By Chris Trotter*
Poor James Shaw: He’s the man this government sends out to tell us that the news is still bad. Worse still, he’s the man whose job it is to bring us, if not exactly good news, then at least some reassurance that it’s not getting worse. Notwithstanding the fact that he is New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister, however, poor James Shaw can’t even do that.
Do his colleagues from the Labour Party care? Not enough, apparently, to make the Climate Change Minister a full member of Cabinet. That decision, alone, strongly suggests that not only does Labour not care about the public credibility of the male co-leader of the Greens, but also that it doesn’t really care about Climate Change – full stop.
Why else would they be sending him off to Glasgow with next-to-nothing to show the world from New Zealand? Could it be because they know that whatever the major contributors to Climate Change may say, they’re not intending to actually do very much either? In spite of the Queen’s “irritation” at “too much say, not enough do” from world leaders.
In spite of Greta Thunberg’s caustic refrain of “blah, blah, blah”. Our leaders know that the world’s leading nations cannot afford anything more expensive than “blah, blah, blah” without crippling their economies and/or (if they’re democracies) being thrown out of office – and neither can New Zealand’s.
So, off James will go with nothing in his attaché case but promises to do better – which neither he, nor the Labour Government, are in any position to keep.
Will anybody, apart from the environmental NGOs and a few Climate Change swots, pay much attention to New Zealand’s dereliction? Well, the mainstream news media will certainly huff and puff for a few days. They’ll run Greenpeace’s media releases. They’ll commission plenty of op-ed commentary from the usual suspects. Then they’ll go back to publishing advertisements for SUVs and double-cab utes, and agitating for the “smug hermit kingdom” to re-join the world – especially by air.
“Will nobody think of the planet?!” For those deeply involved in the science of Climate Change, elevated anxiety levels will more than match the rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature. Their concern, however, is not really for the planet, it is for their own benighted species, and its apparent inability to recognise the enormous dangers bearing down upon it.
As scientists, they know “The Planet” has absolutely no thoughts on the matter.
Among under-graduates, the tree falling in the forest conundrum has always been a favourite. Everyone of a philosophical bent has heard it: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
The answer, of course, is “Yes” and “No”.
A tall tree falling through the air and striking the ground with considerable force will indeed produce the physical effects that the human ear delivers to the human brain as “sound”. And not only the human ear and brain. A timber wolf, whose hearing is vastly more sensitive than any human’s, will similarly register the tree’s fall.
The point, however, is that (as far as we know) only the human brain is capable of formulating the original question. Moreover, only the human brain is remotely interested in the answer.
Planet Earth, which is, of course, our creation – since a ball of rock whirling around its star lacks the self-awareness required to name itself – has undergone numerous and massive changes in its four billion year history. Science tells us that the planet was at one time covered with ice from pole to pole.
At other times it had a surface temperature equal to that of the hottest of hothouses, with an atmosphere so full of oxygen that dragonflies were able to grow as big as seagulls, and lizards larger than a double-decker bus. And, when an asteroid the size of Manhattan struck its surface – leaving a crater as deep as Mt Everest is tall – killing-off the dominant dinosaur species (along with just about every other species of animal life) the ball of rock was shaken, but not stirred. It had withstood bigger blows. There had been other extinctions. Life always found its way back.
Which is where we, the clever apes, enter the story. Or, rather, where the clever apes come up with the peculiar idea – unique to themselves – that they, other creatures, and even the material world in which they find themselves, have a story to tell.
An evolutionary adaptation of enormous utility, it would seem, this ability to insert oneself into an ongoing narrative. The past experiences of one’s long-dead ancestors become preservable – and, therefore, recallable – to the evident benefit of those living in the present. Did the human-beings who lived through the last ice age, when ice-sheets more than a kilometre high extended past the Canadian border, comfort themselves with the inherited memory of a warmer world? Did they pray for the day when the climate would change?
Telling stories about the future, however, suffers from the considerable disadvantage that, unlike stories concerning the past, no one can be entirely certain how – or even if – they will turn out. Human-beings are capable of being motivated by promises of better things to come. They are less prone, however, to invest too much emotional energy in stories foretelling doom and gloom. The phenomenon of confirmation bias leads us to suppose that human-beings believe more readily in stories that have a happy ending.
Unfortunately, climate scientists seem less and less inclined to predict such an ending to the Climate Change story. This is, of course, a problem, since evolution has only equipped human-beings to respond to imminent threats that are within their power to meet and defeat. The howling of wolves will draw the hunters to the perimeter of the firelight. Hitler’s depredations will set the arms factories humming. Far-off threats, decades distant, are much harder to get people excited about.
In the dark watches of the night, James Shaw must know that this baked-in human weakness is more than likely to overwhelm all his plans. That neither New Zealanders, nor the rest of humanity, will take the urgent and transformative action Science now deems necessary to stave-off climate catastrophe.
Perhaps Shaw comforts himself with thoughts of some last-minute technological fix. Or, perhaps, he simply imagines the last surviving human-being looking up into a night sky awash with stars, and weeping, because, in his absence, the whirling ball of rock will not know, or care, how beautiful human eyes had made it.
Or how silently the trees will fall – when he has gone.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.