Ron Smith is Director of International Relations and Security
Studies at the University of Waikato, where he has been in one
capacity or another for thirty years. He has a particular
interest in nuclear policy and, more generally, in energy and
security issues. Tertiary qualifications in both Chemistry and
Philosophy also underpin an interest in the interface between
science and society.
Politics is a thought provoking political commenatry from
current and former Members of Parliament and others. Contributions are
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Dr Ron Smith
4 June 2008
Politics & Climate Change
does not proceed on the basis of consensus.
The history of science is full of cases where a
minority (or even single individuals) turn out to be right and
the majority turns out to be wrong.
The German scientist, Wegener, provides a Twentieth
Century example, through the response of the scientific
community to his notion of continental drift.
For some sixty years the theory was derided by the
majority of the geophysical community and papers supporting it
were declined for publication by leading journals. Minorities,
particularly, have a problem where there are strong
ideological pressures towards conformity.
In these cases, some fortitude is required to maintain
what is seen to be a deviant or heretical view. Apart from the
obvious example of Galileo the situation of biological
scientists in the Soviet Union, subjected to the dominant (and
erroneous) dogma of Lysenko about the inheritability of
acquired characteristics, might be cited.
the contemporary world of public financing of intellectual
activity, there are also more subtle pressures towards
conformity. One of the
many baleful consequences of directed or
‘performance’-based research funding is the extent to
which it privileges the prejudices and paradigms of those
holding power in the system at any time.
The result is to favour for research support and
publication those who follow the party-line.
This characteristic, and the dominating connection
between this activity and promotion, ensures the production of
vast quantities of mediocre and repetitive material in our
universities and like establishments and discourages the
long-term and more speculative activity that used to be their
academic glory. It is to
the continuing shame of all the New Zealand universities that
this is so. In this
connection it is noteworthy that in the UK the panels making
these systemic judgements about academic worth have now been
instructed to destroy all the notes on which the judgements
this has important implications for our contemporary concerns
about climate change and about what our response ought to be
to claims that a major crisis is looming and, as a
consequence, certain social, political and economic steps
should be taken. As is
well-known, there is serious and persistent scepticism in
regard to both the magnitude and the direction of climate
change and the degree to which it may be said to be
might be a largely ‘academic’ question were it not for the
fact that measures of taxation and regulation are proposed
that have the potential to cause significant harm to the
economic well-being of New Zealand.
Unlike the Wegener case, the consequence of suppressing
the deviant view may not be simply that we remain in
ignorance. It may be
that we embark on policies that are likely to be very damaging
to us and only marginally advantageous (if at all) to the
wider global community.
the hindsight of history, it is hard to believe that the
diplomats and various experts who came together in Rio (in
1992) and, again, in Kyoto (in 1997), would have agreed to a
global mitigation plan under which only a quarter of the
world’s states had any obligations to do anything, had they
realised how the economies of India and China, and other Asian
states, would grow in the years that followed.
The argument that developed states achieved their
relative prosperity without any restraints on their greenhouse
emissions and that it would thus be wrong to impose any
restraints on those still developing, may have seemed
appealing at the time (and may still seem appealing to some)
but if there is anything in the claim of climate crisis to
come it is patently too simplistic.
And then, of course, there is the fact that, by all
present signs, many of the states that have accepted
commitments will (in varying degrees) fail to meet them.
Germany provides an interesting example here, since
apart from the general slippage characteristic of European
states, it is intending to make its problem infinitely worse
by continuing with a minority-driven phase-out of its nuclear
generation capacity. Pathetically,
the German government is intending to ask Brussels for a
dispensation in regard to its Kyoto targets on this account.
that the world will very likely continue to increase its
production of greenhouse gases (and in the light of the
earlier-expressed doubts about the causation and extent of any
climate change) there should surely be some thorough-going
review of the facts before New Zealand, to its very
considerable detriment, elects to fulfil what it sees as its
Kyoto commitments. There
is a need for a substantial and wide-ranging debate and this
must surely mean that at least one of the political parties
contesting the up-coming election must offer an alternative to
the prevailing un-wisdom on climate.
Most desirably, this should be the National Party.
The central issues are very consistent with what
National has stood for but the leadership of the Party is very
clearly intent on offering only what it perceives to be
consensus policies and is unlikely to make a stand on
principle when expediency is doing so well.
really, only leaves ACT. For
them, to give New Zealand voters a clear policy choice at the
election later this year could be seen as not only a moral
obligation but also a political opportunity; an opportunity
for national second thoughts. And
it is surely consistent with core principles.
In the light of the inevitable negative impact of the
proposed Kyoto changes, this could be welcomed by a
significant proportion of the electorate.
To be sure, there may be some risk in such a policy to
the main-stream support which, through the election of Rodney
Hide in Epsom has ensured the Party’s place in Parliament.
On the other hand, there may be little long-term virtue
in maintaining a two-member party.
This might be an opportunity to go for broke and offer
a radically different approach to what is clearly shaping to
be a major political issue. This,
after all, is what Party-founder, Roger Douglas, offered in a
different context, nearly a quarter of a century ago.
ACT took up this challenge, it would offer an explicit
commitment to oppose any legislation or regulatory measure,
bearing on supposed climate change, until the evidence for
such change and its anthropogenic character had been the
subject of a formal commission of inquiry.
This inquiry would also examine the likely social and
economic implications for New Zealand of the various proposed
mitigation measures. In
relation to this latter point, it may be that even if we
satisfied ourselves that the scientific data pointed (with
whatever degree of certainty) to undesirable change, caused by
human activity, we still might conclude that we should not
proceed with measures now proposed on the grounds of the
damage that these will cause to New Zealand interests, both
collective and individual.
principle here is a familiar one.
In the context of international relations, governments
have a particular responsibility to protect the interests of
their own citizens. Particularly, they may not to be
self-sacrificing in respect of those interests, so that even
if it were clear that the climate-mitigation measures
envisaged for New Zealand would benefit humanity as a whole
(another matter on which the proposed commission would be
asked to report) it is not clear that it would justify the
harms likely to be inflicted locally.
Of course, individual citizens may be self-sacrificing
with their own
interests. In the
present context, this would mean that they could volunteer to
pay (say) carbon charges in relation to their own fossil-fuel
usages or make other changes in their life-style and
behaviour. It is just
that the government would not impose such things upon them.
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