmers.


This was the point at which I diverged from Prof. Allen’s sentiments. 


Does 'not pissing off’ the polluters really serve humanity?


Firstly, sure: we must all engage with each other with utmost respect in designing emissions reduction responses.  But at the same time, we must face the truth and find the courage to take the radical action we know is required to give humanity the best chance of survival (or at least, to be a shining example of humanity and dignity to the very end).  Anything less is quite simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and illogical.  Will some sector groups and people be upset to hear the truth, and therefore resist it?  Of course they will.  They’re scared of the unknown; they don’t want their convenient lives up-ended.  From a human psychology standpoint, this is totally normal and to be expected.  The pain of letting go of our attachments to how things are and to what’s familiar is essentially what triggers grief.  But deluding oneself about reality changes nothing: humanity’s facing an existential situation.  Climate crisis will (not might) end us as a species if civilization fails to act with the disruptive urgency it demands.  Rather than avoiding tough conversations, we have to lean into and transcend them - then do what's right.   


Second, arguing that climate catastrophe is an opportunity to increase agricultural export receipts is insane on so many levels.  Experts warn that neo liberal capitalistic economics is itself a major driver of global warming.  Expanding exports – especially GHG-generating products like meat and dairy, using GHG-generating transportation – isn’t helping to reduce GHGs, it’s adding GHGs into our atmosphere.  We shouldn’t be expanding the same old economic operating systems.  If anything, we should be contracting and positively transcending them by all means necessary.  Any implication that net zero is the best Aotearoa should aspire to is ludicrously underwhelming.  And continuing with conventional trade will facilitate the dangerous idea that countries can find some kind of market ‘sweet spot’ where we do enough to level out our emissions to ‘net zero’, but still give ourselves a free pass to continue polluting as long as we take some mitigating action. This is the same fatally flawed argument as the ETS, when in fact, the real imperative is to stop polluting, for the good of the natural world and humanity - period.  Achieving net zero emissions is the very least any country can do.  But we must push further to achieve net negative GHG emissions wherever possible with all due haste.


Similarly, implying that New Zealand should stagger a ‘roll-out’ of GHG mitigating actions (e.g. with exemptions for the agricultural sector), and focus our precious resources on carbon reductions now and methane reductions later, is also a deadly flawed proposition.  The facts tell us that at this rate of lagging political, corporate and social response there may not even be a ‘later’ time for human civilization to act.  Anyone who proposes such false binary choices is either ignorant about the existential nature of our climate crisis, or they’re aware of it but can’t accept the truth that humanity must pull out all the stops to reduce GHGs – including disruptive action that will significantly inconvenience many people.  We have to do it all, and do it now. 


And we can.  The premise we can only afford limited action is based on a further flawed proposition that the currency supply is limited. It is not.  Money is a human construct, and there are well-known precedents for its creation ‘out of nothing’ (which is exactly how financial institutions create money – they loan it into existence).  Why are policy-makers suppressing the sovereign money needed to do all that’s required in these most desperate of times?  In what parallel Universe do these policy-makers and politicians believe an economy in any form can function let alone thrive if the planet is uninhabitable?  I would strongly urge people to lobby answers from their elected officials, and demand that they align their priorities with reality.


Politicians act like they have a choice in all this.  They don't.


Decision-makers engage on the issues like they believe humanity has the choice to cherry-pick responses which are more convenient or doable. But they’re misinformed: we don’t have the choice, choices we once had with the buffer of time are now highly constrained.  The sane, compassionate act is to sacrifice convenience now in order to give humanity the best fighting chance, rather than selfishly sacrificing our children’s future and the whole human race later.



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