Pete Hodgson

Born in Whangarei in 1950, Pete Hodgson was educated at Whangarei Boys’ High School before training as a vet at Massey University. He practised as a vet in Canterbury in the early 1970s and in England in the early 1980s. He also worked as a veterinarian and secondary teacher, mostly of physics, in Dunedin and owned and managed a range of small businesses.

He joined the New Zealand Labour Party’s Dunedin North branch in 1976 and became the secretary of the Castle Street Branch. In 1990, he was nominated as the Labour Party Candidate for Dunedin North and was MP for this electorate from 1999 until 2011.

In 1999 he was appointed Minister of Energy, Fisheries, Forestry, Research Science and Technology, and Minister for Crown Research Institutes; Associate Minister of Economic, Industry and Regional Development, and Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of the first Labour led government. He was given responsibility for Timberlands West Coast Ltd; for the government’s Oceans Policy project, and for maximising the opportunities to New Zealand from the Lord of The Rings film project. He became Convenor of the Ministerial Group on Climate Change.

In the second term of the Labour-led Government elected in 2002, Pete Hodgson retained his portfolios until February 2004 when he became Minister of Transport and relinquished the Fisheries and science portfolios. In December 2004 he was appointed Minister of Commerce, Minister for Land Information, and Minister of Statistics, as well as Associate Minister of Health.

In the third term of the Labour-led Government from October 2005 Pete Hodgson was appointed Minister of Health and in 2007 became Minister for Economic Development, Tertiary Education, and Minister of Research, Science and Technology.

He is married with two adult sons and lives in Dunedin. He enjoys swimming, diving, tramping, tennis and gardening.

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Democracy and Climate Change Can Democracy Slay The Dragon Of Climate Change; If Not, Then What?

Posted on 14 October 2013

by Pete Hodgson

Japan is a model of modernity. An advanced democracy that happens to import nearly all its energy, Japan has been a world leader in the climate change debate for decades. It was an instigator and major funder of the Global Environment Facility. It lent the name of its holy city of Kyoto to the most promising global agreement on climate change yet. Corporates like Toyota and Honda have led the world in hybrid technology. It is the most energy-efficient nation in the world.

But the people of Japan have lost their enthusiasm recently. They have suffered terribly from a tsunami, they have wound back their nuclear generation in favour of liquefied natural gas, they are preoccupied with economic stagnation, and with the economic rise of their sometime adversary China.

Another democracy, the United States of America, has never been that keen on tackling climate change. The biggest economy the world has ever seen, and the most profligate, they have always had endless naysayers who strive to disavow the science, even as Florida or New Jersey undergoes yet another cyclonic thrashing.

But now, as the truth is finally starting to sink in, a new democratic problem arises; acceding to any international treaty requires the support of the US Senate. It comprises two members for each state, large or small. A very large proportion of the US population is resident on the East and West Coasts. Nearly all the little states are in the middle. But the states in the middle contain all the US coal. So pork barrel politics will always stop the US acting in a globally coherent manner on climate change. Even the current President, the most engaged to date on the issue, has limited room to move.

A third example might be our own democracy. Ten years ago New Zealand was a western world leader on this issue, just like Japan or the European Union. We were the first developed country in the southern hemisphere to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. We were gaining traction with policy; a carbon tax was proposed initially, then abandoned in favour of full emissions trading and much besides. But then there was a change of government and the scaffold of initiatives was dismantled almost completely. The same thing is about to happen in Australia.

In Japan, the US and NZ [and Australia] democracy has failed to deliver progress on climate change.

The reasons seem to be very different; other issues have crowded the agenda in Japan, the US has an inbuilt negative bias with the way the senate is chosen, and in our country the centre-right government is averse to dealing with any environmental issues, let alone the hardest one of all.

What makes climate change so hard? How come we make such progress on really big stuff like slavery or perhaps even poverty but not climate change? How come we can sort out other international environmental issues like persistent organic pollutants, POPS (think DDT and the like) or the ozone layer, but not climate change?

Two things make climate change hard.

The first is that we are part of a global addiction to fossil fuels, especially oil. It is our preferred source of motive energy. Our society is now dependent on it; folk would die within days without it and economies would collapse. It’s a pretty scary addiction.

The second is that we cannot see the full effects of today’s consumption of fossil fuels for decades; in the case of sea level rise for a century or more. No other public policy issue has that characteristic. If we wait until the evidence of climate change is incontrovertible before acting it will be too late. That is not the case with slavery or poverty or POPS or the ozone layer. With those issues, and all others, the evidence is in your face. Even other delayed issues like overfishing will show up in a few years. But not climate change; the little we can see now will be magnified many fold in future decades.

So say the endless scientific projections. But projections are just that. They are not proof.  So when those projections are inevitably contested then society’s naysayers have the perfect excuse to express a doubt here or there. After all who can prove the sceptic wrong when there is not yet firm evidence to hand?

Which is precisely how the debate has played out to date. And it is precisely why governments who care little for the issue can be elected.

And elected they are. Elected by the people. So it does not work to blame politicians for being self-interested, short-sighted cowards. It is tempting of course and it is also true to an extent, but it does not help solve anything. Put simply, democracies are failing because we, the people, allow that failure to occur. This is not an attempted guilt trip; it is just a fact. If enough people cared in Japan or the USA or New Zealand then those democracies would not have dropped the ball; the people would not have allowed it.

People do allow it because they feel disempowered by the whole thing.

