Wednesday, 12 August 2009

What a surprise II

Don Nicholson, head of Federated Farmers, doesn't like emmissions targets (1). Such is Don's ire, he gets almost Trotteresque in his rhetoric.

The speech is largely predictable old nonsense and strawmen. Addressing the idea of an Emissions Trading Schemem, Don tells us:

If saving the planet is the prime motivation, then when in history was civilization saved by the implementation of a tax?

A tax being what the Emissions Trading Scheme, or ETS, is.

Could you have imagined the last of the Roman Emperors, Romulus Augustus, with the German hordes banging on the gates of his palace, turning to his advisors to recommend they tax the barbarians out of existence?

Quite, Don. Taxation might not stop barbarians, but it might help change behaviour in the 21st century. W're not quite at the stage where the babrbarians are banging on the gates. We can - probably - deal with climate change through less extremem measures than Romulus Augustus would have needed. Silly arguments like that might appeal to the audience, but they don't really advance the debate.

Which is sad, because that sort of stuff tends to obscure Don's occasional good points. He points out, "what New Zealand is committed to is not solutions but appearance." After making that point, it is a shame that it is lost in rhetorical feinting about barbarians and Ancient Rome.

Having finished with his historical re-enactment, Don immediately sets up another strawman:
Farmers are dumbfounded that the world's best brains believe ETS-like policies will suddenly turn climate variations around

Get the ETS today and suddenly tomorrow glaciers will cease retreating and the polar ice caps will stop melting.
Ignoring the hyperbole about glaciers and ice caps, who has said that emissions trading scheme will "suddenly turn climate change around"? No-one I'm aware of, and certainly not "the world's best brains." An emmissions trading scheme might contribute to slowing climate change, and mitigate the global temprature increase. Nothing more. So another clumsy rhetorical florish.

Then, alas, Don resorts to statistical smoke and mirrors, imitating Nick Smith's conjuring trick (2), where gross and net emissions are confused:
... the 40 percent target, which is actually 62 percent given 1990 is the datum.
That figure appears to be derived from the gross figure for current emissions - the increased amount of CO2 we're pumping out, compared to 1990 - without taking any mitigating factors into account. When those mitigating factors are included, net emissions are currently 5% above 1990. The Green's target is actually a 45% decrease on current net emmissions. Ambitious, possibly insane, but nowhere near as bad as Don's froth flecked denunciation would suggest.

Not finished with the Greens, Don then invokes the oft misunderstood shade of Thomas Malthus:

Neo-Malthusians can be seen in the anti-globalisation and green movements. Peak oil, peak food, peak carbon.

They're the ones who hold the word ‘peak' to their chests. The notion is that this is all beyond the planet's capacity to meet human needs, so we need to throttle back under threat of disaster.

There might be some truth in this - millenialist loons attach themselves to every movement, claiming to see the imminent apocalypse everywhere - but Don neglects to mention that it isn't just tree hugging fools made of tofu warning about climate change and calling for reductions of 30-40%. It is perfectly credible scientists. The Greens are just the people listening to them.

Then he resorts to another tired trick, the 'poor little Kiwis' line:

Between 1990 and 2007, global emissions grew by 34 percent. In the same period, the global population increased by 1.4 billion mouths or around 27 percent.

Do you see the correlation? The increasing size of humanity is in line with increasing emissions.

How on earth will a tax and a target solve that, when New Zealand does not produce 99.8 percent of global emissions?
Um ... Don, it isn't like we're trying to do this all on our own. There's a big meeting planned. In Copenhagen. Where people are going to agree to stuff we're all going to do.

(And as for your other,more intelligent point, yes, the population will increase. Yes, that may mean more emissions. Which is why we need to start doing something now. Because if things are reasonably bad just now, they're going to be Hellishly bad once the population hits 10 billion. We have to find ways to balance popualtion and emissions. Targets are one way of helping to do that, by encouraging countries to find ways to reduce CO2.)

All this from someone who denigrates the Greens and their like for "moral brainwashing without facts or context."

Finally, Don hits his stride:

The fact that low lying Pacific Islands may be subject to rising sea levels is truly sad. It is catastrophic for them and will lead to social upheaval.

Yet it isn't new.

About 6,000 years ago the Sahara Desert wasn't a desert. It was a savannah, with lakes, rivers and fish. Over the following 2,000 years the Sahara underwent its metamorphosis into the world's largest tropical desert.

I wonder what Dr Russel Norman, Charles Chauvel or Keisha Castle-Hughes would have made of this change if they lived back then?

Would they have railed among the 14 million human beings on Earth at the time to halt global warming?

