The shaming of the West Coast refuseniks

by Graham Adams / 01 February, 2019
west coast regional council

West Coast Regional Council. Photo/

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Despite being ridiculed, the renegade councillors’ stand against the government’s flagship climate change legislation sparked an illuminating debate about New Zealand’s role in addressing the issue.

How loudly we laughed… or perhaps just smirked benevolently… at those rubes from the West Coast Regional Council who want more evidence about anthropogenic climate change before they are willing to support the provisions of the Zero Carbon Bill!

A photo of the line-up of seven men from the South Island was bandied about on social media and blogs as a self-explanatory exhibit. They are, after all, a collection of middle-aged Pākehā men from provincial New Zealand who look like they wouldn’t even know what a flat white is and probably couldn’t tell you the difference between a barista and a barrister either.

They were derided as “glazed hams”, “beige male dinosaurs” and not worth listening to because they are a gaggle of “old, white men”.

Among a wave of hostility, Māori Climate Commissioner Donna Awatere Huata reckoned they are mired in “medieval stupidity” and “shameful ignorance”

Dr James Renwick, a professor of physical geography at Victoria University who was doing the media rounds to counter their antediluvian attitudes, was altogether more conciliatory and constructive than the Twitterati and blogosphere. He told TVNZ’s Breakfast that the science was, in fact, readily accessible and maybe the councillors’ objections were more about fears for their region’s future and economic livelihood than concern about the science — especially given the Coast’s reliance on fossil-fuel-dependent industries such as coal-mining and dairying.

However, West Coast councillor Allan Birchfield dispelled that assumption when he was interviewed on Larry Williams’ NewstalkZB show before Renwick came on. He said he was in the “hot seat” only because none of his colleagues wanted to front, but he held his ground. And he made it clear that he and his fellow councillors weren’t convinced by the science at all. 

Birchfield reckoned there are “a lot of other scientists out there” disputing the effect of carbon emissions on the environment. He cited Patrick Moore, a former president of Greenpeace Canada, as one example.

Williams was patient with him, as he was with Dr Renwick, with the result that both the interviews were very illuminating on what remains a contentious topic. Some sceptics think that even if there is a link between human activity and climate change there is no way of being sure that radically reducing CO2 in the atmosphere will have the predicted results and there are simply too many variables to risk the huge expense required; others think higher temperatures and more rainfall might, on balance, be beneficial to New Zealand as a land-based economy; many believe we should spend the billions required to fight climate change to clean up urgent, obvious problems such as our filthy rivers and lakes.

Much of the hostility to proposals to mitigate climate change, of course, arises from observing the relative insignificance of New Zealand’s contribution to global greenhouse gases. Why, opponents ask, should we bother to make radical and costly changes to our economy when whatever we do will have a negligible effect on the global environment, including New Zealand’s?

Larry Williams’ conversation with Renwick was particularly illuminating on that topic. He asked: “What difference to world climate will it make if the West Coast adopts a zero carbon bill?”

Renwick: “In the short-term, very little. But it’s all about everyone doing their bit. New Zealand, per head of population, is in the top 10 of emitters in the world. So we have as much responsibility as the Americans or Chinese…”

Williams then pointed out that New Zealand’s contribution — at 0.17 per cent of global emissions — is “infinitesimal… it’s nothing. The West Coast can do what it likes and nothing will happen.”

Renwick returned to the moral responsibility argument. “Well if everyone took that attitude, nothing would happen at all, globally, and we just can’t sustain that. Everybody has to pitch in… every government, every country. The size of New Zealand is like one suburb of a Chinese city, and they could say exactly that… and the next one and the next one and nobody would do anything.”

Williams, in his patient way, implied that the Chinese aren’t in fact trying to set a shining example to the rest of the world, which makes the argument about New Zealand “pitching in” pretty pointless when China with its vast, dirty economy isn’t.

“China is building how many hundreds of coal-powered stations at the moment? You see what I mean — we can do whatever we like. Even the chief scientist in Australia has said: ‘Look, [we’re at] 1.3 per cent of global emissions. We can do whatever we like… It won’t change the earth’s climate.’”

