Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Cost of Nothing

A report due to be released in Britain tomorrow claims that if global warming isn’t tackled within the next decade, it will cost the world around $NZ9 trillion, largely because of global recession of a scale not seen since the Great Depression and 200 million “climate refuguees” fleeing drought, floods and other extreme weather events (read the Guardian article here).

The report by Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist with the World Bank, was commissioned by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. It set out to determine the real costs of doing nothing on climate change, or of waiting for the successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

This is in stark contrast to the policies of the Bush administration which remains largely sceptical of the reality and costs of global warming, and which argues that it’s simply too expensive to do anything now. As the international consensus on dealing with global warming grows, the US faces being marginalised—again.

Britain is looking at strategies such as introducing “green taxes” to force people and businesses to adopt more sustainable practices. Britain has also seen the introduction of the term “food miles”, referring to the distance food travels from producer to consumer, with the resulting impact on energy use and carbon emissions. Unfortunately, sometimes this has been more about politics or PR than truth.

As a country on the edge of the world, New Zealand has to ship its products a long way. A recent British ad campaign urging the purchase of British butter pointed out how far NZ butter has to travel. But the campaign failed to reveal that even after factoring in shipping, New Zealand’s more efficient farming methods mean that in the end NZ butter requires half the energy of British butter.

New Zealand isn’t sitting back like the Bush administration and trying to defend inefficient or unsustainable foreign trade. Instead, the government is actively looking for ways to make things better for everyone. In a Sunday Star-Times article, Prime Minister Helen Clark said, “Why shouldn’t New Zealand aim to be the first country which is truly sustainable? I want New Zealand to be in the vanguard of making it happen for our own sakes, and for the sake of the planet."

Imagine if George Bush felt that way. Imagine further the implications if Bush pushed for more sustainable and renewable energy, thereby reducing dependence on Middle East oil. Bush could simultaneously help the planet, improve America’s balance of payments and make the US more secure from Middle Eastern terrorists.

Bush can’t do any such thing, of course. He’s an oilman, most if his administration is filled with oil men and women. Do any of them really want to do anything to reduce the source of their wealth?

All of which is perhaps one more reason why we should hope the Democrats regain control of the US Congress. They alone won’t be able to redirect US environmental policy, but they could at least stop the excesses of the Bush administration during its last two years, paving the way for real change after the 2008 presidential elections. The longer we wait to get started, the more it will cost us all.

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