A room full of angry people: Government consultation on post-2020 climate change target

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I recently went to one of the Government’s consultation meetings on New Zealand’s post-2020 climate change target. I almost didn’t go to the meeting, because I’m quite cynical about whether the government is actually going to take any notice of what people say. Judging from last time, in 2009, the government’s position is probably going to be heavily motivated by political considerations. There were lots of people there who were angry about climate change, and I got the impression a lot of the people in the audience were particularly angry at the Government’s continuing inaction (me included!). They were also angry about the inadequacies of the consultation process.

I don’t think the meeting was well run. The official chairing it from the Ministry for the Environment said there would be a 5 minute time limit for people speaking. That was way too long – 3 minutes would have been enough! He didn’t steer people at all in terms of talking about the target, the matter at hand. Inevitably then, the meeting went on for ages before someone actually mentioned a concrete target figure. While there are lots of inter-related issues tied up with the target – ‘how do we achieve the target’ etc – the meeting would have benefited from more direction.

A few people in the audience pointed out that the last time the government ran a consultation meeting in 2009, Minister Nick Smith actually fronted up and answered people’s questions. This time around, in contrast, it was only officials from the Ministry for the Environment, Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, Ministry of Transport, and the Treasury who were present on behalf of the government. I thought, as I was sitting there listening to people articulate their concerns, that the consultation process was far from ideal because the climate change target is an intensely political issue, yet here we all were venting our frustration not at ministers but just at these poor public servants without real power. The public servants would just go away and write a dry summary of the consultation meetings, which will then be promptly ignored by ministers and cabinet. Someone from the National Government should have taken the time to appear and listen to concerned people talk about this critical issue.

Many people at the meeting pointed out that the consultation document, which was meant to ‘frame’ the issue, presented a very inaccurate and misleading picture of the challenges New Zealand faces. People said that the document focussed far too much on the (questionably calculated) costs of acting on climate change, overlooking the huge costs from inaction — including the threat to many generations of humans. Moreover, the document presented climate change mitigation as a policy which represents only costs to New Zealand, completely ignoring the multitude of benefits we receive by cutting our emissions.

Another thing people at the meeting pointed out was that the document went out of its way to paint New Zealand acting on climate change as a particular challenge for us. The tired old arguments were trotted out: ‘lots of NZ’s emission come from agriculture so it’s more difficult to do something!’ and ‘we already have such a high proportion of renewable electricity there’s no room to improve that much!’.

The rhetoric contained in the consultation doc needs to be challenged on a number of fronts. Firstly, New Zealand’s high proportion of renewable electricity is a blessing — we’re already in an enviable position compared to countries where their proportion of renewable electricity in the single digits. Secondly, we’re actually a pretty rich country, and we are much better placed than many developing countries who will be forced to deal with these problems on a fraction of our GDP.

We do have a big challenge in front of us, but it flows not from our supposedly unique circumstances, but rather because of our shameful history of inaction and missed opportunities.

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I’ve included below my notes from the meeting in case you’re interested. Each time there’s a paragraph break it represents a new speaker. Things in square brackets are asides written by me.

Notes on Government consultation meeting on New Zealand’s post-2020 target (19 May 2015, Wellington Girls College)

[5 mins is way too long to give speakers to talk]

[People talking about things which aren’t super relevant – not addressing questions and wasting everyone’s time.]

Man stands and talks to audience – not at the officials. Turns over many pages of typed speech. Someone near me says he’s: “Well meaning but misguided”.

[Not really helping to heckle people!!]

Guy talking about family planning and importance of reducing fertility. Someone yells out “Awkward!”

Guy talked about the silliness of Tim Groser in saying climate change is going to take 100 years to do anything on National Radio. Says our leaders should have a better understanding of the climate science. Met with lots of applause.

Guy commenting on the double speak of the consultation – being “pragmatic” is Government speak for not doing anything.

Guy from Coal Action saying we need a moratorium on new coal mines. Coal action isn’t against coal miners, just new coal. ETS “just don’t work”.

Woman (Oil Free Wellington): the consultations are a sham. Was a sham in 2009 and is a sham now too. Angry! Not even a minister this time around at the consultations. Came to be here with the people who will make a difference — the submitters.

