Magazine article New Zealand Management

POLITICS : (Un)sustainable Politics

Magazine article New Zealand Management

POLITICS : (Un)sustainable Politics

Article excerpt

Byline: Colin James

For nearly two years the Government has tried to make 'sustainability' a core issue and a distinguishing point in the coming election. It hoped climate change would be the vehicle.

But as a slogan 'sustainability' is passive and abstract, inviting acquiescence rather than action. Worse, few can agree what it means. And, compounding that, climate change is confusing.

For most people 'sustainability' is about the natural environment, a matter of green, not core, politics. Most rate the environment and related issues "yes, unless" matters: yes, keep the environment in good nick -- unless we have to pay higher taxes or prices or take lower wages.

For those people climate change is not a core voting issue, especially now that food, fuel, rent and interest prices are hacking into the household budget and way of life.

There are earnest or guilty people who do bother about the environment and climate change, who look past the kitchen sink and barbecue to the horizon and worry whether there will be enough for their grandchildren. They see climate change as an ethical matter.

But they pay only at the margin: lag hot water cylinders, double-glaze windows, carry green hemp bags to supermarkets (in their SUVs), occasionally walk instead of drive. Unlike true greens, they do not substantially alter their lifestyles. The price is too high.

Some might vote Green if dissatisfied with their usually preferred major party. But they will not vote in droves on climate change or 'sustainability' over the top of concerns about household finances, education, health services and the like.

The problem for 'sustainability' campaigners is that climate change is so complex that few outside a charmed circle of physicists and economists can 'know' what is involved. For the great majority, taking a position on climate change comes down to taking or leaving the advice of preferred 'experts' or responding to their own fears, excitements or prejudices.

It doesn't help that the 'experts' disagree on fundamental facts, both past measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations and the likely climatic changes from any given level of concentration.

An impressive majority of scientists say concentrations have risen sharply since the Industrial Revolution and disruptive consequences will follow if emissions are not cut and concentrations contained. Policymakers logically predicate policy on that majority view.

But science has never been decided by majority. …

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