History shows that environmentalists haven’t cried wolf

Colin James’ Perspectives page diagnosis of the environmental movement betrays a doctor who has not been listening attentively enough to, or examining closely enough, the patient he seeks to treat.

His criticisms of the environmental movement – and by extension the Green Party – boil down to two claims: first, that we are overly alarmist and negative; and secondly that we instinctively favour regulation over market mechanisms in solving the problems we perceive.

He portrays the Greens as out of step with the times – modern society being unerringly positive and market-focused and we being negative and regulation-focused.

To call us alarmist is to suggest that environmentalists keep crying wolf about problems that never materialise. The problem with this argument is that even a cursory glance at history illustrates how baseless it is.

The Club of Rome’s 1971 report Limits to Growth was the first to use computer models which showed that continued growth in population, along with demand for food, energy, minerals and associated pollution, would overshoot and collapse sometime in the 21st century.

While many of the details turned out differently, the overall message of the model is still accurate. Oil will most certainly peak and then decline within that time. Despite huge growth in average incomes, more people are hungry now than then. World fisheries are certainly in worse decline than 30 years ago, and fresh water is both more scarce and more polluted.

This warning was echoed in March in the report of the 1300 scientists who worked for several years on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. They said it was likely that the services we depend on for life – such as fresh water, fisheries and climate – would not be there for the next generation.

So what is the Greens’ record in this story?

Take climate change. I began campaigning on it publicly in 1988. Many people scoffed. The major political parties didn’t want to listen. The media was, by and large, uninterested. Since then, evidence of polar ice melting and extreme storms, floods and heatwaves has led to widespread agreement that human-caused climate change is real.

Take ozone depletion. When the reaction between CFCs and ozone was first demonstrated in the laboratory, industry argued with scientists and environmentalists that there was no evidence it was happening in the atmosphere. A decade later, when the greatly enlarged ozone hole appeared above Antarctica, CFCs were greatly restricted, but we had committed to decades of skin cancer before ozone levels rebuild to normal.

Take dioxins. We started talking in the 1970s about the fact that dioxins from the manufacture of 245-T and other chemicals could be accumulating in the food chain and people. We pointed out links with birth defects and cancer in laboratory tests. Stories have kept emerging of sickness among people who worked in the Dow plant in New Plymouth. Now we have tests that show they have up to four times the normal level of dioxin in their bodies.

None of these issues would have come to popular consciousness had it not been for someone sounding the alarm in the first place. It is not alarmist to raise issues on the horizon so that New Zealand can best prepare for them – it is prudent.

It has been common throughout history to shoot the messenger. Alarmist really means “I feel alarmed when you say that, so please don’t”. But James is right that if your message is singularly negative, it can turn people off.

If all you say is, “we have these problems”, people will stop listening. That is why we won’t join the prophets of doom who say there is no hope, and predict nothing but chaos and destruction. The human spirit can always rise above disaster and make a better way of life and we are determined to offer hope as well as honest analysis.

James’ second point, that the Greens instinctively favour regulation over market mechanisms, sets up a false dichotomy. Regulation and the market are not polar opposites. Market mechanisms are only possible if they have overarching rules of engagement.

The Green approach is for the Government to set the standards, and then allow business the freedom to work out how best to meet them.

Our energy policy proposes that the Government call a competitive tender for the production and installation of 500,000 solar water-heating panels over five years.

We desperately need to raise the fuel efficiency of motor vehicles entering the country so that each litre of petrol goes further. To do that we propose setting a fleet-wide standard and then leaving importers to work out for themselves the mix of models that will meet that standard.

There is nothing wrong with the market as a way of allocating resources, so long as you set the framework within which it must operate, and ensure all costs are reflected in prices. For a long time markets have been skewed by allowing business and consumers to offload the real costs of their activity on the environment and future generations. Ecological economics provides the methods to stop that free-loading.

* Jeanette Fitzsimons is responding to the view of columnist Colin James that voters may have become immune to predictions of environmental doom.

Jeanette Fitzsimons | 4:57 AM Thursday Jun 2, 2005 | nzherald.co.nz

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