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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Farmers' perspectives on climate change begin to shift

I attended the Preparing for White Swans: Climate Change and Opportunities for the Economy presentation a week or so ago. Sponsored by Oxfam, it was the 22nd talk that has taken place around the country by Dr Jim Salinger, Professor of Trade and Economics Caroline Saunders and financial journalist Rod Oram. Pardon for the late posting, but the discussion was interesting and there were not many people there (apparently all the rural centres of New Zealand had nearly full houses, and in the city centre people aren't as interested), so I thought I would still post.

Unless you've been under a rock, you will have read or at least heard of the book that Don Brash currently lists as his favorite: Nassim Nicholas Taleb's rollicking work Black Swans: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) which argues for a society that can withstand events that are hard to predict. The Oxford Professor draws from his experience as a former hedge fund manager and merchant trader to argue that the economy in its current state was ignoring obvious problems.

The event took its title from this name, echoing the perspective of the majority of scientists that climate change is currently inevitable. The three speakers argued that there are economic opportunities to be had in its adaptation, offering contemporary research to back up their assertions. In doing so, they busted common myths which have stopped the issue from getting serious consideration here. (And no, I'm not talking about many of the popular myths such as cooler weather means that climate change is not taking place, volcanoes emit more than humans or the bar graphs have been disproved - for those myths debunked see the New Scientist's excellent piece here). The fact that the UN is developing global plans for dealing with climate change and that many countries have military plans for dealing with the migration it will cause should signal to even the most ardent climate change denier that it's a-coming, whether we like it or not.

China is currently the number one producer of carbon, but it actually produces a third of the carbon per person of individuals residing in the United States. China has committed to reducing its emissions by 40% by 2020 relative to economic growth compared with 2005 levels (no wonder they have Warren Buffet doing serious investments in green tech there). New Zealand is basing our reduction on 1990 levels, of which we had already surpassed by 20% by 2008. Many are saying that this is a case of too little, too late - particularly when the Pacific Island lobby groups are hoping for an increase of less than 2 degrees in temperatures so that they can remain on their atolls.

The main barrier in New Zealand has traditionally been the farming industry, which has positioned the Emission Trading Scheme as unfair due to the additional costs that they would have to pay for producing nearly 50% of the nation's total emmissions. Even if the ETS is imposed in 2015, New Zealand taxpayers will subsidize their charges by 90%.

The positive news is that farmers are beginning to change their perspectives on climate change. The trio reported that the largest audiences for the presentations had come from rural audiences, reflecting Rod Oram's report that 85% of the farmers at the 2010 IDF World Dairy Summit felt that farmers should be leaders in addressing climate change. New Zealand is leading some of the committees into agricultural investigation established at Copenhagen. We have some industry leaders that are beginning to get on board, including Air New Zealand, Zespri, and Fonterra as leading positive climate response (although they still have much to do and the latter company has also been associated with palm oil deforestation).

The problem is that many companies are only engaging in this if it is enfored through policy, and there is a need for a much stronger policy direction in New Zealand that is less influenced by the whims of a disproportionate minority. 25% of our GDP comes from agriculture but we only produce 2% of dairy production globally. Making these adjustments is essential when we are fighting it out in the UK market which has shifted considerably towards informed consumer decisions and a fair trade market. The new research offered hope for our products overseas too - apparently NZ lamb only has 25% of the carbon footprint of its British equivalent. Apparently the carbon footprint is more weighted with consumers than international freight, and one major way we could reduce our imprint is to avoid multiple trips to the supermarket by planning meals and reducing meals (arguably already essential in this kind of economic environment).

It is absolutely imperative that we act on these initiatives. We currently have a weak ETS where our compliance is affected by whether other countries take up the same initiative and whether we get a global agreement that reduces global temperature rises no more than to 2 degrees. We need a stronger ETS, and the shifting perspective of farmers is a positive sign in an environment where detractors have consistently argued their perspective as the major reason why we will not be promoting sustainable practices that work best. The current approach to the ETS is weak and we need stronger measures in place. Let's hope that this change in perspective enables us to develop practices that benefit ALL New Zealanders, rather than ones that are focussed around the short term exploitation for maximum gains of a few.


At 17/9/11 12:37 pm, Blogger Frank said...

"...but the discussion was interesting and there were not many people there (apparently all the rural centres of New Zealand had nearly full houses, and in the city centre people aren't as interested)..."

Indeed, Phoebe. And I suspect that the reason that "the city centre people aren't as interested" is,

1. Too complicated. Brain hurts. Lost penguins much easier.

2. If the middle classes listen, we might axctually have to do something. Head-Sand-Bury is a much easier proposition.

I suspect that's also why CT/climate change deniers get so much attention, these days. Not because believe believe nutters like "Lord" Monckton and the umpteen loony websites that foul the internet - but because as long as climate-change sceptics can deny reality, the rest of the middle classes can live in hope that global warming might not be real. Or is natural. Or is a product of solar activity (it ain't). Or aliens done it.

Whatever option one takes, the end-result is: no action required. Simply continue to Head-Sand-Bury, and keep watching junk on TV.

The one gleaming hope is that climate-change deniers seem to be losing currency. Images of big chunks of the South Pole sailing past Dunedin tend to focus peoples' minds.

As well as penguins.


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