Why Climate Change is not the real problem

A speech at Whitianga Greens public meeting 22 Sept 2019

When Greta Thunberg was asked, after the first huge climate strike march, “Are you hopeful?” she said two things:

No, I’m not hopeful because the policies haven’t changed yet.” I’ll come back to that.

She also said “We don’t need hope, we need courage”.

Most courageous action now – tell truth on climate.


For years those that told the truth, whether scientists or activists, were scorned and pilloried. It’s OK to talk about CC now because it’s not the real challenge. (And it’s highly misleading to talk of climate change. More accurate – disruption, chaos, breakdown.) OK to talk about plastics in the oceans, not the  real challenge. OK to talk about species loss, death of coral reefs, pollution, growing food shortages, toxic wastes, because none of them is the real problem and we can invent solutions to all of them without challenging the real cause.

They are all symptoms of the big overarching challenge. And THAT, it is not OK to talk about

For nearly 14 years, when I had a platform to speak from,  I tried (and before, and since). Sometimes not hard enough – but it didn’t make any difference. When I spoke about the big environmental problems, a smattering of concerned MPs, sometimes even the Speaker, paid attention.  When I spoke about the cause of all these problems, the Press Gallery emptied, the only MPs left were those on House duty and they pulled out their correspondence files and started working on them.

You don’t need a PhD in physics or maths to work out that 5 into 2 won’t go. That if you keep pouring water into a glass that is full it doesn’t expand, it overflows. Any farmer knows that if you put more and more stock on one paddock they will get so thin none of them will produce anything. So the answer of course is not to reduce stock, but to move outside the paddock and drain the neighbouring wetland or fell the forest next door.

And our bizarre society counts that as positive! People even get knighthoods for it.

Overcrowding the paddock, then expanding beyond it into every other habitat has become the goal of our economy. The business papers are full of anxiety if that expansion is no longer 3% a year, but only 2.8%. Governments and Prime Ministers stand or fall on that little number – how much can they force the economy  to grow. The main opposition challenge to our Wellbeing Budget is a lack of stimulus to grow.

While growth in material goods, energy and transport infrastructure is essential in a poor country which can’t feed or house its people, there are many studies showing that in rich countries like ours there is very poor correlation between  growth and wellbeing. It is ten years since Joseph Stiglitz. a World Bank Chief Economist, was reported in The Guardian as saying, “Chasing GDP growth results in lower living standards”. It is 30 years since Herman Daly pointed out the same thing, in For the Common Good. And there are others but they are mainly lone voices.

In the 1980s I worked on a project to calculate how to derive all our electricity from renewable resources. I laid out the results for Ministry for the Environment, who had been saying it wasn’t possible, and was told “oh, you haven’t allowed for growth. By the time you have made all those substitutions demand will be so much higher.”

Why are people so committed to economic growth?

We are told it is to pay for better health and education services.  So  how is it that the richest country in the world cannot afford free health care for everyone, but can afford a military bigger than the economies of most small countries? It’s about choices and no matter how much the US economy grows they will never have affordable heath care. It would take all the profits out of the health insurance industry.

We are told that without growth there will be  mass unemployment but that too is a choice. This “wellbeing” budget has provided a much needed injection of funds for conservation and mental health, both job-rich, but it is trivial compared with the well over $2B for new military hardware to fight America’s wars. And that is just for 4 new planes! Imagine how many jobs in pest control and ecological islands and mental health professionals and training, and more teachers  that could provide compared with the very few jobs in importing and running 4 new anti-submarine bombers.

The real reason is that growth  benefits the very rich, the speculators, and enables us to live beyond our means, borrowing to pay for today’s consumption trusting we can pay it back when the economy grows. That is the basis of the capitalist economy, but it is a house of cards.

The challenge today, as it has  been for the last 48 years, is not how to grow the economy faster, but how to manage an earth that is full.

I say 48 years because that is how long it is since the Club of Rome at MIT published its report The Limits to Growth. For those of you who haven’t looked at it, which sadly is most people, it used, for that time, an advanced computer model to plot trends in population, energy consumption, food consumption, mineral requirements and pollution. It found that they were all growing so fast that our whole global economic system was heading for collapse. So they changed the parameters: stabilise population; increase energy availability four fold; increase food productivity; stringent measures to reduce pollution – and the thing which tipped the system over changed, but the outcome didn’t. Sometime in the first two decades of the twenty-first century – that’s roughly now - our economic system collapses.

This is why addressing climate change through electric cars, eating vegan, renewable energy, recycling, admirable as they all are, will not save us from climate catastrophe. The savings from all of them will be overtaken by growth – in population, in demand, in production, in “stuff”. So for a while removing limits just drives the whole disaster faster. Run your house on solar energy? Great, it releases more fossil energy to grow the economy in another direction. Building renewables never substitutes for fossil fuels, while they are still available. It isn’t either/or, it’s and/and. The only way to stop this is to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground. The Greens in Government succeeded in stopping future offshore oil and gas exploration permits. Huge bold step, and bitterly resisted. But existing permits will allow further oil drilling for years yet, and just to make sure, our most oil rich region,  Taranaki, is exempt as is any exploration on land.

I’m with Naomi Klein who sees the way forward as “Blockadia”.But that, as she says, needs everyone.

Since Limits to Growth world population has doubled. The NZ population has grown a little faster than that, adding  immigration to natural increase, but the economy has grown 20 times. 

If LTG was ever mentioned in the House, Act MPs (yes, there used to be more than one!!) and particularly Richard Prebble scoffed loudly that it had been proven to be wrong and was totally discredited. That is not true. A follow  up study 30 years later found that when assumptions were updated to reflect modern technology and new information about resource limits, we were still on track for the collapse, round about now.

