Fran O'Sullivan: Cooling the hot air debate

David Parker stops short of demonising his opposition as "climate change deniers".

"Climate change sceptics" is the phrase Parker prefers to use in characterising those who take issue with the doomsday forecasts of the fourth assessment report by the United Nations Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change.

The Climate Change Minister is on the right track here.

Plenty of NZ greenies - pumped up by studies ranging from last year's UK Stern report to last week's UN report - are quick to use the label "denier" to undermine any business leaders or companies wanting to ensure a proper debate takes place before the Government imposes costly strictures on businesses to offset their effect on the environment.

The use of the word "denier" is lamentable.

What the true believers are trying to do is put anybody who expresses some scepticism over man's contribution to the global warming phenomena on the same level as Holocaust deniers.

They are painted as dangerous nutters who must be put down in case they infect the rest of us with the notion that man might not be the main culprit in global warming but that other influences such as sunspots might also be part of the mix, and that a doomsday outcome which wipes man off the planet is by no means inevitable.

The true believers needn't have bothered.

Once US President George W. Bush indicated he wasn't going to waste any more time disputing the rising temperatures trend, there was bound to be action.

Bush's acknowledgement that there is a problem - irrespective of whether man or natural forces are to blame - meant it was sensible to try to find ways to ameliorate environmental damage and slow the process.

Thus the argument has shifted to focus on the best ways to deal with a perceived environmental problem rather than its causes.

In New Zealand, the debate is still about whether to put "carbon neutrality" at the top of the list for Government action - as the Prime Minister suggested last year - or to just try to reduce our greenhouse emissions.

The Government has already signposted carbon neutrality as an ideal to aim for.

The logic is that New Zealand can offset damage by planting trees and taking other measures to reduce its carbon footprint. Using market-based trading, it might even profit from increasing its green footprint.

But how logical is that?

We would be merely taking other measures to offset the effects of our polluting industries or the harmful effects of our aging transport fleet.

The pollution would still be there, but masked.

Many in industry to whom I've spoken think a more honest approach would to forget about market offsets and focus on reducing our overall contribution to greenhouse gases.

On this score we have a lamentable record.

We account for 0.2 per cent of greenhouse emissions which despite our small size gets us into the top 15 emitters.

The argument should be that if New Zealand is among the world's worst for emissions, it should be doing something about it.

If Parker goes down this route - and he has some sympathy towards it - a regulatory rather than market-based approach will ultimately prevail.

The Government will regulate to ensure industry reduces pollution for broader environmental reasons such as cleaner air, water and soil, and the rest of us will be responsible for using energy efficiently for conservation purposes.

It shouldn't take the threat of climate change to get these aims on the policy agenda. They stand in their own right.

The problem is that by waving the global warming stick an element of scare-mongering creeps into decision making.

The NZ Climate Science Coalition - alleged by some to be in the "climate change deniers" camp - has taken issue with the United Nations panel's latest report.

Coalition spokesman Augie Auer says publication within days of two conflicting summaries of the report shows "climate science is not settled and that there is no scientific consensus as claimed, and the document is flawed and incomplete."

Auer has a point.

He suggests that the document issued last week is a summary of a draft of an unfinished report which is not due for release until May.

Says Auer, "We've already been misled about Kyoto, let's not be fooled again."

Other coalition members who have delved into the underlying science claim New Zealand has had negligible warming over the past 50 years and that last year was 0.7C below the figure for 2005.

Global warming from carbon emissions was only 0.4C over the past 56 years - how could that small amount be responsible for all the disasters cited in the UN report?

Auer's stance is upheld in a Wall Street Journal editorial on Monday, which says the UN report does not make the case for "burdening our people and our economy with carbon taxes and charges, or with higher costs and charges for energy generation".

The editorial is worth reading. It condemns the headlines over the UN report as "typically breathless, predicting gloom and human damnation like the most fervent religious evangelical".

Yet, it says, the real news in this assessment is how far the UN panel has backpedalled on some issues.

It says the underlying scientific report contains "startling revisions" of previous UN predictions.

Rising sea levels are a case in point. In the 2001 report, the UN's best high-end estimate for the rise in sea levels by 2100 was 90cm. But the best estimate in the upcoming report is said to be 43cm.

The 2001 report is also said to have over-estimated the human influence on climate change by a third.

The newspaper says faulty scientific modelling did not predict the significant cooling oceans have undergone since 2003.

As the Journal notes, it's hard to keep one's head when everyone is predicting the apocalypse .

Far easier to label sceptics as "deniers".

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