CODE RED. Red Alert. Or, as the robot in Space Family Robinson used to say: “Warning! Warning! Danger!” In its latest report, released on Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns humanity that it has less than ten years to limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels – or face catastrophe. Putting it even more bluntly: unless the governments of the world treat Climate Change as the moral equivalent of war, humanity will kill itself.
War has many, many downsides, and very few upsides. One upside, however, is the way it dissolves ideological objections to the policies required to secure victory. To win World Wars I and II, governments repurposed their economies and mobilised their populations in ways which, under normal circumstances, would have been unthinkable.
So successful was the banker and businessman, Walter Rathenau, at marshalling the resources of the German nation for war, that the Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, transformed his methods into a template for the socialist economy he and his fellow Bolsheviks were determined to construct. Confronted with the existential threat of a Nazi invasion, Winston Churchill availed himself of the Defence of the Realm Act, which placed all the property of the United Kingdom – public and private – at the disposal of His Majesty’s Government for the duration.
The seriousness with which the world’s governments are taking this latest and most unequivocal warning of the IPCC may be judged by their willingness to place their nations on a war footing. The maturity of the world’s political parties may be similarly assessed by their readiness to shed their ideological skins to win the fight for humanity’s future.
In this regard, the New Zealand National Party (whose AGM concluded the day before the release of the IPCC’s report) has a great deal of work to do. If last weekend’s performance is any indication, National is still a very long way from “getting” Climate Change. Far from seizing the opportunity provided by its AGM to make the party’s stance on the issue clear and unequivocal, National’s leadership relegated Climate Change to the status of a second-order issue. Certainly, it was not among the seven key issues identified in the Leader’s, Judith Collins’, keynote address.
This is an extraordinary political failure on Ms Collins’ part. She does not appear to understand that a party which is seen to downplay the seriousness and urgency of the climate change threat, risks being dismissed by the electorate as an irrelevant throwback to a bygone era. Just imagine if, in September 1939, the National Party had dismissed the German invasion of Poland as a second-order issue, of little immediate interest to New Zealanders, about which they had yet to develop a clear policy position. They would have been laughed off the political stage!
New Zealand’s governing party, Labour, cannot avoid formulating and implementing a broad range of responses to the climate change threat. As Greta Thunberg has already made embarrassingly clear, we still have much to do, and the world expects us to do it. If the right of New Zealand politics declines to participate in the global “war” against climate change, then the future contours of New Zealand politics will end up being shaped by the differing strategies adopted by Labour and the Greens.
Over the next four or five decades, the key political dividing lines may run between parties convinced that some kind of “technological fix” will rescue humanity from the ravages of climate change; and those who argue that only a fundamental shift in the way human-beings interact with the natural environment will generate an effective response to the threat of anthropogenic global warming.
The 200 year stand-off between capitalists and socialists may, in the course of the long fight against climate change, evolve into a clash between those who continue to put their faith in the “solutions” developed by scientific and managerial elites; and those who look to the ecologically-sensitive and collectively-driven lifeways of indigenous peoples for inspiration.
It is easy to see how Labour versus Green political competition could, over time, morph into a contest between meritocratic scientism and collectivist ecologism. It is much more difficult, however, to see a future for National and Act. If capitalism, itself, falls victim to the Climate Change War, then what chance have the capitalist parties?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 August 2021.