There are several ways of restating this issue. Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Institute has developed a method to calculate ecological impact which finds that  the world is currently using the resources and the absorptive capacity of one and a half earths. If the whole world consumed like New Zealanders we would need three planets, and if we lived like Americans, five. That means the natural capital of the earth is being degraded every year, and mostly that has to come from Nature. The Global Footprint metric has been under attack in recent years, but mostly for underestimating the damage we are doing.

Fonterra wants to grow. That means more cows. Where to put them? The MacKenzie Basin, of course, depleting our precious rivers to irrigate a dry landscape. Then it has to process more milk, so more coal. Thermal coal for Fonterra funds Bathurst Resources to develop new coking coal mines on the west coast for export, to make steel for cars. Never mind whether those cars are fueled by electricity or petrol – the fuel is only part of the environmental impact of a motorcar , and leads people to believe claims that a car not using fossil fuels can be “green”. And then of course a family with an electric car needs a second one on petrol for longer trips and pulling the boat and the caravan. More steel, more coal. And the coal to make the steel  comes from where?   New mines on the ecologically precious  Buller and  Dennison plateaux. But let’s run a campaign to protect the conservation values of the plateau – and yes, I was part of that – without debating what it is all for

The limiting factor will, in the end, be energy. Not it’s availability – the world is full of energy as low temperature heat. What counts is how much energy has to be invested to get energy back to do useful work. When the Saudi oilfields were first developed, one barrel of oil equivalent invested in infrastructure and production yielded well over 100 barrels of oil. That is why oil was cheap. Oil is such a concentrated form of energy and much of it was close to the surface, flowing freely under its own pressure. Now, one barrel invested in the Canadian tar sands gives you about three back – less if you go after the deeper stuff. And it’s sticky and needs more processing. North Sea oil is estimated at 5:1. And while renewable energy is the great hope, wind and solar are both well under 20:1. This is the main biophysical limit to growth. This is enormously important so if you find it hard to understand, work at it till you do.

So with the inexorable decline in energy productivity you can’t win, and eventually you can’t even break even.

So: having ruined a perfectly nice afternoon for all of you, what do I suggest you do? Change your lightbulbs??

The answer doesn’t lie in technology, though that is all you hear from governments and industry. The answer lies in our social values. A society that values quality rather than quantity; a society that makes things last. A society that sets out deliberately not to grow, but to shrink. Because the day when we could have just stabilised has long gone. There have  been various estimates of what is a reasonable carrying capacity of the earth. I haven’t studied it fully but the answer seems to be certainly no more than half the current population and probably a lot less. It would have been so much easier if we had started when LTG first warned us! Now just stopping growth is no longer nearly enough.

What is needed is a fundamental change in mindset. You don’t get that from lecturing people or by presenting them with facts and figures. That’s more likely to get you a black eye. What works better is to tell people why you are doing things differently from the norm, and how much you are enjoying it.

So the first step is having climate conversations that model and encourage a  new culture. For example:

  1. Friend is just off for their twice yearly overseas holiday. “I’m not flying any more because of the climate but I had this wonderful holiday tramping/ climbing/ exploring/doing a cooking class/ going to the film festival with friends.....
  2. Industry CEO: “this year, and every second year from now on, we aren’t flying to the conference overseas, but joining it by Zoom. With the money we save we will give all staff an expenses paid holiday within 100km of where they live”
  3. “My daughter has told me she is only having one child in order to live within the limits of the planet. She’s giving the cost of a second child to Oxfam to help children traumatised in a war zone. I’m so proud of her. I’d love to have more grandchildren but I’m going to help my sister raise hers – she already has 3."
  4. “Our community garden is doing so well this year we are feeding the whole neighbourhood"
  5. “Everyone is saying I should trade my old car in for a new one after 14 years – they have a special on at present – but it’s going fine and will do a few more years yet”
  6. Finally: “No thanks, I don’t need any more – I have enough.

It’s really hard to find a way of doing this without preaching but it helps to practise and discuss how to do it, saying what you are doing but never saying what anyone else should do.

These conversations can help change the culture, but of course, we need a lot more than personal action.

We need to bring up our kids to have a relationship with Nature and grow a society that puts Nature first over economic production.

As we widen the circle it needs to embrace our workplaces, schools, communities, who can change the way they do things to consume less. The Seagull Centre in Thames is a great example.

If the local council isn’t doing its job – stand for election. But be strategic. Stand where you have a chance to win, and gather a strong network of people who will work for you. No-one ever won election on their own.

A tiny but important first step is a Budget titled “wellbeing”. For the first time the aim of the Budget has been something other that growing the economy bigger. We need to build on this, and demand that next time we spend more on children  and nature than military hardware.

So what happens to Nature in a shrinking economy?

Every little bit is going to be hard-fought over. Every special place is going to need its champions, local, well informed, and prepared to fight fiercely for its survival.  But as government shrinks and has less money we will need to grow a passion across the country to defend our special places. I see a lot of hope in school strikes and I’ll be there on Friday. I see hope in the joy, creativity and determination of the Extinction Rebellion movement, the inheritors of Occupy! in the past. I was proud of my granddaughter who made her banner fo the march by turning around what adults had been telling her all her life: NOW MEANS NOW! (grumpy face).

Because it is urgent, it is deadly serious. None of these things in themselves will reduce the temperature by a fraction of a degree – but they can change the culture of our consumer society so we start to deal with the real problem – growth.