How are the polar bears? Is NZ bothering?

Is our air and water getting warmer? If so, do we humans want to do something about it? If so, do we here want to be up with the leaders and innovators?

John Key’s answer at the recent Pacific Islands Forum was, in effect, yes, yes and yes. He signed up to a declaration of a “need for urgent action at all levels” and “a responsibility for all to act to urgently reduce and phase down greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution”.

“We commit to be Climate Leaders” (in capitals). “To lead is to act.”

Low-lying small island states of the Pacific sort are vociferous in the United Nations (UN) climate change talks. They fear gradual inundation when the sea rises as it warms and as land ice melts into it.

How serious was Key?

Ministers talk up action: the global research alliance initiative on animal methane, support for geothermal potential, suggesting to China it could source energy here, renewable energy aid to Pacific states, backing for biofuels research, leading the push against fossil fuel subsidies (which far outweigh fossil fuel taxes worldwide) and a high-profile role in recent UN climate summits.

They point to the only emissions trading scheme (ETS) covering all six GHGs.

Ministers also say the ETS enables GHG reductions at “least cost”. Climate measures must not hold back the drive to double agricultural exports.

So the government has been light on “complementary measures”, such as energy efficiency (not steering away from fossil fuels), biofuels targets, wind and solar electricity promotion and innovative transport and city planning which can as a side-effect reduce carbon emissions (and, in some cases, have economic side-benefits). It has left local councils to deal with sea level rise.

It has tabled in the UN talks a cautious initial commitment to cut net emissions by 5 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020, a smidgeon below the 2008-12 commitment of a zero cut under the Kyoto Protocol. (Though as other countries act and apply peer pressure in the talks, the target is likely to get a bit more ambitious.)

The government has also ensured a low carbon price in the ETS by not restricting access to “hot air” reduction units from Russia and like states, as other ETSs do. Industry can go on emitting at very little cost, as figures issued last week by the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) showed.

MfE’s figures also showed a net reduction in carbon-absorbing plantation forest. The carbon price is too low for investors.

All this fits Key’s pre-forum line that New Zealand should be in the pack, not out in front. Though per capita we are among the world’s highest GHG emitters, if we cut to zero the global effect would be microscopic.

So is Key a “climate leader”? Tony de Brum, a minister in the forum’s host government, the Marshall Islands, was doubtful after some of his post-forum comments.

On Friday the first of the new round of reports by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists will be issued. New Zealand scientists have been prominently involved.

Sceptics and deniers got in first. A spate of news reports last week off leaks of a draft had headlines such as “IPCC models getting mushy” and “We got it wrong on warming, says IPCC”.

So, relax. The polar bears will be fine.

The leak-based reports draw on the near-stall in measured warming over the past 15 years, which sceptics say falsifies the IPCC’s earlier models. (It last reported in 2007.)

The other side, the prophets of apocalypse, will likely say the IPCC is conservative and ignores some recent science.

Actually, science is never absolute and climate science is still evolving so there will be continuing adjustments, up and down, to measurements and projections.

All scientists can do, as controversial environmental statistician Bjorn Lomborg wrote last week, is give the best information available at any time — which he quoted an IPCC draft as saying is a 95 per cent certainty that humans have generated half the warming since 1950, that warming is continuing (even if in one of its periodic rests, for which there is a range of hypotheses) and that by 2100 the air will have warmed 1-3.7 degrees and the sea will have risen 40-60 centimetres.

Warming over 2 degrees could trigger significant weather pattern changes.

Lomborg thinks green-energy technology will go a long way to mitigating this in time. Eric Martinot, a global renewable energy expert, says investment is now expanding very fast for intrinsic reasons, independently of carbon pricing.

Lomborg is a sceptic of strong climate change action but nevertheless says: “Global warming is real”. The vast majority of climate-specialist scientists agree. So will the polar bears be fine?

For a government, it comes down to risk management. Has Key gauged the risks right — not just environmental and economic risks, but political risk, globally as well as at home?

New Zealand’s bargaining chip in world affairs is good global citizenship: being a leader when it counts and meaning what you say.