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Bryan Leyland

“Salvation Circus” or Government Consultation?

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Last Monday night I had the disturbing experience of being present at a public meeting called by Nick Smith (Minister for Climate Change Issues) to discuss New Zealand’s 2020 emissions target.It was one of 9 public meetings and 5 invited meetings arranged by the Ministry for the Environment to get public feedback on what New Zealand should do towards a 2020 emissions target.

The flyer for the meeting said Our target needs to be realistic so that we do not put our economy at risk or damage our good international reputation by failing to deliver. It must also be sufficient to protect the environment and associated economic and social benefits into the future. Given the international political pressure to set a target, this is all quite reasonable.

The meeting was at the Hyatt Regency ballroom in Auckland. There would have been at least 300 people there. I would say that more than 90 percent were convinced that man-made global warming was real and dangerous and at least 70 percent had been herded there by Greenpeace and the Green Party. Many of them had large professionally done posters with 40% by 2020 on them. They would have cost several dollars each and I suspect that Greenpeace had been handing them out as people came into the hall. I understand that Greenpeace also flew their leading protagonists from meeting to meeting. With a 2007 income of more than $400 million, this is the sort of thing that Greenpeace can do. But is this democracy at work? It is certainly a tactic that my friends in Iran would be familiar with.

The whole show bore a strong resemblance to a salvation circus. Hard science, evidence, commonsense and economic realities did not come into it. As far as most people in the room were concerned, the IPCC represented the word of God. To these people, dangerous global warming was an established fact and it was beyond doubt that if New Zealand adopted 40% by 2020, we would save the world. To suggest otherwise was heresy. (Never mind that, according to Infometrics, it would need a carbon price of $500 per tonne that would double the price of energy and reduce everyone’s income by $3200 per annum.)

The meeting started off with a presentation by Nick Smith that included the usual IPCC curves promising environmental disaster as the world got hotter and hotter. He made it very clear that he was convinced that man-made global warming was real and dangerous and something had to be done. But he also accepted that economic damage would be severe if the government tried to move too far too fast. However, he did quote a recent – and discredited – NZIER report that claims that the economic damage would be relatively minor.

He said the government would soon bring in an amendment to the emissions trading scheme. He made (as I recall) absolutely no mention of the select committee process and certainly no mention of the need to wait for the outcome of this process.

He frequently referred to carbon pollution (given that carbon dioxide is essential to life, this is arrant nonsense) and mentioned the fact that we had to be sure of the science. He also mentioned that he had had dinner that evening with Jim Salinger (a well-known meteorologist and supporter of the IPCC who was recently fired by NIWA for unknown reasons) who was present in the room.

The chairman was Mike Lee of the Auckland Regional Council. He made a short speech that made it clear that he firmly believed in dangerous man made global warming. He asked people make their presentations brief and stick to the question – what should we do. But, in fact, he let the many speakers speaker ramble on for more than five minutes.

The first speakersaid that the Act Party believed that 2 degree warming would be good and that (as I recall) carbon dioxide did not cause global warming. He asked Nick Smith what he was doing to marginalise Act. Nick responded in words to the effect that he did not have to worry about Act because he had the Green Party and the Labour Party on his side.

The second speaker was from Oxfam. She also rambled on for five minutes. Among other things, she talked about the poor Cateret islanders who were sinking beneath rising sea levels and the fact that recent floods in Bangladesh had killed hundreds of thousands of people. (Which, of course it is quite true. The more people there are, the more will be drowned in any given flood.)

I spoke next and I started off bystating that I was part owner of a small hydro scheme and, unlike many people in the room, I was speaking against my own financial interests. (This was aimed at the Green Party who have invested in wind farms – and many others in the room whose income relied on promoting global warming.)

IthenaskedNick Smith whether or not he would be taking scientific advice from a wide range of scientific views. He said that the National Party relied entirely on the IPCC for their scientific advice because the IPCC was the fount of all wisdom on man made global warming (or words to that effect).

