The changing climate of climate change policy

The new government's climate change policy is killing innovation, undermining science and abandoning our role as an inspiration to other countries

One night in 2007 I found myself at an official dinner in Brussels seated next to a man who advised the German government on climate change. We chatted about the role countries could play in the shift to sustainability.

He noted that what New Zealand did would have little impact on the overall problem. Our small size, however, did not excuse us from making a practical contribution. In addition, he said, New Zealand had a very special and more important role to play. “You”, he argued animatedly, “need to be a symbol to the rest of the world of what is possible”.

The advisor went on to detail the way New Zealand was seen in the world as a small modern economy that had a reputation for placing a value on being clean and green. Our efforts to change were noted and we were seen as a beacon on the hill guiding others to a sustainable future. Yes, he was eloquent.

That encounter at a dinner in Brussels surrounded by a crowd of equally passionate advocates of the need for the world to change has stayed with me since. I felt proud that New Zealand was seen as so important to the world’s efforts to address climate change. I came home even more committed to being a part of advancing New Zealand’s leadership role.

You might, therefore, guess my disappointment when I read the Appendix of the National/Act coalition agreement where the Terms of Reference for a reconsideration of climate change is set out.

It begins with the intention to “hear competing views on the scientific aspects of climate change from internationally respected sources and assess the quality and impartiality of official advice”.

At one level this kind of statement is benign. Of course evidence should be interrogated to see if it stands up. Changing the world should not be done on a whim or inadequate proof.

But what is benign on paper will take on a new dimension when it becomes reality. Evidence from competing points of view will be heard by New Zealand’s elected representatives. This evidence is to be treated equally. Public officials will be asked if they have been impartial. Those who advance the position that human activity is contributing to climate change are to be set against those who oppose this view – as if they are equals.

Of course they are not. The overwhelming view of the science community is for the former view. A tiny minority oppose this view. They may be right – minority views can be right – but in this instance they will have to work very hard if they are to be taken seriously given the depth of the evidence they are seeking to question.

It is a little like asking for a committee to be set up on the evidence that smoking causes cancer and then treating all submissions equally. It would be funny if it were not so absurd.

Lest we think this does not matter because it is just one of the things that is done in an MMP system to appease the smaller parties and no one will take it seriously – think again. The news of such hearings will go around the world. The country that has been a beacon on the hill will find itself reduced to holding a candle in a wind of its own creation.

Meanwhile the evidence for climate change will continue to grow. What was a worry will become scary. The backlog of problems that need to be addressed will grow and we will have less time to deal with them.

And the drive to innovate so we can find answers that will allow for a sustainable future will be blunted. The search for new possibilities led by New Zealand will not take place. Why innovate in a country that is unsure it wants to do anything about climate change?

This to me is the true tragedy of any attempt to reconsider the evidence on climate change. While we should be leading the way to a world that is different to the fossil-fuel burning, automobile-centred, throwaway economy we currently have, our elected representatives will be weighing up the evidence. 

If they talk too long New Zealand’s reputation for leadership will not just be a candle in the wind it will be snuffed out.


Steve Maharey is the vice-chancellor at Massey University, having previously been minister of education, social development, and science, research and technology.