Climate change - are we listening?

11:20 am on 26 June 2015

Power Play - It was inevitable that after four Greenpeace protesters clambered up the old parliament building people would raise concerns about security at Parliament.

Four protesters scaled the building, placing solar panels on a ledge and unfurling a banner.

Four protesters scaled the building, placing solar panels on a ledge and unfurling a banner. Photo: RNZ / Daniela Maoate-Cox

If the protesters could so easily make it to a ledge at the top of the building overlooking the forecourt, how easy might it be for people with more sinister intentions?

Yet it would be a pity if the purpose of the protest was lost in the hysteria over security.

Yes, climbing on to parliament, placing solar panels on the building and unfurling a banner criticising the Prime Minister, John Key, was a stunt.

But such stunts appear to be the only way sometimes to prompt any debate about climate change.

Brent Edwards, Political Editor

Brent Edwards Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Most news media seem to view the topic as a turn-off to readers, listeners and viewers and mostly only give it attention when an organisation like Greenpeace does this kind of stunt.

In Parliament too, if it were not for the Green Party's relentless championing of the issue, it would get scant attention. Even then questions and debates in Parliament rarely get reported.

But people abseiling off the top of Parliament is news and does get reported.

The question now is: will most of the debate and discussion focus on security breaches at Parliament or on the message the Greenpeace protesters are trying to push about climate change?

It seems from the initial coverage at least the security breach is uppermost in the minds of media and MPs alike.

A number of MPs, including the Greens' co-leader Metiria Turei, said they were worried the activists could so easily scale the building and breach parliamentary security.

Yet even the most protected building in the western world at least - the White House - has experienced periodic breaches of security.

Just last year a 42-year-old army veteran jumped the fence and ran past Secret Service officers. He got though the north doors of the White House and as far as the East Room before he was tackled.

That incident prompted a Congressional hearing and the resignation of Julia Pierson as the director of the Secret Service.

But this week's so-called security breach at Parliament pales in comparison.

More important is the substance of the issue raised by the protest about whether this country is doing enough to combat climate change.

National MP Christopher Bishop tweeted that renewable energy makes up 80 percent of the country's energy production as he disputed Greenpeace's claim the Government is not doing enough to promote renewable energy as part of its response to climate change.

But Greenpeace and other climate activists, including the Green Party, are unhappy that the Government continues to encourage oil and gas exploration.

They say that is simply promoting the further burning of fossil fuels at a time when the earth needs to reduce its reliance on oil and other carbon emitting fuels to produce energy.

The Government has long argued though that the transition to a carbon-free economy will take time and that fossil fuels still play a part in the energy mix. But it says it is doing its bit to promote renewable energy.

The Greenpeace protesters say they did not breach parliamentary security lightly and only did so because they are frustrated by the Government's inaction on climate change.

Whatever people's views on whether enough is being done this is an important debate.

The National-led Government accepts human induced climate change is happening.

Scientists warn that not only will ocean levels rise, putting low lying coastal land, particularly small island states, at risk, but also that climatic events such as floods, droughts and storms will become more common and more extreme.

While the news media obsession with security, driven in part by the growing perception of a terrorist threat, is likely to take precedence in the coverage of the protest at parliament, Greenpeace has at the very least managed to put worries about climate change back on the public agenda.

It would be preferable if these debates occurred without protesters needing to take such action to focus attention on the issue.

But if the four Greenpeace activists, who conducted a peaceful protest, really posed a threat to security, how serious a threat does climate change pose in the longer term?

Follow Brent Edwards on Twitter @rnzgallerybrent

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