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Governance, Gatecrashers and Greenhouse Gases

Monica Evans



Reflections on last month’s Climate Change Conference at Te Papa. Look at us go! From a little old university, on a steep little hill, in a lovely little city, in a faraway little country there came…
An International Climate Change Conference!
First, it had a rocking lineup. There were names so big they had to put important words such as Right Honourable and Lord in front of them! British Prime Minister Tony Blair was there (well, practically – he appeared via video link from Auckland), and so was Lord Ron Oxburgh, a leading geologist with the possibly dubious honour of being an ex-director of Shell. Of course, much was made in the media about the celebrity guests, but not a huge amount about what actually happened at the conference, Yo’. As students of the university that hosted it, we reckon you deserve a wee bit more of a run-down.
The conference spanned two pretty intense days, a wide range of people attended. The attendees ranged from MPs, councillors, NGO reps and CEOs, to the quite considerable handful of humble Vic Uni students who managed to schmooze in for cheap and eat most of the food. On the morning the conference opened, one particularly scruffy student, employing the age-old walk-like-you’re-meant-to-be-there ruse, managed to make it to an empty seat onstage, where several speakers were waiting their turn. He spent several splendid minutes up there, making the most of the free mints and ice-water, and holding up a handwritten sign (which, unfortunately for his cause, no-one could read), as speakers and security guards exchanged confused glances, before finally being dragged offstage and out of the auditorium, and banished from Te Papa for two years.
The first day of the conference was devoted to the science around climate change, and centred on discussions around exactly how much, and how soon, net global CO2 and methane emissions have to be reduced in order to avoid irreversible climate change. Many speakers noted how this conference was something of a breakthrough. In previous conferences, it had been necessary to spend a great deal of time actually convincing people that climate change is happening, and is anthropogenic (which means that it is caused by human activity). Now that most people accept that this is the case, efforts can be more focussed on doing something about it.
Emerging from these conferences, the general consensus appeared to be ‘alright, but what do we do?’ The second day, which focussed on governance issues, promised much in the answering of this question, but unfortunately I think it failed to fully deliver.
Why? Well, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the conference was dominated by scientists… and white, middle-aged, male scientists from wealthy countries at that. There was a much stronger focus on pouring resources into ‘techno-fixes’, such as bio-fuels and carbon sequestration (trapping it under the ground so it doesn’t get into the atmosphere), than on the tricky but key questions around influencing human behaviour to become less carbon-reliant (such as through improving public transport and encouraging people to buy locally-produced goods). Clearly, ‘techno-fixes’ will be required to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but without a re-evaluation of the fundamentally unsustainable Western consumer lifestyle, they will never be enough.
One speaker, Murray Ward, a psychologist and economist, did address this question in an interesting way, talking about how psychological research shows that people’s reaction to loss is much greater than their reaction to equivalent gain. He explained how, economic growth can still occur alongside the necessary emission reductions, just not quite as much as if reductions weren’t made, and argued that it’s important the issue is ‘framed’ in this way – as a ‘gain’, albeit a slightly smaller one, rather than as a ‘loss’ for the economy. Another interesting development in this area was Simon Upton, former National MP, stating that he thought the carbon tax was actually quite a good idea. However, on the whole, many people I spoke to left this day’s conference quite frustrated about the lack of discussion about practical actions that those of us not at the cutting edge of carbon-sequestration or bio-fuel technology can take.
However, several important messages did emerge from the conference. Perhaps the most crucial was the idea that there needs to be a broad, multi-party, long-standing governmental commitment to reducing and offsetting carbon and methane emissions. The speakers, who came from a broad range of political persuasions, and were anything but a bunch of raving greenies, made it quite clear that this can no longer be characterised as an ideological issue. It is something that will affect us all and, as the first day’s speakers made quite clear, it will happen in our lifetime, not that of our far-off imaginary grandchildren, if we don’t do something about it.
It was suggested that everyone at the conference write to their MP regarding this idea. If you’re keen to write something too, address it to (MP’s name), Freepost Parliament, PO Box 18 888, Wellington. That’s right, FREE! It won’t even cost you a stamp!