I then pointed out that the Carteret Islands were sinking due to tectonic plate movement and that claiming it was sea level rise was typical of the misuse of science associated with global warming. I then said that the only sensible policy was to note that the world was cooling. According to the sunspots and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, continued cooling was more likely than a return to warming – and we knew that cooling would be seriously bad for the world. Therefore the government should take the line that no action will be taken until and if the warming trend restarts and it is firmly linked to man-made greenhouse gases. This went down like a lead balloon.

Jim Salinger spoke shortly after and started off by making very disparaging remarks about me. Another speaker demanded that the government spend more money educating the public on the dangers of global warming.

Nick was asked if he was going to shut down the new coal mine (the one that had had problems with rare snails that turned out to be abundant). He replied that he would not because if New Zealand did not supply the coal it would be supplied from other sources and therefore there would be no net reduction in emissions. To his credit, he stuck to his guns on this one.

All the remaining speakers ranted on – and that is a fair description – about various subjects.

One or two were definitely in a religious mode. (We must repent and do penance for our sins!)Many of them quoted the mantra 40% by 2020 and, for as long as I stayed, none of them made any constructive attempts to answer Nick Smith’s question. The meeting was supposed to stop at 9 PM but by 9:30 PM there was still a good 10 speakers lined up waiting to speak. I walked out in disgust at the lack of control by the chairman and the way speakers relied on emotive pleading instead of addressing the science and the question.

As a way of getting constructive public feedback it was a total failure.

It is very disturbing to discover that Nick Smith has accepted the IPCC conclusions even though he must be aware that they are based on climate modelling that failed to predict the 1998 El Nino and the definite cooling trend since 2002. In fact, he has done more than that. He has treated their projections as accurate predictions that could be relied on for policy-making in spite of the fact that the IPCC warned against doing this and, in particular, warned against using climate models to make regional predictions of climate change.

I have since talked to someone who was at the corresponding meeting in Wellington. Apparently it was almost identical.

At both meetings the room was packed with Greenpeace and Green Party supporters all intent on persuading the government that 40% by 2020 was the only option. Not one of them even tried to come to terms with the economic and political problems attached to a target that would require a reduction of more than 50% of our current greenhouse gas emissions in a decade. The last thing they wanted to know was that if we did succeed in doing this, we would reduce many New Zealanders to penury and, because so many of our productive activities would have been shipped overseas, the net result would have been an increase in worldwide emissions.

Reporting back to the government poses an interesting dilemma. It could be said – with some justification – that the public meetings demonstrated strong support for a major cut in emissions.

It could equally be said that the public meetings were dominated by a small extremist sector of the population who insisted on extreme measures being taken, but completely failed to respond to the question and discuss the real difficulties that New Zealand faces in trying to find the right balance between politics, economics, and scientific realities. Therefore their lobbying should be disregarded because they did not contribute to forming a rational 2020 policy for New Zealand.

Given that it was entirely predictable that Greenpeace and the Green Party would stack the meetings with their supporters, somebody in the Ministry for the Environment or the Minister’s office should have contemplated better ways of spending the large amount of money involved in setting up the consultation. What the government really needs to know (and, most certainly, did not get) is what the average person in the street thinks about setting a target such as 40% by 2020.

In my opinion, the Ministry for the Environment should have commissioned an independent research company to interview a cross-section of the population using questions that were entirely objective and acknowledged the uncertainties in the science (which are quite clear from close reading of the IPCC report) and also acknowledged the possibility of huge economic damage in the event that New Zealand locked itself into overly ambitious targets that might even increase worldwide emissions. It could also have drawn attention to the fact that if the present cooling trend continued, 40% by 2020 could turn out to be exactly the wrong policy.

If this had been done, then, for the first time, the government and the public would have some idea of what the average Kiwi thinks about the ETS and claims of dangerous man-made global warming.