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.