Climate change - challenges and opportunities - a Pacific perspective
Address to the Paris Institute of Political Studies
16 April 2018
I feel incredibly humbled and proud to be here today. I also feel hopeful.
Humbled because I come from a small country thousands of miles away. We are self-deprecating people, quick to downplay our relative importance, but in spite of that, one that has never been afraid to use its voice.
And that’s why I also feel proud.
It may not seem obvious but in New Zealand the generations before me were shaped by the debate on Vietnam, the politics of sport and apartheid, and the nuclear-free movement.
But my generation – my generation will be shaped by climate change.
And when thinking about how this generation will react and how we will collectively respond, I feel hopeful.
I haven’t always felt that that way.
In 2008 I ran for Parliament for the first time. I was 28 years old. The seat I was contesting was in the rural Waikato, the place I grew up and one that centred around our agricultural community.
A public meeting was held weeks before the election in the heart of the seat. As one of only a few meetings it was well attended. I brought my grandmother and mother as moral support and took position with the other candidates at the front of the hall for speeches and a question session.
Near the end of the eventing I was asked two especially controversial questions. One on environmental regulation, the other on climate change.
I answered them both matter-of-factly, but also shared my view around the need for decisive action on global warming. The response I received was somewhat unexpected – it started with a low murmur then an audible groan – and then a full-blown booing washed across the audience.
I have often joked since that time my grandmother was probably amongst those who booed that evening. In fact, I am almost certain of it, such was the environment of the day.
I entered Parliament that same year, but as an Opposition MP with my party losing that election after nine years in office. I distinctly remember sitting in the debating chamber and watching from the backbenches as legislation that brought in our emissions trading scheme was eroded, and as a committee of Parliament was established to question climate change. It felt to me like we were slowly but surely sliding backwards.
That was just 10 years ago. There are many things about where we are now that I wouldn’t have predicted – me being Prime Minister and being very pregnant are two of them.
Another is that we have moved both our national, but also our global response to climate change to the place that we have. There is reason for hope, and you have sat at the centre of why.
On 12 December 2015 it was late in New Zealand when the decision to limit temperature rises was beamed out beyond Paris. It was the cause of much celebration.
Seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up with messages supporting this work lifted people’s spirits around the world that night. It is truly historic that 196 countries could agree to take this action on climate change.
But I am sure every one of the nations present there that day had both their own domestic situations to consider, and their own motivations.
My party wasn’t the one that signed up to the Paris Agreement, but we have heartily supported it. And I can tell you what is driving us now as a coalition government to fulfil these obligations. The first is where we are.
We are a Pacific nation.
We have an extensive coastline and most of our major cities are on the coast.
One recent estimate from our Ministry for the Environment suggests that $19 billion of assets are at risk from sea level rise and flooding events – including five airports, 50 kilometres of rail, 2,000 kilometres of road and 40,000 homes.
Not only that but large portions of our economy are linked to our agricultural, horticultural and tourism businesses, all of which are particularly sensitive to extreme weather events.
Estimates for “the costs of weather events to New Zealand’s land transport network alone have increased in the last 10 years from $20 million a year to over $90 million annually.”
But weather events that have struck us in recent times have struck somewhere else first, and with devastating consequences.
I saw this for myself on a recent visit to the island nations of Samoa, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands. Two of these islands had recently endured a cyclone that had affected homes, schools, the electricity network, even the Parliament buildings were destroyed in Tonga.
But even before Cyclone Gita, if I was to pick one issue that has been a consistent theme in the Pacific in recent years, it has been climate change.
I know you too have a strong connection with the Pacific with your own territories.
Collectively these islands represent a tiny portion of global emissions. They play almost no role in creating the crisis we now face, but they are already the first to face its devastating impacts.
In Tonga, I visited a primary school which had a few weeks earlier been ripped apart by the country’s worst storm in decades. The children were taking their classes in tents provided by UNICEF, surrounded by the battered buildings that used to be their classrooms.
The courage and resilience of the children left a mark on me. I was led by officials to see the state of the buildings post the cyclone only to find, after walking across a muddied field, that a child had followed us.
She was standing outside one of the buildings that had no roof or internal walls. Through a translator, she told me it was her classroom. She showed me
where she used to sit, and pointed to the posters and drawings that were tattered and shredded around the room.
It was work that her class had produced, and a shattering reminder of the extreme weather that now rages through these countries on a regular basis.
But it is not only storms that threaten Pacific nations. There is already salt water intrusion into fresh water supplies. Staple crops like taro have been devastated in some areas near the coast due to salt water intrusion. And more importantly, some aquifers are at risk of becoming salty.
On top of this, increasing ocean acidification is driven by carbon dioxide absorbed into the oceans, changing the chemistry of the seawater.
Warmer and more acidic oceans threaten to deprive communities of the tuna, reef fish and other the marine life which for some represent their main source of protein and their only reliable natural resource.
All of this could just point to a change in lifestyle or adaptation. Not in low-lying Kiribati and Tuvalu. There the oceans that have sustained local communities for thousands of years could soon rise up to swallow them forever.
Across the Pacific already eight low lying islands have been immersed by rising sea levels. While globally the increase is around three millimetres a year, it is more like 12 millimetres per year in the western Pacific Ocean, an effect of the trade winds.
For the Pacific, climate change is not a hypothetical. It is real. And it is happening now.
It is no wonder then that there has been some debate around the issue of refugee visas. This discussion must first recognize the desire of people to stay. To remain on their land and in their homes, nurturing their culture.
