The process whereby public debate mills around in apparently immobile incivility, then suddenly stampedes in a dramatically different direction, is hard to predict and baffling to contemplate. Not even a computer modeler can capture it, and political science is infamous for containing far more politics than science anyway. But we were struck by a piece in Canada’s National Post by Sabrina Maddeaux taking aim at New Zealand’s plan to gut its economy by crushing farming. What makes it notable is that Maddeaux, who is not a frequent visitor to the climate arena, is at least a lukewarmer when she does step in. She says “there’s no question farms are a source of emissions, which should be reduced over time”. But, she immediately adds, “if climate change measures are to succeed they need buy-in from the groups they affect.” And once you start down that road, well, you could wind up in some remarkable places in unexpected company.
The reason is that on that road you’ll discover that buy-in, over time, isn’t a matter of slick ad campaigns or virtue-signaling. It’s a matter of seeing that costs do not exceed benefits, at least not by much. And so you have to start considering exactly what these measures will do and how they will work (in her words “This requires realistic goals, an inclination to incentivize rather than punish and a broad understanding of how well-intentioned legislation could have unintended, but very consequential impacts”) and what you find usually isn’t pretty.
New Zealand is. But even those who have watched The Lord of the Rings, several times, may not grasp that New Zealand’s austere beauty and remote landscapes may lack people but they are replete with beasts, and we don’t mean the native kind. Apparently it has 26 million sheep. And as Maddeaux observes, “New Zealand only counts around five million people, but the country is home to over 10 million beef and dairy cows. Naturally, the government would like to tax them.” And she declares with vigour that overrides our normal reticence about bodily functions that “The not-so-affectionately nicknamed the ‘burp and fart tax’ is just the latest in a worldwide trend of climate taxes that disproportionately target and impact farmers.” Which in New Zealand is especially problematic, because if your country had 10 million cows and 200 million people, and you got rid of half the cows, it would be 1/40th of a cow per capita in lost wealth, whereas in New Zealand it would be one to one.
The reason for the name is that if you want to cut down the amount of methane and nitrous oxide cows release, and New Zealand’s famously woke Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern most definitely does, you need some specific way of measuring the thing you’re trying to control.
Just as we were thinking Maddeaux was doing very well, we came to this passage and saw that she was doing superbly:
“Too often, governments view climate change as a black-and-white story wherein they’re climate heroes and anyone who calls for reasoned restraint is a climate villain. Of course, this mindset conveniently doesn’t apply to their own use of private jets or those of deep-pocketed lobbyists’ wealthy benefactors. They’d also rather not talk about super emitters like China and India, with whom they’d rather avoid conflict in service of other political priorities.”
Raaaahr! we roar with approval. Mind you, she’s not there yet. She goes on that “Climate change is a serious issue, which is why it’s not good enough to just be seen as doing something.” But with small steady steps she plods toward sanity, adding “Climate policy can’t exist in its own little bubble; it must exist in balance with other policy areas and be presented as a collective effort, not one-way dictums. Any government that finds itself taxing cow burps has taken a very wrong turn on the path to sustainability.”
She also sees the political problem in taking on farmers, who “have both strong community ties and industry groups. It’ll be much harder to get away with treating farmers as climate enemies while instituting half-thought policies that raise obvious red flags.” But some day she’ll have to start trying to devise fully-thought policies that don’t. And it may prove harder than she thinks.
As she notes about her own country, “In Canada, the federal Liberal goal to reduce fertilizer-related greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030 has spread fear among this country’s farmers about the harsh measures required to achieve such a target…. The Liberals have since been forced to defend against accusations they plan to implement a ‘fertilizer ban.’ A report is due in late fall on how they actually intend to meet their lofty environmental targets without legislating fertilizer reductions.”