A change of climate for the Greens

Jeanette Fitzsimons put her finger on the Greens’ central political poser in her valedictory speech as co-leader last weekend. She spoke of “putting forward the positive and practical alternatives”.

Too often Greens are finger-waggers. Fitzsimons said: “We’ve always had bundles of ideas on what could be done but we do spend rather a lot of time criticising governments rather than looking like a government in waiting.

“It is more satisfying to create the alternatives.”

No critic of the Greens could have put it better. We hear mostly about peak oil, pollution, despoliation of the biosphere, doom for humankind, the destruction of the planet.

Fitzsimons has said a fair amount of that herself. But she will be remembered as an activist who learned how to work politics. She sussed the potential to advance Green causes through small changes in policy and programmes.

She learned that a small party doesn’t have to do the devil’s work to work with the devil. Policy change at the margin to introduce green-leaning programmes is better, she decided, than no change.

So even National did a budget deal — on home insulation, which it had cavalierly canned pre-Christmas.

The Greens also injected a more positive note than usual into its “Green new deal” proposals for stimulating the economy, issued mid-May. This contained a raft of costed environment-friendly initiatives which would generate jobs in mostly economically sustainable activities.

It is no accident that a new MP, Kevin Hague, project-managed it.

With the departure of Fitzsimons and the death of Rod Donald, the Greens have younger leaders: Russel Norman and Metiria Turei. Can they pump opportunity instead of apocalypse?

Climate change is a case in point. At one level of green concern it is the ultimate threat to the planet. At another, it offers this country green-brand-based economic opportunity (oh, and personal salvation, Greens would add).

It is hard to keep the ordinary public in a fever about apocalypse. Just ask Wellingtonians about earthquakes. Few have geared up to survive the big one if it comes.

Similarly, the climate change depicted by the United Nations’ scientists is so big and so disastrous that folk after a while shrug their shoulders. They might fetch the groceries in a hemp bag but they can’t stop the catastrophe. In any case, they can’t see it or feel it (especially in frigid Wellington these past few weeks). And it is far in the future. (And the sceptics are growing more numerous and noisy.)

Accordingly, doing something devolves to politicians. But they have two constraints: their shoulder-shrugging citizens who want comfort and prosperity; and all the other countries’ politicians, defending (if in a rich economy) or promoting (if in an emerging economy) their shoulder-shrugging citizens’ comfort and prosperity.

That is why the Kyoto protocol has been honoured primarily in the breach or by sleight of hand or as a result of luck. New Zealand, for example, is way over its target and can make good only by buying clean credits on the world market, mostly in poor economies.

Climate change experts draw graphs showing rising lines of greenhouse gas emissions and steep reductions trajectories needed to forestall the overheating they say will wreak havoc. Each year those reductions trajectories get steeper. They are already forbiddingly steep.

To fix this there is supposed to be a new agreement at Copenhagen in December to replace Kyoto. This week in Bonn negotiators were supposed to get down to tin tacks. But nothing much will move unless the “G2”, the United States and China, move.

There is some movement. An emissions trading scheme bill has passed a United States House of Representatives committee. While it has several hurdles to clear yet, including a possible filibuster by Republicans in the Senate which could kill it, there is a fair chance it will pass.

And, while China has officially set a tough negotiating stance, there is some prospect it will move if it gets help from the rich world and if maybe also some industry sectors are separated out for special treatment.

But the United States bill makes huge concessions to emitters and consumers and China is not likely to concede that Chinese may eventually be precluded from becoming as rich as Americans.

So, even if the G2 agree and even if that unlocks the international ice-pack, any agreement is likely to be tepid. Even then, you can bet on backsliding, circumventions and plain cheating.

You can understand why the government here is hopping from foot to foot, waiting on Australia, which is waiting on the G2 and the Copenhagen process, meantime locked in arcane political games.

The Greens have no influence over world events. But when it comes to New Zealanders adapting to a climate-changed world (if that is what is in store), the Greens may have much to offer.

Provided, that is, they heed Fitzsimons’ advice to go “positive and practical”. Which just conceivably they might.