Climate, energy, water: issues of war or reason?

Do you think humanity will do anything serious about climate change? Does humanity think it much matters whether it does or doesn’t?

Note: “humanity”, not “New Zealanders”. We here can have only the tiniest effect. Anything we do can be relevant only in solidarity with what those in far more populous countries do.

The odds are that humanity doesn’t think it matters, at least not enough to forgo significant amounts of its material gains or prospects. The odds are that humanity won’t really change its mind until (or if) climate change starts to have effects that cut significantly into material gains and prospects, the necessaries and luxuries of life, and people see it as the cause: that is, when it ceases to be a moral issue and becomes an economic one.

That point has not been reached. So world politicians are likely to come up with a suboptimal arrangement to apply when the Kyoto Protocol ends on 2012 and to implement it suboptimally.

And so, if the climate change high priests’ measurements and predictions are right and warming isn’t offset by radical new technologies, there is a rough ride ahead.

Stir in two other factors. Humanity is hooked on cheap energy and abundant water (also, in rich and getting-rich countries, on sugar and fat but that is another story). Cheap oil enabled mass production for mass markets by telescoping distance. Abundant water fuelled technologically-driven massive increases in food production and so a huge population expansion, notably in Asia.

This happy coincidence is ending, as economist Brian Easton notes in his wide-ranging primer, “Globalisation”, to be published next week. Energy is already dearer and water resources over-exploited. The costs of both are rising. They and climate change are interconnected — not least through using food land to make liquid fuels.

The longer-term outcomes could be serious, even catastrophic. If humanity doesn’t devise rational ways to ration energy and water, resource wars may erupt.

It doesn’t help that the United States has facilitated soon-to-be-nuclear-armed Iran’s influence over oil-rich Iraq and, potentially, the oil-rich parts of Saudi Arabia (see Bill McKibben’s chilling analysis in the latest New York Review of Books).

Nor does it help that huge India and huge China, both nuclear armed, face water shortages, potentially serious. Both now import food and energy.

New Zealand is a gnat in this jamboree of elephants and tigers.

Our good news is that, if we can stay out of conflict, we have abundant energy options: rivers, wind, tides, steam, biofuels, coal, gas and probably oil. In a generation or two we may not need imported oil for our internal transport and heating.

This is the logical starting point for the government’s strategies for energy and for energy efficiency and conservation, to be released next week.

So why bother about energy? To show to a rough, tough world that we share the world’s climate and energy predicaments. Why do that? Because the world is the source of most of this country’s necessaries and luxuries of life, which means we must sell our products to the world to pay for them.

That’s economics. It was a notable shift in the government’s perspective on climate change that in last month’s “framework” for greenhouse gas trading it made more of economic factors in what it has hitherto presented as an environmental issue. (Though it still demands, counter-economically, that agriculture face the full force of an emissions price by 2025).

The economic slant hardens the policy. Our mostly suburb-dwelling populace can more readily identify with economic than environmental imperatives.

Certainly, business does. It has been the international metamorphosis of climate change into an economic issue by way of shifting consumer preferences and retailers’ responses, coupled with action by European governments, that has prompted business to see it now as an investment and market risk factor and take a real interest.

That in turn has shunted the National party into essentially supporting the broad thrust of the government’s aims.

Business needs policy certainty and that is impossible if there is major difference between the major parties. National would prefer not to be distracted by a major climate change rethink in its first year. So political differences are best dealt with over the next six to nine months, not on the hustings.

Whether that is achievable will heavily depend on the government’s upgrading of “consultation” with interest groups and business into “engagement”, through its “leadership forum”, agriculture “peak group”, cross-sector forums and advisory panels.

If — and it remains a big “if” — these processes work well, there will be a nationally agreed trading scheme and the makings of a nationally agreed post-2012 stance.

And that would be a sensible process for this tiny gnat of a country to nut out strategic responses to the next generation’s huge climate change, energy and resource issues.