The real fact is, of course, that the current threats to the Pacific islands are the result of anthropogenically caused global warming - we are forcing the temprature up. Russel Norman, Charles Chuvel and Keisha Castle-Hughes (Are you letting your political stripes show here, Don? What about Nick Smith?) couldn't have done anything about historical examples of global warming, as they weren't caused by human activity. Our actions didn't cause the lush Sahara plains to turn into a desert, or make Orkney uninhabitable or drive the Saxons to look for a new home. Those all happened as a result of natural climate fluctuations, through understood mechanisms that are not - repeat not - in play now in the 21st century.

Don misses the underlying importance of his own point, however, which is that climate change - whatever the cause - has caused often massive social upheaval. As he says:

The Saxons became a nomadic tribe due to climate variation when their coastal settlements were inundated by rising seas. The Saxons became nomadic barbarians for hire ... Roman Britain became Saxon Britain.

In other words, the Britain that emerged and the history we have today was created by climate variation. World history would have taken a completely different turn if those Saxon villages were not wiped out by rising seas.

In fact, I wonder what Dr Russel Norman, Charles Chauvel or Keisha Castle-Hughes would have made of this fifth century dislocation?

Which is the nub of the problem. Global warming - non-anthropogenic - has historically caused huge problems. Populations have previosuly been driven to seek new homes as old one's became uninhabitable. In the 21st century, we'll see the same thing happen as climate change - this time anthropogenically driven - drives similar population movements.

Don might repsond that his point is essentially about adaptation - previous climate crises have ben faced, and we have survived. Well, Don might be blaise about it, but - to borrow a rhetorical trick he's fond of - I wonder if he'd be quite so glib if he was a hapless Briton being slaughtered by maurading Saxons in 5th century Britain? The changes our activity is causing will have massive social impacts. That means ethnic tension, riots, wars. New Zealand will escape the worst of it, but we'll feel the consequences. Early in his speech, Don scoffed at the "Maginot mentality" he discerned in New Zealanders, huddled safely behind their " vast sea moat." One can't help but think he might be partial to a bit of that mindset himself.

The two advantage we have over the peoples in the historical examples he cites are, first, we have a better perspective of what is happening. We know what is happening and we know what is causing it. Second, we can do something about it. The ancient Saxons could not do anything about the flooding of their homelands, other than go somewhere else. We can limit the changes in the global climate, and hence the effects of these changes. So comparing our situation to historical changes is disingenuous. We can choose a different route, if we have the will to do so.

Finally, Don dons his Wise Old Man hat and treats us to some patronising comments about how we don't really Get It, whereas he - by some mysterious insight - does:

Humans have been around for 10,000 of the 4.6 billion years our planet has existed. This means our species has been only around for 0.0000021 percent of Earth's existence.

It's a blink of an eye when compared to the long history of our planet. That means the last 20 years, where climate change has become central to policy, is an incredibly miniscule amount of time geologically.

This is not to say that the activities of the Earth's population have not affected the climate.

It's just to illustrate that climate variation is nothing new. Yet it's being interpreted by those who do think it's new.

To be honest, Don, I think if you are capable of grasping that, most of the rest of us are as well. Certianly, I'll warrant the scientists who make up the IPCC - many of them geologists - might have a rudimentary understanding of the Earth's age.

Then he pulls off his most remarkable trick of all. In the same breath, he calls for money - he suggests 0.05% of GDP - should be put into research. At the same time, he says, there shouldn't be taxes. Are you for real, Don? Where is that 0.05% of GDP going to come from? Was this what Telethon was for?

For a man who used his speech to heap scorn on people for failing to face up to reality, you seem keen to shy away from it yourself. Of course taxes will not address climate change. But it will give us the money to fund the research that will.

The annoying thing is that Nicholson is almost talking sense, if you take out the voodoo economics. He - rightly - lambasts the government for slashing Research and Development investment, which was a stupid thing to do, for both economic and environmental reasons. But the kernal of good sense is almost lost in the bombast.

The story is already being reported as another bash on Keisha Castle-Hughes (3), which is only a small and very silly part of the speech, but the part that the media will focus on and the only part that a lot of people will remember.

That, and that Keisha was wearing a swimsuit and shorts and in the accompanying photo. It seems, as far as the Dom Post is concerned, that's what matters.
1 - "Misguided policies, priorities and people," speech by Don Nicholson, delivered to the 62nd Anual Conference of the New Zealand Plant Protection Society, 11th of August, 2009. (http://www.fedfarm.org.nz/n1578.html). Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in this post are drawn fromt his speech.
2 - As described previosuly on lefthandpalm: http://lefthandpalm.blogspot.com/2009/08/nationals-gross-emissions.html
3 - "Farmers' leader queries star's green credentials," by Jon Morgan, published in The Dominion Post. Reproduced by stuff.co.nz, 12th of AUgust, 2009. (http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/2742148/Farmers-leader-queries-stars-green-credentials/)

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