[I feel sorry for the officials. Can’t even show any emotions on their faces.]

Guy from Kapiti Coast. Lots of talk about costs to households but no concrete policies. No real talk about the benefits of cutting emissions in the discussion document – can’t put a dollar amount on saving the world anyway. Can’t achieve a -5% target by 2020 when our gross emissions are still going up!

Woman who calls herself an “everyday citizen”: People need more education.

Tech guy accidentally puts up a picture of a burning man. Then weird distracting slide show. Turns out it’s from a guy submitting. Noone has been listening to him even though he says has all the solutions – MPs have been ignoring his emails and plans. [A crackpot?] Clean the air and the ocean.

Woman who objects to the assumptions in the consultation doc. Can have increasing prosperity and cut emissions.

Peter Hardstaff (WWF): points out that Government is doing more consultation on the flag than the climate change target. Discussion doc overstates costs of cutting emissions, and ignores the benefits. The one-sided consultation document doesn’t enable a proper discussion. We can’t buy our way out of this problem with cheap credits. Delays are costly. Need a strong target and lots of intermediate goals.

Woman points out the lack of education in the doc. The -5% target the Government has put forward in the past is embarrassing. Lots of challenges and not many solutions in the consultation doc.

Guy says it’s a shame a minister is not here. Public official are afraid of giving free and frank advice to minsters. The public service needs to be long term stewards of the country and make a strong stand. Release information/advice to the public so we can see what policy advisers think.

Guy — lack of urgency in the consultation doc. IPCC scenarios to keep climate safe rely on carbon capture, which is not proven. [First mention of a target at 8:09 pm!!]

Geoff Bertram: I modelled emissions in the 1990s when the debate was good. The ministry is now lost and dispirited. The consultation doc is treating the public with contempt. Contains a vague concept of fairness in the doc – not fair to run away from the problem. Doc implies uncertainty is a reason to not take action but actually we should be aiming for a ‘no regrets’ policy. Domestic action is a least regrets strategy – whereas relying on international market is risky. The modelling interpretation is illiterate and aims for only bad results. If you put “garbage in” for modelling, you get “garbage out”. Not the modeller’s fault. The model assumed no technological innovation even at $300/tonne. Only get good results if you put good assumptions into a model. Agriculture excluded from model, which skews results as it’s much harder to achieve a target with only half of your emissions available to reduce.

Liz (OraTaiao): this should have been a huge consultation. Apparently the Government has been consulting with business for ages but only now are they consulting the public. Where are ministers at this meeting? Where are the TV ads promoting the consultation? Climate change shouldn’t be a siloed issue in the government – it’s a people issue. There is a big equity and fairness issue yet we’re not talking about it – just costs. “Kiwi saver is not going to help us”. Co-benefits of acting on climate change. Lots of good research but we’re not using it.

Person: We have a carbon budget and there’s no way to get around it. 80% of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. Copenhagen was disappointing. Now people are cynical. Daughter says she’s not going to have children because the world is fucked. -40% target by 2030 is what we need. [Only the second mention of a target!]

Sue Kedgley: pathetic paragraph in the consultation document on transport which only mentions electric vehicles. What about National’s road building programme? It’s a terrible idea to build more and participate in an “orgy” of road building. Need cross party talks on climate change.

Caris(?) – my future is being ripped away. The climate science is as old as she is [old guy in the audience says “It’s older than me!”]. Science is settled. 40% target is what we need.

Simon Terry: the consultation document isn’t the document officials would have written if they’d had a free shot at it (i.e. political interference). Is no Government minister coming to the meetings? He asks an official on stage who organised it to be like this? (Official on stage says ministers asked officials to run the consultation.) This is a weird bastardisation of consultation. Officials are punching bags, and people stand on their soap boxes. No dialogue with ministers and a wasted opportunity. Why no projections in the consultation document? Who made the decisions about the model? No answers. Can we get Adolf (of Infometrics) to run an alternative model? The official man on stage says yes, the model should be available to other people.

Nina from Gen Zero. The government has signed up for under 2 degrees. Who will act if we don’t now? The consultation looks only to 2030, but after that young people are going to have to clean the mess up. We need a target of at least 40%.