Disempowerment is at the heart of the world’s modest progress on climate change. Where, for example, can I buy bio-diesel? How can I stop my cows from belching methane? When will a good public transport system be here? Is my toaster fired by hydro or coal?

So disempowerment is everywhere. Climate change is not like recycling or clean streams. The scope to change things is less obvious. Addictions are like that.

Should you bend over and kiss your butt goodbye?

No, not yet! Progress might be frustrating, and glacial, but help could be on the way from three strange bedfellows; commerce, communism and communities.

This is more than a pleasingly alliterative trio, it might also form the nexus of future progress. As the limits to democracy are being repeatedly thrown into sad relief, the prospects of the alternatives gain ground. Each has a very different origin, values and set of incentives. They are also largely uncoordinated. They are worthy of a closer look.

Commercial interests of profit, market share and so on can be very influential and effective if somehow harnessed to the goal in mind, in this case to the goal of a carbon-constrained future. If there is a buck to be made then a lot of human endeavour is immediately interested. That was the original genius of the Kyoto Protocol: if nations signed up to binding targets then that had the effect of turning an environmental problem into an economic one. Alas, not enough democracies joined up and even fewer were interested in the second round of commitments.

But the idea of a carbon-constrained future has become embedded in board room politics nonetheless. These days most of those who run the large businesses of the world know that climate change isn’t going away. They know that the smart money is on advancing any new technology that may reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So energy efficiency, or renewable energy technologies, are now mainstream ideas, whereas until recently they were not.

The venture capital industry has discovered that there is money to be made in energy technology start-ups. The car companies are now focused heavily on improving efficiency further, even USA companies. It is the same in the aviation industry or in cement or steel manufacture and many other sectors besides. Of course this rush to improve efficiency does not necessarily reduce absolute levels of emissions, but it does reduce what they would otherwise have been. And the resultant technologies allow emerging economies to leap-frog the inefficient phases of western world development.

Some capital effort is chasing holy grails such as carbon storage or ocean fertilization. Others are making a mess on the way to, perhaps, getting it right next time. Biofuels is a classic example. So commerce is not a panacea, but it is making a difference.

Communism is a bit of an old fashioned word these days; it basically means China. China is the filthiest nation on earth, as measured by many things. This includes greenhouse gas emissions, although not on a per capita basis; the USA wins that dubious prize. [New Zealand is not far behind on a per capita basis, because of our dairy cows.] China has enormous environmental challenges in fresh water supply and in clean air. It is an environmental mess.

But it is not a shambles. China doesn’t abide a shambles because it is a command and control economy. If those who run China choose to clean up a mess then they devise and impose a plan. So China has a plan to deal with its enormous rate of greenhouse gas production.

It has made astonishing progress in recent years, though from a rather low base. The efficiency of Chinese coal-fired electricity production has improved vastly though it still lags behind the gold standard. China has tapped large hydro resources but with a high ecological and social price. It is the cheapest producer of high quality photovoltaic cells in the world, and is advancing that technology quickly.

China does not have debates about climate change predictions as we do in the West. The Chinese are not as free to express scepticism. A democracy does have such debates, but a democracy doesn’t as easily deliver on a plan – because the people might change the government.

The Chinese government could of course decide to ignore the issue of climate change. But to date they haven’t and because they can dispassionately examine the same science that is available to you or me it is a fair guess that they will stay strongly engaged. It seems likely that China will move from chief polluter to becoming part of the global solution.

So what of communities? What role can they play? What can we disempowered locals do? Of course the answer could go forever. Communities get up to much more in aggregate than any one of us can know. But community action can be usefully categorized nonetheless.

An obvious starting point is planning. Planning is, roughly, local. We plan our own new house, we can help plan our neighbourhood, we can partake in specific investment plans in our communities.

Some emerging energy technologies will lend themselves to community level activity. The Blueskin initiative with wind energy is just the start. The options for locally produced transport fuel will become considerable, soon. The science is already to hand but not yet the technology. Two options are already apparent.

One is the conversion of woody biomass into ethanol [or similar] for use as bio – petrol. This is where a province like Otago, with vast amounts of forestry slash, pocketed here and there, could make a buck and a difference. The stumbling block just now is working how to scale up efficiently. Laboratory scale is of no practical use. Yet very large scale makes no sense either; carting forestry slash large distances is not economic. So the future looks like a small or medium-sized plant. A community size perhaps.

A second technology is a little more counterintuitive. It is the production of biodiesel from algae. The counterintuitive bit is that it requires us to reverse our view of dairy waste or sewage and consider them a resource. The sewage ponds in Christchurch have already produced some high quality biodiesel. And the production statistics are very high because aqueous ecosystems are naturally far more efficient than terrestrial ones. If scale-up can be achieved, then community-sized production becomes possible.

A part of the global climate change response is not mitigation but adaptation. Yet that global effort is pretty much the sum of community efforts; changing farming practices, sea wall construction, water harvesting and so on. Of course these adaptation efforts signal a sad failure to avoid the emerging effects of climate change, but they are increasingly needed and it is largely communities who are doing it.

We cannot give up on democracy of course. It has got us down the path somewhat and has more to offer. But in my view we should stop relying on democratic nation states to deliver an adequate response. They haven’t so far and by themselves they won’t.

The dragon of climate change is humanity’s greatest challenge.  All resources from all walks of life must be harnessed. And the role for communities in that mix is now starting to become apparent.

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