Answering Brad Wall’s talking points #1: “balancing” GHG reduction with economic growth

In response to a letter from 250 citizens and 9 groups, premier Brad Wall failed to answer any of the ten questions which we asked him.  Instead he sent a letter consisting of what amounts to a list of his standard talking points on the subject.  We still want answers to our original questions – and as a public servant Mr Wall should provide them – but as an exercise in public education we are responding to his talking points here.

“Our government supports a balanced approach to address climate change.  We believe it is fundamentally critical to balance the need for a sound greenhouse gas reduction policy with the importance of continuing economic growth.”

– Brad Wall

Let’s leave aside the fact that Mr Wall doesn’t have a greenhouse gas reduction policy, let alone a “sound” one.  To answer Mr Wall’s carefully-spun presentation of his approach as “balancing”, it would be difficult to do better than this speech by New Zealand (Aotearoa) MP James Shaw.

[text:
So, Mr Speaker, I’m always fascinated to listen to government members speak about their “balanced and sensible approach” where they’re just weighing up expanding the economy and jobs versus destroying the planet, and coming down somewhere in the middle – so that you’ve got a sensible balance between half the jobs against burning half the planet, and that somehow gets the balance right.  Let me give government members just a quick insight into how this works: jobs happen on the planet.  So when you have an enormous drought like the one that we had in 2013, that wiped $1.5 billion off our economy, jobs were lost.  That is the cost of climate change.  When the worst storm in 70 years happened, there were small businesses going under because they didn’t have electricity.  That is jobs that are lost.  Last year, Whanganui and Dunedin were underwater – huge floods.  Every single year there are increasing droughts and storms and fires and floods – and all of those come at an enormous cost to the economy and to these jobs that you say that you’re protecting while taking this somehow balanced approach to destroying the atmosphere.]

Saskatchewan has seen an increase in forest fires – with a devastating impact on northern communities in 2015.  It has seen a steady increase in floods.  But what we have seen so far is trivial compared to what is in the pipeline if business-as-usual policies persist.

As British climate scientist Dr Kevin Anderson puts it,

There is a widespread view [in the scientific community] that a 4degC world is incompatible with an organised global community, is likely to be beyond “adaptation”, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems and has a high probability of not being stable.

The World Bank’s scientific adviser on agriculture, forestry and climate change, Dr Erick Fernandes, explains this in more detail in this youtube video and in a series of detailed reports. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has predicted fights over food and water as a result of climate change.

If the rest of the world adopted Mr Wall’s current approach there is no doubt that we would blow past 4degC of warming later this century.  Mr Wall is seeking short-term gain for a few at the expense of future disaster.

In Mr Wall’s White Paper on climate change, released in October 2016, he does raise one legitimate concern which is relevant here (though his simplistic approach to that concern is unhelpful).  Climate policy – and especially carbon pricing – does need to take account of the need for export-exposed industries to remain competitive in international markets.  This is particularly an issue with agriculture, which does not have the same potential for efficiency savings as the resource extraction and manufacturing sectors.  I will respond to this in a separate post.

A final point on “growth”.  There are parts of the economy which need to grow.  There are also parts which, for the sake of all of us, need to shrink.  A steady increase in the size of one cell in an economist’s spreadsheet – the one denoting “GDP” – does not necessarily mean an increase in the wellbeing, health or happiness of the people.  Life is more complex than that, and so is human society.  According to Simon Kuznets – the economist who developed the first comprehensive set of measures of national income,:

The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income
(To see the quote in context, go to pp6-7 here)

The important questions at all times are about whether genuine wellbeing is increased, and the major threats to our society (climate change, poverty, rampant inequality, racial injustice, militarism, loss of community and social isolation, etc) are properly addressed.  That, and not growing GDP, should be the priority if we want our children to live in a better society than we do.  Indeed, some top climate scientists are arguing – on the basis of evidence and calculations, not mere political opinion – that we need a period of “degrowth” in order to meet the climate goals necessary to avoid tipping into chaos.  In any case, Mr Wall does not appear to have figured out how to make GDP growth benefit the whole of society – the resource boom of recent years precipitated housing crises in our major cities, which are only beginning to become less severe now that the boom is receding.

For answers to more talking points click here.