The risk factor for governments in nature

Every now and then nature reminds us of two things: it is driven by forces we humans cannot yet fully control and of which we have incomplete knowledge; and in this country nature is young and restless.

The Canterbury earthquake was a reminder — an unknown fault, still shaking. The Pike River mine’s big gas explosions are another.

Each such event spawns questions. There are many for the royal commission of inquiry, including whether mine safety regulations and their inspection and observance were adequate or, at the fundamental level, whether mining just cannot be made safe in the wild and beautiful terrain of our indomitable part of the planet.

And a bigger disaster may be in the making. Humans are destroying species and consuming resources — and, many add, heating up the atmosphere — at a fast pace.

There are essentially two ways out: rescue by new technologies versus a calamity. The planet’s interrelated ecosystems are mind-bogglingly complex and complex organisms can change suddenly and unpredictably. That happens in human affairs because societies, too, are complex organisms: for example, the fast descent into an unpredicted type of warfare in 1914, which blighted Europe and its Australasian offshoots, and the sudden freeze in the rich world’s financial systems in 2007-08.

Minimising and managing the risks in natural and societal complexity falls to governments: hence the Earthquake Commission and mines inspectorate (and unemployment benefits, ACC, prisons, hospitals, etc).

Risk is what makes Nick Smith’s job one of the cabinet’s biggest. (He also has ACC, on which a big announcement is due next week.) He can’t stop earthquakes nor eliminate mine dangers. He can’t eliminate the possibility of a global disaster from rising emissions of atmosphere-warming “greenhouse” gases.

But he has pushed waste laws, rational management of water, a modest emissions trading scheme (ETS) and some concern for the “fresh, safe, natural” brand to ensure foreign middle-class consumers and the giant production and distribution multinationals which sell to them continue sourcing from New Zealand.

Some of that gets Smith as offside with farmers and some in business as Washington’s notional financial regulators were with the wonky loan wizards.

It also leaves him often on a limb in the cabinet, where the rule is “balance”, a word which presumes investment in the physical environment part of our national infrastructure mostly constrains GDP growth, unlike roads or broadband which are seen as growth-enhancing. “Balance” is likely to back lignite schemes the Parliamentary Environment Commissioner condemns.

So while for six months a “100% Plan” heavyweight group of chief executives have plotted action, Smith’s clean-tech “taskforce”, now maybe to be announced in January, has a less ambitious title and narrower terms of reference — and probably a less heavyweight membership.

Yet this is the “clean-green” country and is at a time when Singapore and Korea, among others, are pushing clean-tech or “green growth” programmes. Smith in fact heads to Paris next month to debate with a dozen other ministers a draft OECD report on green growth.

Smith nevertheless plugs on, with good humour.

Last week he got legislation into the House for his Environmental Protection Authority which is to regulate hazardous substances and genetic modification, administer the ETS, manage resource consents for national projects and develop and implement national environmental standards to lift standards and inject more consistency into council decisions — and maybe in time take over regional councils’ environmental functions.

Last week Smith got backing from an unlikely place. The fractured, lobby-ridden United States Congress has parked proposals for a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade ETS. But California state published draft regulations for one in 2012, to add to Europe’s and Tokyo city’s modest one. Julia Gillard is again toying with one.

The Californian one, according to global law firm Baker and McKenzie, is to cover seven gases — adding ozone to the six greenhouse gases — starting with electricity generation in 2012 and adding fuel suppliers in 2015, capping allowable emissions at 2012 levels and imposing a sinking cap, with trading of permits and allowing offsets.

Still, most ministers here fear getting ahead of the game and leg-roping exporters.

They have a point. Voters cannot feel climate change. Many scientists are sceptical of the scary majority scientific analyses and forecasts and science is not decided by majorities. International talks at Cancun next month are not likely to go far.

But voters also cannot feel an earthquake coming where earthquakes aren’t supposed to be nor foretell a mine explosion and yet the government is expected to make policy to deal with them. Smith’s environmental job is to guard against the risk of another generation being wise after the event — and angry, as some miners’ families were last week.