Climate change: a reply to the five most common comments from readers

The following article was first published by Stuff on 22 April 2019. Read the original article.

The Stuff series “Quick! Save the Planet” has been running for four months now, providing a wide canvassing of issues around climate change. The articles have attracted many recurring comments from readers, especially arguments about whether we should be cutting emissions at all. These arguments do all sound appealing and are well worth a closer look. Taken together, they illustrate why anthropogenic climate change is such a difficult, indeed unprecedented, issue for society to tackle.

“New Zealand is too small to make a difference.” 

This one is so widely believed that proponents of business as usual will often open with it: “New Zealand is responsible for just 0.2% of global emissions.” Some take it to the next level with, “My personal emissions are too small to make a difference.” This last variant is so extreme that it makes the fallacy very obvious. The emissions of any city, state, or nation of 4.8 million people are too small to make a difference to the global situation, but this is a global issue that can only be solved by collective action. In other collective issues that our society has addressed, including vaccination, democracy, taxation, and human rights, the relationship between the part and the whole is generally understood. Similarly, many things we do daily require us to abide by a social contract. For example, rules for road users are set for the safety of all, but only work properly if everyone abides by them. An individual doing their own thing, like driving in the opposite direction to the traffic flow, has an immediate and obvious impact (literally).  

There are other replies to this point as well. As James Shaw points out, countries with less than 1% of global emissions together add up to 30% of emissions.  A lot of littles add up to a lot.

In international negotiations, New Zealand definitely carries more weight than our 0.06% of world population would suggest. By banding together with other countries with similar goals, our influence can be huge. It already has been – some of the breakthroughs at Paris were directly thanks to the New Zealand team.

And where would you draw the line? Should Australia or the UK, with 1% of global emissions, count? Should Russia, with 5%? Some argue that even the US, with 15% of emissions, is irrelevant, and only China matters. Which brings us to the next point.

“It’s all about China.” 

(or India, or the US, or…) A variant of this one is, “Why should we do anything when no one else is?” China and India are undeniably important, and it’s good to know what is happening there. What is happening is that both countries are investing in renewable energy at staggering rates. In India, solar power is doubling every year, reaching 25GW by the end of 2018; 100GW is targeted for 2020. Wholesale prices for solar have plummeted to less than 5c/kWh. While coal plants are still being built, 25GW of planned plants were cancelled in 2018 and 40GW are mothballed. 

The truth is, most countries are working and investing frantically in this area. The Climate Change Performance Index is an annual assessment of 60 countries emissions trends and commitments. In 2019 New Zealand ranked 44th, India 11th. We are very far from being a leader, or even a fast follower. We have a long way to go, and learning from what is working in other countries is not a bad option.

It also needs to be remembered that India and China only recently became major industrial powers. Europe and the United States led the industrial revolution and began the extensive exploitation of fossil fuel reserves. Indeed empires were built on the wealth generated and are linked directly with European colonialism, exploitation and trade manipulation in countries including India and China. 

“Cutting emissions would wreck the economy.” 

It certainly hasn’t done that in countries where emissions are falling, like the US, Australia, and the UK. In fact, many of the steps we need to take will earn money. Energy efficiency and electrification are net wins, and also represent a switch to  clean, renewable, domestic energy sources (wind and water) over imported fossil fuels. We spend about $5b a year on the fossil fuels, a lot of which is wasted. Countries that are taking action in these areas are gaining a competitive advantage. 

There are some areas where it’s difficult to cut emissions at present, like international aviation. No one is suggesting stopping these overnight. All the more reason to look at them closely and form a plan.

“Hypocrite!” 

Politicians, climate change scientists, and climate advocates, are often called hypocrites for calling for reductions while continuing to emit themselves. It’s the Al Gore argument. Planeloads of civil servants flying to international climate change conferences come in for particular scorn. For a physical scientist, this argument is hard to even understand, because a person’s personal emissions appear to have no bearing whatsoever on whether or not their proposals are sound. (Besides, rock stars and CEOs have way higher emissions!) But emotionally, it packs a punch. No one likes to be called a hypocrite, and anyone who wants to criticise the government will want to draw attention to any apparent hypocrisy. Even though perpetual cries of hypocrisy can undermine trust in society, the charge should be considered seriously. In the long run, we all need to trust each other, to want to do the right thing, and to see others doing it too. 

Calling out others for hypocrisy might feel like justification for us doing nothing ourselves, but in fact it is more effective as a battle cry if you make lifestyle changes yourself. 

“No one talks about the elephant in the room, population growth.”

Global population growth is 1% a year and is slowly declining. So, we need to cut per capita emissions by 1% a year just to stand still, and then a few percent a year on top. Population growth makes the challenge a bit more difficult, but it’s not the main source of the problem. Most growth is taking place in countries with extremely low emissions, so (at least for now) they’re not contributing to the problem. Educating and empowering women, and building stable societies, tends to lower population growth. 

In New Zealand the situation is a bit different as much of our population growth comes from immigration. Our population growth is running at 2% a year – an extra 450,000 people in the past five years. This is a choice we’ve made as a society that creates all kinds of impacts throughout the environment, both human and natural. We do need to talk about it.

Robert McLachlan and Steve Trewick

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