In the film Amazing Grace  set in the 19th century there is a scene where the British Parliament is debating the end of slavery. Members of that Parliament argue that the end of slavery would have massive economic impacts that would harm Britain and therefore, as unpleasant as it is, slavery must continue.

The arguments against policy action on climate change here and now in the 21st century run a very similar line. With hindsight the pro-slavery parliamentarians of 19th century Europe – whilst they held the majority for a time – were in fact a dying breed doomed to be overtaken by the unstoppable progress of culture.

The moral case for action on climate change is similarly strong as that for action to end slavery. Both are undeniable causes of significant human suffering. There are those urging change and those upholding the status quo – how quickly the former succeed will directly determine the quality of life for present and future generations. 

The moral case for action on climate change is solid, but the economic case against the fossil fuel industry is perhaps more interesting.

Deep Water Horizon Oil Slick

As the world’s richest economy fails to stem the catastrophic flow of a blown offshore oil well there was not a hint of irony in our Development Minister Gerry Brownlee’s voice when he announced yesterday the “great pleasure” he felt at signing an offshore drilling deal with Brazilian oil-giant Petrobras – you could almost see the dollars glinting in his eyes.

On National Radio (1) this morning he stated that, “One thing is for absolute sure: the hydrocarbon economy of the world is not going to disappear in the next 10-20 years.”

His certainty in the hydrocarbon economy struck me on two levels – firstly that he is anxious to state it and secondly that his desire to participate, perpetuate and invite the hydrocarbon economy to deepen its relationship with New Zealand is clearly not for any moral reason.

In the era of climate change the hydrocarbon economy is exactly what needs to “disappear” if we are to stem the tide of climate change. But Brownlee has no interest in New Zealand being on the frontier of the clean-tech and renewable energy revolution that will eclipse hydrocarbons as the worlds primary energy source in coming decades. Rather he is batting for the old ways – he sees the unexplored frontier much the same as his settler ancestors saw it 150 years ago. He dreams of precious minerals in the hills and proposes we mine them; he thinks of basins of oil under the sea and wants to exploit the resource to make New Zealand rich. It has all the character of 19th century oil and gold fever.

Petrobras P-36

But Brownlee’s economic case for hydrocarbons is also a mirage. Describing deep sea oil drilling as a “long-term development strategy,” (2) shows the shallowness of his analysis. Oil is a finite resource so by definition is a short term economy, all the more so in a world desperately seeking clean alternatives to fossil fuel dependency. Even if, (and it’s a big if) there is any significant oil in the Raukumara basin off the East Cape and can be successfully extracted (we’re talking water depths up to 3,000m!) – it will still be of pathetically little direct economic value to New Zealanders. Purely on economic grounds the hydrocarbon economy can’t significantly help New Zealand in the short or long term. In fact it risks our clean green reputation and, if something does go wrong, the cost to fisheries, coastline, birdlife and other ecology and economy could easily run into tens and tens of billions of dollars.

 

In response to questions yesterday on the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster Brownlee reportedly said that the American incident “has everyone scratching their heads,” and that “Nobody is quite sure exactly what went wrong.” Let me suggest that what went wrong Mr Brownlee is BP drilled for oil at such a depth that when the blow out happened it was beyond their technical ability to stop the flow of oil. All the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men type scenario.

My question for Mr Brownlee is, “if we can’t stop one oil blowout in the USA then how are we going to stop runaway climate change once the juggernaut of global warming continues its huge momentum thanks to the perpetuation of the hydrocarbon economy?”

Brownlee’s answer is probably that it’s not our problem.

History will look back and remember kindly those who where first to move in response to the obvious tide of climate change for both moral and practical reasons – the Gerry Brownlee’s of this world will be parodied.

(1) Radio National, Morning Report, 2 June 2010

(2) Hon Gerry Brownlee, Media Statement 1 June 2010.