We know and understand this. New Zealand does not simply sit in the Pacific. We are the Pacific too, and we are doing our best to stand with our family as they face these threats.
That’s why we are working in partnership with our Pacific neighbours on various aid and research projects. We are active in disaster relief but also building resilience. For example, New Zealand has a track record of supporting the installation of successful renewable energy supplies in Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and Niue.
These help not only in reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions but they free up much needed money that would otherwise be spent on expensive diesel stocks to run generators.
We have joined the Pacific Islands Partnership on Ocean Acidification with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme. The Pacific Islands Partnership is providing important research to better understand the long-term impacts of ocean acidification and the risks it presents for Pacific island nations’ fishing resources.
All of this tells you a bit about where we geographically. But it doesn’t tell you much about who we are, and that ingredient is just as in important in the way we view our global challenges.
There are things of course that you might already know – like the prevalence of certain animals in New Zealand. That goes some way to explaining why agriculture is the single biggest contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions.
You probably know we are small, and we make up 0.17 percent of global emissions.
You might also know that we are sports mad – especially rugby league and rugby union played by both men and women I should add. But none of that tells you about our culture or our character.
New Zealand has a proud record of independence, and world-leading reforms. In 1893, our women became the first in the world to win the right to vote. In the decades that followed, we were among the world’s first countries to introduce the key foundations of a modern welfare state – universal pensions, healthcare and education.
We were at the table when the United Nations was born, and we have always stood up for rules-based, multilateral action, whether in the battle against commercial whaling, ensuring fair and consistent trade rules, or standing up against nuclear weapons and testing.
But on the environment, our approach is probably best summed up by one Maori word – Kaitiakitanga. It means guardianship and I would like to think it underpins the motivation for taking the decisions we need to for the next generation.
But whether your motivation is a moral one, or an economic one, both stack up.
Around the world we see oil companies investing billions of dollars in clean energy. Companies are investing in charging stations for electric vehicles. Oil companies themselves are looking to the future and that includes renewables. We all know we are going to have to do things differently.
Norwegian-based Energy Company Statoil has developed its own climate road map in support of the Paris Climate Agreement. It includes by 2020 putting 25 percent of its research funding into developing new energy and energy efficiency solutions, and making decisions that support a low carbon future.
Oil giant Shell back in 1988 was writing reports predicting the impacts of climate change. They followed that up just this week, some 30 years later, saying they strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future, while also extending the economic and social benefits of energy to everyone.
I completely agree. So in New Zealand we have also started taking action.
We are a unique government, formed in October last year with the New Zealand Labour Party which I lead, our coalition partner, New Zealand First, and our confidence and supply partner, the Green Party. We are united on many issues, and climate change is one of them.
Our climate change work is led by Green Party co-leader and our Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw. But collectively, we have all committed to the goal of becoming a net zero emission economy by 2050.
We have committed to making our electricity system 100 percent renewable by 2035.
Right now, we are preparing to consult with the New Zealand public on legislation to help us reach Zero Carbon that will become law next year.
The process will be inclusive and transparent, with input from Non-Government Organisations, businesses, communities and ordinary New Zealanders.
We are setting up an Independent Climate Commission of experts who will develop carbon budgets right through to 2050. That means they’ll set the amount of carbon we can afford to put into the atmosphere each year to get us to carbon neutrality, while ensuring we have enough energy available to run our economy and country.
As part of our regional development work and under the leadership of New Zealand First Minister Shane Jones, we have started a programme to plant one billion trees in the next 10 years. This will contribute to reducing CO2 emissions, both through C02 absorption and by reducing erosion.
To tackle the biggest contributor to our emissions profile, New Zealand has led a Global Research Alliance of 49 nations -including France - that is working to identify technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated from agriculture. It is our intention to help lead the world to low emission but highly productive agriculture and food production.
But this is not the only industry that is undergoing transformation. Astonishingly, governments currently spend more than US$400 billion each year on lowering the price of oil, gas and coal.
This is an enormous impediment to our efforts. Reducing these subsidies would help cut emissions. That’s why, at the Paris climate conference, we launched a communique on fossil fuel subsidy reform that was endorsed by
forty governments. France was one of the first to sign on, and has of course taken a leadership role on the role of oil and gas exploration generally.
In New Zealand our sense of responsibility to those whose livelihood is based around the production of fossil fuels, means we too have started planning for the future.
Several weeks ago we injected $20 million dollars into one of our oil and gas producing regions to explore a range of alternative economic development opportunities.
And because of the need to ensure a just transition around fossil fuels, this past week we also announced that we will no longer be granting any new offshore oil and gas exploration permits.
We are making this decision now because we cannot ignore the inevitable. No doubt it would have been politically easier to leave this call to someone else, but I refuse to stand by and watch as communities who have economies that rely on these industries without certainty and a plan for what the next 20 to 30 years will look like.
And this brings me to the final point. For all of the fear that surrounds this issue, I come back to that feeling I expressed at the start. And it is one of hope.
This is the chance to transform our respective economies, to face our collective future with knowledge. To grow the job opportunities and the health and well-being of our communities as we go. To put people and the need to preserve our environment for the next generation right at the centre.
You are already playing a leadership role. And I would like to believe that as a small island nation embedded in the Pacific, we are too.
But our action alone will not be enough. Collectively we must call to action not only other governments, but civic society, business, and the public.
Wherever we are, whatever our motivations or our roles, I hope each of us can look back on this period of time and say that we were on the right side of history.
That we were humbled in the wake of the science, that we were proud of what others before us made possible, and that we were hopeful in taking on this challenge, and most of all – that we were guardians for the next generation.