Dead cats, fiscal transfers and climate (in)action

The short story last week was John Key’s teenlike lash-out under pressure over Malcolm Turnbull’s treatment of deportees. That reaction to pressure is becoming a pattern.

It is unbecoming to him and to the country, which, also teenlike, he calls Newzealn.

Rob Salmond, Labour’s resident political scientist and campaign numbers guy, mined the advice of Lynton Crosby (of Crosby/Textor) to London mayor Boris Johnson to suggest Key’s attack on Labour for “backing rapists” was to divert attention by throwing a “dead cat” on the table.

The media zoomed in on the dead cat and away from the substantive issue of Key’s impotence in the face of big-brother Turnbull’s modified version of England’s initial (penal) settlement of Australia.

The longer story in the deportee affair is Turnbull’s transfer of a fiscal liability to New Zealand.

Australia criminalised the deportees. New Zealand carries the cost from here on.

That cost is likely to get big. More than half a million New Zealand-borns live in Australia. Many cannot get citizenship there and in future a growing number of those will be deported.

Not all will stay bad once here. But a number will turn up in prison at a cost of $90,000 or so a year and a number will need costly monitoring and welfare assistance. And will there be family reunions?

That follows another big fiscal gift to Australia: our taxes have educated a large proportion of its workforce.

In this asymmetrical relationship Key is impotent. Goaded about that, Key lashed Labour and Greens and anyone who thinks Australia’s extra-legal camps do not fit a liberal-democratic ethic.

But that story is short by comparison with another Key will be a fleeting part of: the Paris climate change summit.

That summit will be under very heavy security after Friday’s slaughter of civilians in Paris by devout believers in the divinity of guns and bombs.

Key is going to a meeting on the first day, November 30, of heads of government. That is supposed to generate momentum for negotiating officials, then climate change ministers, through the next fortnight.

Tim Groser will be there. So will his associate minister, Simon Bridges, a signal Bridges is likely to be full minister after Groser departs the cabinet.

The ministers are supposed to come up with something that points towards action to reduce the buildup of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere and limit the resultant warming.

The operative words are “something” and “points towards”. Humans are a long way from doing what the sprawling networks of scientists in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say is needed to prevent serious damage to the ecosystems that sustain life as we know it.

The intent of this United Nations climate process, a quarter-century long so far, is to save humans having to do again what humans have been doing for millennia — adapt to changed circumstances. The world is very crowded and rapidly getting more crowded. Adapting to a warmer planet might involve some brutal human interactions.

The Paris process combines bottom-up and top-down.

The bottom-up bit is “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through to 2025 or 2030. Almost all countries have tabled one.

But according to IPCC analysis, in their present form those INDCs will not in total stop the planet warming 3 degrees or more, a rise which the IPCC says could cause havoc with weather, sea levels, food security and, as a result, humans’ treatment of one another.

So the climate in-crowd’s focus is shifting to targeting a year when carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions are “net zero”. The shorthand, now being used by Groser and Bridges, is “transition to a low-carbon economy”.

That transition requires that no country freeloads. Hence the top-down bit: some guiding rules on, among other things, transparency, how emissions are counted (what is in, what is out and the mechanics of getting cuts) and how poorer countries are to be helped. There are wide disagreements and much detail will have to be worked out over the next few years, if states are to ratify by 2020.

Nevertheless, optimists expect a “framework” that includes all countries and can then be progressively tightened over time as, or if, populations and politicians get worried, frightened or angry.

New Zealand’s cautious INDC is modest for a rich country. Key is not an adventurous type.

But outside the government there is movement. Many in business have started to plan for a carbon price. Around 10 cities, following a trend offshore, are starting to strategise. In the cabinet hardnosed Bill English and Steven Joyce are said to be softening.

The test will come in the review of the vaporous emissions trading scheme, on which a discussion document is due in a week or two.

That and what other countries do/don’t do will be far more important to your descendants than deportees and dead cats. Climate is the truly long story.