When the historians of the future come to assess the early part of the 21st century and the way a world beset by pathological narrow-mindedness made an awkward face and did not do very much at all about climate change, New Zealand is unlikely to be ranked among the great villains.

Fifth highest emitter per capita of greenhouse gases in the developed world, sure, but in sum that's a drop in the rising ocean.

And yet, future New Zealanders may very well review their grandparents' response with more than a little embarrassment. If not anger. Shame, even. After all, there was no serious dispute that climate change was happening, and that humans were responsible. Ninety-seven per cent of scientists agreed about that. Had it been possible to predict an earthquake, and had evidence been produced showing one was imminent, you'd expect some serious action to be taken.

Well, these future people might say, climate change is a kind of earthquake, a stealthy, borderless, horrible upheaval. The scientific consensus on its cause had been irrefutable, and the evidence voluminous - in the reports of the non-partisan International Panel on Climate Change and hundreds of other papers.


And the answer from New Zealand's leaders? Utterly supine. We've got an Emissions Trading Scheme, doesn't do much, exempts our main polluter, but come on. We're only little, we're insignificant, let the big kids do it first. Every dollar spent on climate punishes the wider economy, goes the argument, as if climate-friendly economic development were impossible.

The Prime Minister's response to queries about the plausibility of the 100% Pure NZ slogan: "For the most part, in comparison with the rest of the world, we are 100% pure." The climate change minister Tim Groser this week insisted it was pointless doing more: "The reality is it's only the aggregates that make any difference."

A couple of months ago, the new leader of coalition stalwart Act went further, dismissing action on climate change as "irresponsible moral exhibitionism". Sounding less like a leader and more like one of the comedic nihilists from The Big Lebowski, Jamie Whyte said, "there's no point our cutting emissions". What would he do? "I would do absolutely nothing."

Later on Wednesday, the Federated Farmers vice-president and climate change spokesman, Dr William Rolleston, matched Whyte in the absurdity stakes, apparently auditioning for The Thick of It in an interview with Radio NZ.

The lobby group for the country's most powerful, highest-exporting and highest-emitting industry takes no position on "whether climate change exists or not", said its climate change spokesman. Oh, and he reportedly added that the role of methane is "a political construct".

After all that, Groser's counterpart as climate minister in Norway, Tine Sundtoft, makes for quite a contrast. "Norway accounts for 0.04 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions," said the Conservative Party politician. "In isolation, what we do is of little significance. But we cannot think like that. Every Chinese city, every US state, every coal power plant emission is small in the larger whole. We will not get anywhere if we just point at each other."

Those words are quoted in an introduction to a report on oil and gas drilling published this week by Dr Jan Wright, the NZ Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Wright adds: "The Government has committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to 5 per cent below our 1990 emissions by 2020, but there is no plan for achieving this - neither the Energy Strategy nor the greatly weakened Emissions Trading Scheme will do it. Perhaps I have become particularly sensitive, but I seem to be increasingly hearing that it is pointless for our small country to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases because our contribution to the global total is insignificant. But this is a recipe for inaction everywhere."

The Green Party this week released a new policy to scrap the emphysema-ridden emissions trading scheme and replace it with a carbon tax, with revenue to be redirected into corporate and income tax cuts. The idea was enthusiastically received by many right-inclined commentators who are normally Green-allergic, though not by Groser, who denounced a "swingeing tax" from an "extreme end of opinion".

But if nothing else, the Greens' announcement is welcome because it puts climate change squarely on the agenda for September's election. In 2011, global warming barely rated a mention, in large part owing to the Greens' strategic fixation on the "jobs, rivers, kids" mantra.

The Green proposal seems smart. There may be other, better ideas. But what if the Prime Minister were to acknowledge that the current policy is unsatisfactory and insufficient, to pledge a fresh cross-party approach to remaking it after the election, with a view to action to meet our boasts of purity, to assume a role of moral leadership rather than meekness?

Fanciful, probably. But he's off to the White House in a fortnight, and Barack Obama has just this week dramatically announced he'll bypass congress and demand a big cut in US power plant emissions.

What a scene it would be, those two old golf buddies, pledging together to lead on an issue for which legacy really, existentially matters.