WITH THE ATTENTION of the world fixed upon Ukraine’s unceasing torment, it’s hard to imagine anything worse. But, worse things there are. The global Covid-19 pandemic still rages across the planet. Massive economic instability threatens. And behind them all, relentless and unstoppable, advances the existential challenge of climate change.
Only this past week, scientists in Antarctica recorded a temperature of 4.9C at a time of year when temperatures usually fall below zero. To say they were shocked would be to seriously understate their reaction. Such a reading should be impossible. It contradicts every assumption about how the polar environment is supposed to behave. The scientists described the anomaly as an “historic event”. A paradigm breaker.
If ever there was an historical moment for traditional antagonists to set aside their differences and make common cause against a common enemy, then this is it. Climate change is a planet-wide phenomenon, and its effects can only be ameliorated by an unprecedented level of international co-operation and coordinated action.
Measures hitherto ruled out-of-bounds by the guardians of economic orthodoxy will be required. State intervention on a scale unseen since the Second World War will be required. A willingness on the part of politicians, business-leaders, economists, and the ordinary man and woman in the street to think the unthinkable will be required.
Perhaps the only positive aspect of the Covid-19 Pandemic is that it has given the world some urgently needed practice in breaking the political, economic and social rules.
The inescapable role of the state in protecting the health and welfare of the whole population has been reaffirmed. Central banks have been willing to do themselves what, for the best part of a century, they have permitted only the private banks to do – create new money out of thin air. Historical memories are being stirred. Hopes of transformation are being re-kindled. For the first time in nearly four decades, political possibilities are expanding – not shrinking.
That there are forces at work in our nation determined to stuff this Genie of Hope back in his bottle should not surprise us. The global responses to Covid-19 – both successful (like our own) and woeful (like the United Kingdom’s) – have put the high priests of economic orthodoxy on their guard. They witnessed how, if only for a few months, medical science was able to over-rule the demands of private enterprise, and it terrified them.
Emboldened by their evident success at reasserting the right of business to prosper, over the right of citizens to be protected from a potentially fatal virus, these same high priests are primed to repeat the exercise against the state’s efforts to combat climate change.
Since outright Climate Change denial is no longer a viable strategy, their new plan is to exploit the public’s deep yearning for a return to normality by reassuring them that the measures already taken to combat Climate Change are more than sufficient to meet the Government’s targets, and that no further, inevitably more disruptive, measures are necessary.
Back in the days of Rogernomics these high priests of neoliberal orthodoxy worshiped in the temple of the Business Roundtable. Their new place of worship is called the New Zealand Initiative.
On Tuesday, 22 March, the New Zealand Initiative released a research paper entitled “The Pretence of Necessity”. Authored by Matt Burgess, the Initiative’s Senior Economist, the paper declares:
New Zealand is not in a position of having to resort to desperate measures to meet its climate change obligations. This country can make reasonable or best efforts to lower net emissions with existing policies and be certain of success.
Burgess’s is a bold intervention. His conclusions fly in the face of the painstakingly assembled consensus on the need to supplement New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme with a number of more direct measures for combatting Climate Change. Labour and National are agreed on this. Even Federated Farmers accepts that more is needed.
But not the high priests. Under no circumstances can the politicians, farmers and business leaders be permitted to endorse the massive expansion of state power necessary to halt anthropogenic global warming. Wedges must be driven between the key players. The drift towards consensus must be halted. Old animosities must be re-awakened.
How fortunate, then, that the National Party has just announced the appointment of a new economic advisor.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 March 2022.