the weak case for inaction on climate change

Although there was quite a positive reception for the Green Party’s ‘climate tax cut’ policy a while back (see a roundup on their blog), the National Party continues to tread out the same old arguments against doing anything substantial to reduce New Zealand’s carbon emissions.

A lot has been said recently in the media by those sceptical of mitigating climate change, along the lines of ‘New Zealand is a such a small proportion of the world’s emissions, therefore we shouldn’t do anything’. What I want to argue here is that while the first part of this argument is (somewhat) true, the second part that we shouldn’t do anything doesn’t follow at all.

Why we aren’t such a small part

While New Zealand might in absolute terms be a small part of the climate change problem, both our emissions per capita, and the trend in our emissions both point to the fact that we are doing relatively really badly in terms of combating climate change. First of all, our emissions show no signs of decreasing:

emissions trends over time NZ

You can also see our terrible performance by comparing our track record with other countries. Excluding land-use change, we’re among the worst. But when you include land-use changes, the picture is really bad:

Graph created with information from
Graph created with information from the UNFCCC

In terms of New Zealand’s emissions in the future, a recent Ministry for the Environment document said: “Based on current data, projections show that New Zealand’s gross emissions are projected to gradually increase. New Zealand’s net emissions are also projected to increase.” (MfE, Sixth Communication, 2014, p 16) Here’s that shameful admission in chart form, from the same document:

MFE projections of NZ's emissions
Source: MfE, Sixth National Communication, p 17

Why we should do something even if we are a small part

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright put the situation well in her last report:

The Government has committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to five percent below our 1990 emissions by 2020, but there is no plan for achieving this – neither the Energy Strategy nor the greatly weakened Emissions Trading Scheme will do it.

Perhaps I have become particularly sensitive, but I seem to be increasingly hearing that it is pointless for our small country to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases because our contribution to the global total is insignificant. But this is a recipe for inaction everywhere. The Minister of Climate and Environment in Norway – another small country – recently said it better than I can:

“Norway accounts for 0.04 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In isolation, what we do is of little significance. But we cannot think like that. Every Chinese city, every U.S. state, every coal power plant emission is small in the larger whole. We will not get anywhere if we just point at each other.”

Detractors of climate action are using faulty logic and whatever arguments they can to discredit a proper policy response. It’s pretty obvious if you think about it, that of course every large problem is made up of smaller parts, and that just because a possible action will only make a small difference doesn’t make it worthless. The same logic would suggest that voting is a useless thing to do for individuals – after all, what can one person, or even small group of people do to change the outcome of an election?

There are two points to be said about this. First, even small actions add up to big things – when New Zealanders go out and vote, all those individual actions add up to something really worthwhile. Likewise, significant climate mitigation efforts by small countries will eventually add up to a meaningful difference. Second, our actions can have more than instrumental value. When we vote we’re not just saying “I want this person to win”, we’re also signalling to the community that we think the democratic project is important and worth devoting a bit of time to. Likewise when we take action on climate change as a small country we’re not just cutting our emissions so that the world’s aggregate goes down slightly, but we’re also signalling to the world that even though we could just sit back and do nothing we do actually care. Each instance of domestic action creates a virtuous circle: the action helps to create a political environment for more significant international action, which flows into more stringent domestic action again.

When you step back and think about it, those who argue we should do nothing because we’re small are advocating an ethically bankrupt position. Proponents of doing nothing because we’re small are essentially calling for us to be free riders – instead of doing anything ourselves we can just rely on the efforts of others to see the world through this crisis. The rest of the world doesn’t want to burn, so they will be motivated to stop the worst effects of climate change from coming to pass regardless of who else is acting. To be a “fast follower” (aka slow, reluctant follower) is to throw off any pretence of leadership whatsoever, and elevate flawed economic reasoning above ethics and morality. When we look back at New Zealand’s role in tackling climate change, we won’t see another proud episode, but rather a whole series of cop-outs and excuses. If the world has a relatively safe, stable climate in the future we’ll hang our heads in shame and have to thank others who had the foresight to act.

To see why this logic of ‘NZ is too small to act’ is silly, I think it’s also helpful to apply it to significant events and movements in New Zealand history, and how those episodes play a large part in our national identity. New Zealanders like to think of ourselves as punching above our weight on the international stage. We said no to nuclear, and sent a strong message against apartheid. A bit further back, New Zealand was involved in setting up the United Nations. What if we had simply thrown up our hands and said “well, we’re only a small country – what we do isn’t going to make a difference to anything anywhere”? Our history would have been marked not by flashes of moments to be proud of, but consistent mediocrity, and an unwillingness to take a stand when it counted. (We’re about to hear back about our bid to get a seat on the UN Security Council, but what does NZ actually stand for any more? Would the world be better off because we had a seat at the table with the big kids?)

Even if New Zealand by itself is a small part of the problem, we need to be seen to do our bit on climate change. Sometimes it’s important to look beyond what’s in your narrowly-defined self-interest and do what’s right for everyone.

Last updated 27 January 2015

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