IT IS ONLY SLOWLY DAWNING on climate change activists that the fight against global warming is lost. Locally, Cyclone Gabrielle has rendered their cause hopeless. By insisting that Gabrielle is slam-dunk proof that climate change is real, and demanding immediate action to mitigate its impact, the activists have, politically-speaking, over-sold their case. The idea of mitigating a weather event as destructive as Gabrielle will strike most people as nuts. If this is what global warming looks like, then most New Zealanders will want their government to help them adapt to it as soon as humanly possible. Increasingly, politicians and activists who bang-on about reducing emissions and modifying human behaviour will be laughed-off the political stage. It will be the parties that offer the most practical and responsibly-funded adaptation policies that win the elections of the future – including the one scheduled for October 14 2023.
In retrospect the mitigators’ cause was always hopeless. So long as the effects of global warming were not going to be felt for many years, climate activists would never be able to force the changes necessary to prevent them. Tomorrow, as everybody knows, never comes – especially not in politics. Once heatwaves, wildfires, storms, floods and rising sea-levels start ruining people’s lives, however, their reactions will be different. “Okay, we believe you about climate change,” they will say. “So, now you have to show us how to adapt to this new normal?”
The other, even bigger, problem facing the mitigators – especially in New Zealand – is this country’s infinitesimal contribution to climate change. Kiwis and their industries pump out just 0.17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and yet the mitigators keep telling them to completely change their economy, and the lifestyle it funds, so as to keep some barmy promise that all the largest greenhouse gas emitters are happy to break every single day. Since the Paris Climate Accords of 2016, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has gone up, not down. Collectively, the human species is burning more coal, more oil, and more natural gas than ever before. So, how likely is it that New Zealand pulling on a metaphorical hair-shirt and crying “Follow our mitigation example!” is going to stop them?
New Zealanders aren’t the only people asking inconvenient questions about mitigation. All across the developing world the penny is beginning to drop that the extraordinary civilisation brought into being by the exploitation of fossil fuels in Europe and North America; the civilisation responsible for anthropogenic global warming; is not a goal the climate change mitigators believe they should aspire to.
Practically speaking, the mitigators have a point. The huge boost given to climate change by the dramatic economic and social development of China, if amplified by equal “economic miracles” in India, Indonesia, Brazil and the nations of Africa, will make a complete nonsense of the Paris Climate Accords. The mean surface temperature of Planet Earth will rise to levels not seen since the dinosaurs roamed a planet without ice-caps.
But, just how receptive are the poorest peoples on Earth likely to be to a message delivered to them by their former colonial masters which boils down to: “Please don’t try to become as rich as we are – the planet can’t take it.” Are they likely to say: “Yes, Master, we are happy to remain poor – for the planet’s sake.” Or, will they not-so-politely suggest that if the peoples of the West really are so determined to save the planet, then how about they agree to spread their extraordinary wealth evenly across it? Will either side agree to mitigate climate change by making such huge sacrifices? Or, will both sides move as swiftly as they can to implement an adaptation strategy?
Not that adaptation will be easy in the developing world. Not when it’s the poorest countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Their leaders have appealed to the richest nations for funds to help them recover from catastrophic weather events – like the floods that put a third of Pakistan under water. Alas, in spite of the West’s solemn promises to set aside billions, billions have yet to be set aside.
Inevitably, as the world warms, nation states will become even more selfish. When cyclones as devastating as Gabrielle lay waste to forests, farms and orchards, and make plain the worst errors of urban planners, every available dollar is going to be spent on recovery and adaptation. Pleas for financial assistance from developing nations confronting similar challenges are likely to fall on deaf ears. Charity, the voters will insist, begins at home – and their political representatives will not dare to disagree.
It has not helped the mitigators’ cause that so many of them seem to be located on the left of the political spectrum, or that those not identifying as left are fervent advocates of indigenous rights. These climate activists characterise “Carbon, Capitalism and Colonisation” as the three evil giants that must be slain before climate change can be effectively mitigated. They are less forthcoming, however, when asked how this slaughter might be accomplished. This is understandable, given that the chances of destroying Carbon, Capitalism and Colonisation peacefully and democratically are rather slim.
Not that these difficulties are likely to bother the true revolutionaries, since for them global warming has always been the most wonderful excuse for imposing the sort of regime that nobody who believes in individual rights, private property, and the Rule of Law would ever willingly submit to. In the grim summation of George Orwell: “Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” For far too many climate activists, mitigation has always been a Trojan Horse.
For those more moderate socialists, however, a strategy of adaptation can only be a good thing. Preparing a nation for the worst a warming world can throw at it will, necessarily, involve a wholesale revision of the economic nostrums responsible for leaving New Zealand – and many other nations – so vulnerable for so long. Setting in place the infrastructure needed to fend-off the worst that Mother Nature can throw at us will not be cheap and will require as its first major project the wholesale re-strengthening of the state. New Zealand can follow a strategy of adaptation, or it can remain shackled to the doctrines of neoliberalism, but it can’t do both.
It’s an ill ex-tropical cyclone that blows nobody no good.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 February 2023.