Faced with the unfortunate fact that whatever New Zealand does will not change the globe’s climate, or even our own, Renwick’s argument collapsed completely: “Well, it’s about signalling on the world stage, isn’t it? New Zealand led the world on a lot of social policy and all sorts of things. We could lead the world and it would be good for our economy if people want to come here to find out how to do it. That’s going to be good for us. I think we could really be leaders on this.”

So implementing the Zero Carbon Bill comes down to supporting — at least in Renwick’s mind — New Zealanders’ weird belief that its manifest destiny is to lead the world on progressive issues.

Williams drove Renwick to that point pretty quickly but the elephant in the room, whenever a university academic promotes everyone else “pitching in” on climate change, is our universities’ own appalling record of not pitching in. I have no idea of the size of Renwick’s own carbon footprint — he may well be blameless — but I do know his university racks up massive per capita carbon emissions from air travel, much of which is avoidable.

Air travel is the single biggest source of Victoria University’s emissions, totalling over 6000 tonnes of CO2 in 2017. A lot of that arises from the fact that academics — and senior academics in particular — are unwilling to give up their university-funded conferences, mostly overseas, even though video-conferencing is now a well-developed technology.

Victoria University’s website says: “Air travel is also a big issue for the university and we are taking steps to reduce that. We generate over 50 million kilometres per year of air travel – over 17,000 flights. Most of this travel is to attend academic conferences, that enhance our research and connect us to the world.” 

Seventeen thousand flights a year! The steps the university is taking to reduce that total will have to be drastic to have any significant effect.

It’s true that air travel accounts for a small portion of global greenhouse gas emissions but that’s the same position New Zealand holds as an emitter. So if you think it’s worth New Zealand cutting its globally insignificant emissions, you have to accept the same for air travel.

If I were a West Coaster, before I signed up to the provisions of the Zero Carbon Bill and accepted being lectured by academics I’d want to see their overseas travel slashed and replaced with video-conferencing. It might reduce the academics’ job prospects and prosperity but, hey, that’s what they’re asking of the West Coasters. After all, we’ve all got to pitch in.

Academics routinely insist that discussions with colleagues across the world in person is essential but video-conferencing is well developed enough for a parliamentary cross-party inquiry into euthanasia in Western Australia to conduct their year-long study entirely without international travel.

As the MPs’ report published in late 2018 stated: “Given the ease with which video conferencing could be used to facilitate formal evidence gathering from overseas, the committee did not travel internationally. This approach will have many benefits for the public debate that is certain to follow the publication of this report. Evidence gathered from international travel is not easily shared with the wider community, whereas our video conferences have been fully transcribed and are available on the committee’s website for anyone with an interest to review them.”

There are eight universities in New Zealand and their carbon tally from air travel is unconscionably large. Maybe many more ordinary people would take scientists’ recommendations to mitigate the effects of climate change more seriously if academics followed Auckland University scientist Shaun Hendy’s lead on avoiding air travel entirely, which he managed to achieve for 2018.

As Professor Hendy said: “Messages from people who walk the talk are seen to be more reliable than those who just use facts and evidence. If scientists expect the world to take us seriously about climate change, then maybe we need to be seen to be taking it seriously ourselves.” 

Hendy took no flights last year, while confessing that, “In 2017 I flew a total of 84,000 kilometres, emitting roughly 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process. From my travel alone, I was responsible for emitting the carbon dioxide of 2½ average New Zealanders.”

He admitted that 2017 hadn’t even been a big travelling year for him. “I took only one trip to the Northern Hemisphere, whereas in 2016 I had two trips to Europe and one to the US. I was acting as if I didn't care about carbon dioxide at all.”

Hendy is a rare exception among academics in his commitment and his public mea culpa. So rare in fact that his stand made the news.

If most academics — as some of the most highly educated people in the country with full knowledge of the dangers of climate change — aren’t walking the talk, why should we expect rural folk on the West Coast to do just that when they don’t even believe the talk?

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