Erratic swings from denial to catastrophe

22:28, Dec 08 2011
polar bear
CRISIS: It will take a serious global climate crisis, such as the extinction of polar bears, before people react with urgency, says Martin Weitzman.

Take one Harvard economist who's also an expert on climate change. Not a denier, but not much of an optimist either about the human race responding to the threat in a timely manner.

Mix in the reach of the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research to pull a large crowd that included many a face from the senior echelons of the energy and resources industries, climate change campaigners, lawyers, economists and journalistic hangers-on.

Watch as the aforesaid Harvard economist, Martin Weitzman, eloquently argues why trying to stop the immediate use of fossil fuels is pointless. For good measure, see him rubbish the dogma of peak oil.

As farting-in-church moments went, it was up there for those in the audience wedded to preventing more oil and coal being taken from the ground.

Weitzman would probably argue he's a realist. There is no doubt in his mind that climate change is "a global experiment of unparalleled magnitude".

But its extreme unpredictability, and the contradictory way climate change issues play out against one another, makes it what he called a "devil's tool of unruly elements" that confound human politics.

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The issues are global in reach, involve the greatest common "public good" imaginable - our biosphere - and its range of possible impacts is unknowably enormous. And while the worst predictions are really terrible, it's also rational to hope "we might be lucky", such is the range of predictions.

The timings of consequences and actions in mitigation are no help either, since they can take longer than the average human lifespan. Sure, we care about our grandchildren tomorrow, but we also like to fly, drive and keep warm today.

As a result, says Weitzman, the politics of climate change swing wildly between "denial and the embrace of the catastrophic".

What this conundrum breeds is visible in what Climate Change Negotiations Minister Tim Groser says is an "indecisive" and "meandering" air at the global climate change summit now under way in Durban.

Weitzman argues it will take a serious global climate crisis before people will react with urgency. That could take the form of a "good" crisis, such as the sudden extinction of polar bears, he says. A "bad" crisis would involve sudden, extreme shifts in global human welfare, caused by equally sudden changes in climate, food production and habitable land.

"Human nature continues to make us push the envelope until something impinges on a person's life," Weitzman says. "If they aren't feeling it in 50 years, it will go for another 50 years", or for 150 years if that was how long it took for global impacts to become sufficiently severe to force change.

So, a different approach is needed. Luckily, it has been thought of, even if isn't working very well yet. That is: make fossil fuels far more expensive and encourage the commercial adoption of alternative and lowest-carbon technologies.

"Pricing carbon is the only opportunity for a frontal attack on the climate change problem," Weitzman says.

Unfortunately, he argued this on the same day as the quoted bid price of New Zealand Units of emitted carbon sank below $10 for the first time this week.

However, the point remains. The fastest way to change a person's behaviour is through their wallet.

One way to start is to end subsidies to the oil and gas industries. One of the more useful-looking meetings Groser attended this week in Durban was a multi-country working group seeking to do just that.

However, for acolytes expecting an endorsement of the peak oil theory, Weitzman was a disappointment.

"Just because fossil fuels are finite in some absolute sense, I don't see evidence that they are on the way out," he said.

Those selfish humans will keep driving, flying and using electricity produced from gas and coal for a long time yet. Moreover, there is no shortage of tarsands, deep-sea oil fields and other unconventional sources to fuel world demand "for the foreseeable future", Weitzman says.

It's an observation Rob Morrison, chairman of the New Zealand corporate "green" lobby, Pure Advantage, might have considered before he ripped into Bathurst Resources' coking coal plans on the Denniston Plateau this week.

For one thing, Bathurst is targeting high-value coking coal, used in steel-making. The only alternative to not using coking coal in steel-making is to stop making steel. Yeah, right. It's not the stuff you burn in a power station or the mushy, carbon-rich Southland lignite Solid Energy wants to turn into diesel and fertiliser.

And for another, Morrison's group includes an airline chief executive and the founder of Infratil, which owns stakes in bus companies and airports and the country's biggest petrol retailer.

It's a safe bet those guys have a stake in fossil-fuel wealth for a while yet.

The Dominion Post