TO SAY that environmentalists are underwhelmed by James Shaw’s latest Climate Change announcements, would understate their feelings considerably. With every policy release, Shaw takes another downward step into the shadowland of political ignominy. Pretty soon we won’t be able to see or hear him at all.
In all fairness, to the Minister for Climate Change, he can’t do much else – except, maybe, resign. Even if this government were not so utterly distracted by the deepening Covid-19 crisis, it would have no inclination to take Climate Change seriously.
Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins, Andrew Little, David Parker and Megan Woods are not heterodox thinkers. When it comes to running the country, they all adhere pretty faithfully to economic and political orthodoxy. Such skills as they do possess are mostly devoted to giving their very conventional views just enough spin to render them electorally palatable. It is dawning on them only slowly that this strategy has a limited lifespan. If you promise to do something, then – eventually – you have to do something.
They certainly do not appear to have fully grasped the reason for their extraordinary electoral success in 2020. In a nutshell, Labour was rewarded for actually doing something about Covid-19. Nobody was really sure if the Elimination Strategy would work. The idea of locking-down an entire country was certainly not an orthodox solution – as a great many business leaders and neoliberal ideologues nervously/furiously pointed out. The thing was, the Government didn’t really have time to think about whether or not their chosen course of action conformed to the rule-book. They had to do something – right now! So, they closed their eyes and pulled the lever. And, wonder-of-wonders, it worked.
But Climate Change isn’t like Covid-19. The need to take urgent action is unquestionably the same, but the consequences of this, or any, government not taking urgent action are unlikely to show up as corpses in a matter of days and weeks. Not following the science (the reason why Auckland is rapidly descending into the same Delta Disaster as New South Wales and Victoria) is definitely going to end badly, but not tomorrow, or next week, or even in a few months, or years. And something that is going to end badly in a few years, doesn’t really leave a very deep impression on a politician’s mind. A few years equals forever in electoral time.
Besides, the sort of changes a government would have to make, to produce the slightest difference to this country’s greenhouse gas emissions are so huge, would inflict so much economic damage, that the resulting political resistance simply could not be withstood.
Just recall the relentless fightback against the Government’s Elimination Strategy. “Plan B”, and the unceasing cacophony of voices demanding the creation of the Trans-Tasman Bubble. Not even the Strategy’s outstanding success: in saving lives; in recovering the economy; was enough to shut up the doubters and nay-sayers.
And they won, didn’t they? It’s important to keep that in mind. Jacinda couldn’t do it twice. Even with the number of cases in steady decline, the Big End of Town bounced our orthodox Prime Minister out of Level 4. Two people have already died of this Delta Outbreak – many more (most of them Māori and Pasifika) will follow.
With the power of the Big End of Town in mind, try to imagine the sheer ferocity of the opposition to measures requiring the owners of SUVs and double-cab utes to take their vehicles off the road. Contemplate the size of the “Groundswell” in response to the compulsory slaughter of a quarter of this country’s dairy herd. Or, the seizure of factories found to be greenhouse-gassing in defiance of cease-and-desist orders.
Is our Police Force – heck, is our Army! – large enough and reliable enough to force New Zealanders to kick the emissions habit? If Jacinda and her colleagues were persuaded that remaining at Level 4 could lead to serious civil unrest, then how hard do you think it would be for their officials to convince them that any meaningful – i.e. radical – action to meet our Climate Change commitments would spark a civil war?
Democracy is not really equipped to deal with a crisis on the global scale of Climate Change. But then, neither is the sort of authoritarian regime we see in China. Xi Jinping is one of the few world leaders taking Climate Change seriously, but just look where that has got him – and the globalised capitalist system.
Xi decreed that China must begin transitioning away from coal-fired power stations by shutting-down the dirtiest coal mines and most polluting power plants. Great! That’s the way to save the world! Umm, no, not really. As you read these words, millions of Chinese shiver in the dark and cold of electricity black-outs. Worse still, the great factories upon which the whole world now depends for its “just-in-time” manufacturing and distribution systems have also gone dark. Supply-chain snarl-ups are rapidly becoming a fact of twenty-first century life – and they’re only going to get worse. Those gaps in the supermarket shelves are not going away.
So, don’t be too hard on poor James Shaw. His pathetic little To-Do list is, indeed, totally inadequate to the crisis. But, you know what? He’ll be lucky to get half of the items ticked-off. There’s just too many entrenched interests – not the least of whom are consumers like you and me – standing in the way.
You don’t believe me? Well, consider this. For New Zealand to escape the clutches of the Delta Variant of Covid-19, all its citizens have to do is roll up their sleeves and accept a couple of jabs of Pfizer vaccine. Pretty simple, huh? And yet, upwards of 10 percent of the population, more than enough to keep Auckland in Lockdown for months, refuse to take two for the Team of Five Million.
So, ask yourself, if people can’t see clearly enough to grasp freedom via vaccination, is it reasonable to suppose that they will willingly wave good-bye to their fossil-fuelled lifestyles?
In the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s cartoon hero, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 October 2021.