James Barber (Oil Free Wellington): He has no confidence in the consultation process. National won’t listen – they’re building roads, they won’t listen when they’re already drilling for more oil and gas. The government is actively working to raise emissions. The ETS has turned into a finance vehicle rather than mitigation policy. He wants a revenue neutral carbon tax. The government needs to work with unions and those without power.

Woman asks why the consultation process was so badly run? Why no run-in time? Why no advertising?

Tom Bennion (lawyer): Meaning of 2 degrees unclear in doc from legal perspective. 2 degrees is a dangerous number. We need to be under it. Doc only says “at 2 degrees” should be talking about under 2 degrees. It’s increasingly being seen as a developed country number.

Paul Young (Generation Zero): What we are concerned about is a lack of a plan which matches up to the science. Doc mentions a budget – but carbon budget needs to be about a zero carbon endpoint. Carbon zero targets aren’t radical when the World Bank etc is also saying similar things. Other counties are doing so much more than NZ. Yet we are starting ahead of the curve on renewable electricity. Need a PLAN not fiddling with a target. Public servants should challenge ministers with the feedback from the meeting.

Woman. The consultation document overstates costs. There’s no danger of being too ambitious when we’re already so far behind. No such thing as cutting emissions too much. The government is still making incomprehensible decisions about motorways etc. If the government still does nothing we’re not going away.

Woman: her dying uncle said we should do something about climate change. We should be looking at the cost of not doing anything on climate change. Cost of CC is actually “everything!”! There are things we can do now to show leadership: stop dairy intensification and stop building roads!

Woman from enviro orgs. What are we doing about climate change in the curriculum  in schools? Doc talks about subsidising electric cars but we need to think about equity issues for subsidising them etc. Doc says we have high % of renewable electricity — therefore hard job now — that’s weird thinking! Can’t rely on buying international credits. We need a cross party process and a cross sector process. Needs to be broader than MfE. Ministries need to be accountable for climate change. What about legal avenues we can use to assert our common ownership of the atmosphere and prevent more climate change?

Guy from Radio NZ (who was said to be recording the meeting) should ask the government some tricky questions, based on Simon Terry’s line of questioning.

Woman says the public servants on stage should answer the question from Simon Terry about the model. Think of the kids!!

Man: cost v benefits. We will lose lots of species if we don’t stop climate change!!! Listen to the IUCN.

17 year old boy: leadership is about accountability. (He thumps the stage with his hands to get the point across to the officials.) Think of the children!!! “But seriously guys this is the planet! This is the human race!” Do something about it! He says he was really nervous to stand up but feels a lot better having done it. A stirring and emotional speech that got a big clap at the end.

Young man: promotion of this consultation was terrible. What about the inequity of stopping third world countries from emitting, when rich countries have caused most of the problem already?

[9:15 Getting sick of bring here]

Woman: doc deeply disappointing. We need transformative change now. We are not a victim as a country but a perpetrator. Are health benefits of acting calculated? No, say officials.

Man from VUW Business School: Government is getting bashed at this meeting – probably rightly so. Heartening to see solidarity in NZ for Pacific islands. Did research on accounting and sustainability. Language is being sanitised in regard to climate change as in many atrocities. The consultation document downplays the problem. Our frameworks are broken in terms of analysing problems. A plug for the radicals – they’ve been unfairly maligned. A radical is just a person who addresses the roots of problems. Cost benefit values are dangerous. Cost benefit analyses marginalise important non-economic values. Rethink the structural analysis of addressing climate change.

[Oh god its 9:25 why is this still going.]

Guy: The Government is stuck in short-term thinking. We need long term thinking. Corporations have power, but the government shouldn’t be beholden to them!!! [Somewhat rambly comments.]

Ministry for the Environment officials respond. We help pacific people by giving them solar panels. Doesn’t know about refugees and what the government is doing to help. We are responsible for stewardship. Leadership. Co benefits. Crowd showed anger and courage. Showed dread and hope. “40% target” is yelled out by crowd! She then says oh yes 40% target.

Meeting closes 9:36 (!)

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