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Dr Muriel Newman

An exercise in futility

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It was the British philosopher and MP Edmund Burke who first described the media as the “fourth estate”. During a parliamentary debate in 1787 to usher in press reporting of the House of Commons, he said: “There were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

As the fourth estate, the media plays a crucial role in public affairs. Sitting alongside the other pillars of government, the Executive, Parliament, and the Judiciary, the media assumes a watchdog role, scrutinising the actions of the government and facilitating greater transparency and accountability. Essential to their proper functioning is the requirement that the media be unbiased in their reporting, covering all sides of an issue.

Major problems arise however, when the mainstream media fails the public interest by reporting only the government’s agenda. While this could be expected from state-owned media, higher standards should be expected from independent media. Yet over the last few years, with just a few notable exceptions, we have had to suffer extremely biased reporting on at least two highly controversial issues – one, the whole sorry saga of the foreshore and seabed law change, and the other, man-made global warming.

From the start, the foreshore and seabed debacle was clouded by the media’s mindless reporting of government propaganda. News stories endlessly parroted as factual government misinformation that was utterly incorrect – such as the statement that the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act denied Maori claimants access to the courts, when the ONLY way to succeed with a claim under the 2004 Act was to prove it in the High Court. This whole fiasco highlighted the fact that most journalists simply could not have read the laws for themselves otherwise they would not have been prepared to repeat the government’s half-truths.

The upside is that we probably all have a better understanding of the importance and power of the Internet. When the mainstream media fails to provide balanced reporting, others are now able to step up to the mark. That, of course has long been the role of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research – to provide analysis that enhances the understanding of public policy issues and the role of government.

In the case of the foreshore and seabed, it was through our research and analysis that we realised the government’s glib reassurances did not stack up. It soon became clear that they intended sacrificing public ownership of New Zealand’s most valuable public asset – the foreshore and seabed out to the 12 nautical mile limit – for the Maori Party’s support after the next election. Through the Internet we were able to connect with tens of thousands of people whom the government was clearly trying to keep in the dark. While we did not succeed in defeating the law change, we certainly put up a good fight.

If you would like to help us widen our network so we can reach out to more New Zealanders and extend our influence, please forward this newsletter on to others who might be interested – and suggest they can sign up to receive it themselves HERE .

The second area where the media has largely failed the public interest – again with just a few notable exceptions – is over the whole theory of man-made global warming. The mainstream media almost never reports on the alternative view to the government’s line that global warming is caused by man, even though there is a widespread understanding that the planet warms and cools as a result of natural cycles. It is largely because of this lack of proper scrutiny, that the National party has been able to implement the harshest emissions trading scheme (ETS) in the world, in spite of promising that they would not make New Zealand a world leader in climate change.

Emissions trading schemes were designed for industrial economies like the European Union, which operates the world’s only other bone fide ETS. There, the ETS does not cover “all gasses” and “all sectors” as National’s scheme does, but instead targets just 43 percent of industrial emissions. It excludes the transport sector, households, small businesses, agriculture, construction, and waste. In addition, the EU scheme is based solely on carbon dioxide – which makes up over 80 percent of their emissions profile – excluding methane and nitrous oxide which play such a key part in our scheme.

It has been argued that if National had modeled their ETS on the EU scheme, to include only manufacturing and heavy industry, the scope and cost burden on New Zealand would have been so minimal that it would not have been worthwhile implementing. So instead of excluding food producers, households, small businesses and transport, like the EU has done, National included all sectors and all gases in their scheme and then had the gall to claim that New Zealand is a ‘fast follower’ on climate change not a leader!

None of our major trading partners have an emissions trading scheme – Australia and Japan have both postponed their schemes, the US scheme is stalled, and Canada’s scheme never got off the drawing board. Meanwhile China and India have no intention of imposing any scheme that would slow their economic progress.

The inclusion of the agricultural sector in National’s ETS makes no sense at all. Not only will it impose huge costs on every New Zealand household through significant increases in the price of food, but it will also cause serious harm to our vital export sector. In addition, a debate is still raging over whether the enteric methane that is produced as a byproduct of the digestive process of cows and sheep should even be classified as a man-made greenhouse gas.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is agricultural researcher Robin Grieve who has been closely examining this issue and has seriously challenged the establishment. In his article The folly of the ETS, he explains:

“Enteric methane makes up nearly one third of New Zealand’s emissions of carbon dioxide equivalents, but most if not all of this methane has no effect on the atmospheric concentration of methane or any other greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. It does not cause an increase in the concentration of methane, therefore it does not cause an increase in the global greenhouse affect and therefore it can not physically be responsible for any global warming that may be happening.

“Designing an ETS around a system and methodology that is flawed was not a prudent move by the New Zealand Government. What would be prudent would be a scientific review into the true effect enteric methane emissions are having on the atmosphere. John Key and Nick Smith have refused to do this preferring to spend tens of millions of dollars in a forlorn search for ways to mitigate the emission of a gas that is only harmful in an imaginary atmosphere not a real one. Their ETS is equally forlorn as a policy because it is based on methodology which is not scientifically credible.”

On top of an ETS that we cannot afford and that cannot be justified, National has now made matters worse by last week announcing an official New Zealand greenhouse gas emissions target that is so extreme, that if it was implemented, it would bring about the total collapse of the economy by the year 2050.

The media barely raised an eyebrow.

Section 224 of the Climate Change Response Act 2002 states that the Minister “may set a target, or amend or revoke an existing target, at any time”. Nick Smith used that provision to announce an official New Zealand 2050 greenhouse gas emissions target of 50 percent below 1990 levels. To see how absolutely ridiculous this is, let’s look at the numbers. According to the Ministry for the Environment, in 1990, total greenhouse gas emissions were stood at 60.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents.1 That means that by 2050, to meet the target of 50 percent below 1990 levels, emissions would have to be reduced to 30.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents.

The latest figures available show that in 2008, New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions had risen to 74.7 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents. This was made up largely of 34.8 million tonnes of agricultural emissions mostly from livestock digestion, 33.8 million tonnes of energy emissions from transport, power generation, manufacturing and construction, 4.3 million tonnes from industrial processes, and 1.7 million tonnes from waste processes. To cut emissions down to the 30.4 million tonne target would mean the equivalent of shutting down the entire transport sector, all non-renewable electricity generation, all manufacturing and construction, and over a third of production from the agricultural sector. Given that the population of New Zealand in 2008 was 4.3 million and that by 2050 it is expected to be over 5.3 million, National’s 50 percent by 2050 reduction target has no credibility at all and demonstrates the total lack of integrity that underpins the whole climate change system.

Australian reporter Andrew Bolt is one of that rare breed of journalists who is committed to holding man-made global warming advocates to account. He recently asked Tim Flannery, Chairman of Australia’s Climate Commission, how much world temperatures would fall as a consequence of Australia cutting emissions by their Government’s target of 5 percent by 2020. Flannery’s answer was a revelation that exemplifies the absolute absurdity of government intervention in this complex area: “If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow the average temperature of the planet is not going to drop in several hundred years, perhaps as much as 1000 years because the system is overburdened with CO2 that has to be absorbed!”2

In other words, even the proponents of man-made global warming are admitting that nothing anyone does now will have any impact for 1000 years. And, if climate change is an entirely natural process, as many believe it is, then all of the investment in mitigation is a futile waste of precious taxpayers’ money. That of course includes National’s mindless wealth and job-destroying policies, like their ETS and expensive research into silly things like trying to stop cows belching methane, that are adding billions of dollars worth of cost onto our economy and forcing businesses who want to stay internationally competitive to relocate overseas – without producing any legitimate benefits for the country at all.