Why should we believe Clark means it on climate change?

The easy joke about Helen Clark’s government is that it has promised us global warming for seven years and hasn’t delivered. The hard judgment is that it hasn’t delivered policy either.

Why? Labour has been convinced by the science since way back in the 1990s when Simon Upton signed the country up to it. Why suddenly go “aspirational” now?

Because, first, the government and especially the Prime Minister have mismanaged the politics this year and passed up the opportunity to bend the trendlines in its favour. Meantime, National produced a credible environment paper in October.

Second, because public and business opinion began to shift noticeably after the Institute of Policy Studies’ conference in March and the evangelical Al Gore movie has added momentum.

And third, because Labour needs to offer voters something to vote for, a sense of direction they can connect with — in a word, “renewal”. This is a familiar theme of this column.

So Clark produced an out-of-character “bold” keynote address which set Labour’s conference, the media and many others buzzing. Officials working on climate change and on David Parker’s energy strategy had a fire lit under them last week after years of being told to take no risks.

Clark’s speech made two big shifts in climate change’s position in policy.

First, she repositioned it from “cost” to “opportunity”. We are to be “smart and determined” and in the “vanguard” of nations. And indeed there is a lot of opportunity to build a brand as the most climate-friendly place to grow and make things, to visit and to live in.

Second, she set climate change not just in the “economic transformation” box but also in the “national identity” box. We are no longer to think of it just as taxes, charges and regulations but also as a defining element in who we are. From the dirty, brown (though mercifully empty) country we now are, waiting to be unmasked by our trade enemies’ sleuths, we are (she said) to be actually clean and green and thereby able to sell our output, from food to films, at premium prices.

This is climate change’s real point.

The science is too often presented as impending apocalypse, which leaves only one rational response, to metaphorically pull a brown paper bag over one’s head (Wellingtonians’ response to the sure-to-happen earthquake). The Stern report last week on the economic implications of apocalypse is already the subject of intense rebuttal, including even from some climate change adherents.

The real point for this country is in three realities which are distinct from the science, though flow from others’ acceptance of it, and which demand a vigorous response.

One is political reality. Governments, notably in Europe and of states in the United States, are setting targets, imposing taxes and regulations and establishing emissions trading regimes. A “good international citizen” country must ponder joining in.

Some of this is shonky or sly. Europe’s emissions trading regime over-allocated quotas and recipient companies have made a killing with minimal, if any, impact on emissions. Europe’s and the United States’ subsidies for ethanol production are distorting land use, indirectly eating into world grain stocks and producing ethanol which uses nearly as much fossil fuel as it replaces. But they are real.

And next will come protectionist measures allegedly serving climate change objectives. Watch for a European tariff on food for distance travelled or on exporting countries’ carbon profiles.

Trade threats form the second reality.

The third reality is commercial. Insurers have decided costly extreme weather events are due to climate change and are charging higher premiums or refusing cover for those at risk of such events. Investment banks and funds managers are marking down companies with poor “carbon profiles”.

These realities have been blindingly obvious for six months at least. Only now has Clark seen political and national branding opportunity in them.

Played right, her new line is a potential election winner in 2008 against a National party not (yet) credible on the topic.

But will Clark carry through? Her past habit — except in patches, such as the tax rise, labour re-regulation, prostitution reform and civil unions — has been to retreat in the face of political discomfort, not ride through it. It was Clark who insisted big emitters be exempted from the carbon tax and thereby holed the tax below the waterline. And, whatever the opportunities, there will be costs to voters if this country takes the high ground — costs which the Stern report probably understated.

But Clark used uncharacteristically strong words at the conference. She very much wants a fourth term. The poll trends are bad. She needs something to put her back on top.

So who knows? One thing is sure: Parker, hitherto uncertain she would back him in the crunch, is a happy boy now. Next, if Clark wants to prove she is into “renewal”, she could put him on the front bench smartly.