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New Zealand Green Party's 2015 priorities: climate change & inequality

New Zealand Green Party's 2015 priorities

It has been an extremely hot summer in Wellington. All across the country green fields have been turning brown, rivers have dried up or slowed to a trickle, and, unfortunately for our farmers as well as for our native plants and animals, the threat of drought now hangs heavy over the land.

Will 2015 be another record year for the climate?

Last year was the warmest year on record around the world. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. I hear the Prime Minister making jokes about it because he is a science-denier. This is the 38th consecutive year that the average annual temperature has been above the long-term average—38 consecutive years. The trend is pretty clear: our climate is heating up, and we are facing, in the words of the climate change Minister, Tim Groser, “the great challenge of our age”. He is right; climate change is the greatest challenge of our age. Runaway global warming hangs over us like the threat of a nuclear winter did during the height of the Cold War. Just as they did during the height of the Cold War, parents are looking into the eyes of their children and are asking: “What kind of a world are we leaving behind for you?”.

But I am not going to focus this speech on the dire consequences of doing nothing on climate change. I am sure all of us have heard the science—at least most of us have. We have read about the wicked storms, the wild fires, the droughts, the risks to agriculture and forestry, and the threats posed to our homes and wildlife. We have probably even seen some of the changes firsthand in our own backyards.

We have known about climate change for some time. Margaret Thatcher gave speeches about climate change in the 1980s. Simon Upton, as part of a National Government no less, came close to passing a climate tax in the 1990s. And the Kyoto Protocol came into force in the 2000s, promising concerted and coordinated global action on the climate. We have had a few more false starts since then, but we have seen how a polluting industry can organise powerfully to secure its own short-term interests at the expense of our children. As a result, carbon emissions have continued to grow unabated around the world, but particularly here in New Zealand.

As a people we have one of the highest carbon footprints in the developed world, and the Ministry for the Environment has stated in its annual report that our country’s net emissions will continue to go even higher—up a further 50 percent by 2020. People often think that I have made a mistake when I say this. They say: “Oh, you mean to say New Zealand’s emissions are going down 50 percent by 2020.”—but sadly, no. The actual truth is that since John Key has been Prime Minister, New Zealand’s net emissions have increased by 20 percent, and according to the Ministry for the Environment climate pollution will increase by 50 percent by 2020 under the current policy settings—because, of course, the current policy settings subsidise climate emissions.

If climate is war, the New Zealand Government is fighting on the wrong side. It is on the side fighting for global climate catastrophe. Two decades after Simon Upton’s courageous, but ultimately failed, attempt to get action on climate change, it is time we changed sides and joined those trying to cut greenhouse emissions, instead of continuing to dramatically increase our own emissions.

In New Zealand one does not have to look very far to find conscientious objectors to the Government’s war to accelerate climate change. We are a can-do country. New Zealanders generally look forwards, not backwards. We are a people who do not fear the future. When faced with a challenge New Zealanders protest, we invent, we forge ahead with practical solutions. I am thinking of people like the New Zealander Ian Wright, co-founder of Tesla Motors, an electric vehicle manufacturer, who is now developing electric drivetrains for trucks in California. I am thinking of people like Dayle Takitimu, an indigenous rights and environmental lawyer, who has led her iwi, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, in their struggle against deep-sea drilling off the East Coast, working alongside Dr Apirana Mahuika. And I am thinking of people like Mike Bennetts, who is taking liquid fuel company Z Energy from being in the middle of the problem to at least the start of the solution by investing millions of dollars in the development of sustainable biofuels here in New Zealand. And there are many, many more.

Some of our best and brightest are realising that our prosperity relies on a thriving environment and that the threat of climate change brings opportunities to be smarter about how we do business, smarter about how we can create and conserve energy, and smarter about how we organise to create social change to mobilise in the face of climate change—smart green economics and smart green thinking in action.

And then there are those in Government who are stepping up to the climate threat. Dunedin City Council has taken the first steps to divest from fossil fuels, realising that dirty energy has no place in our prosperous future. At an even smaller level, the community board in Eastbourne, Wellington, is pushing its local council to fund a cycleway around the bays—one that will double as a protective sea wall to help repel increasingly severe, climate change - driven storm events and storm surges, which threaten to close the only road in and out of Eastbourne. Victoria University has divested from fossil fuels.

Overseas an increasing number of corporations have taken up the challenge. They are recognising both the threat that is climate change but also the opportunities of a low-carbon economy. The massive Norwegian pension fund, worth over a trillion New Zealand dollars—yes, that is $1,000 billion—has recently divested from 32 coal mining companies as well as tar sands producers. The fund argues that these companies face a grim future as action on climate change limits their future production. Stanford University in the United States has divested from coal, and, my personal favourite, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, established by the heirs to the famous oil magnates the Rockefeller brothers, is getting out of oil and fossil fuels.

Having understood that change is inevitable and that first movers have the advantage, companies like Walmart, Mars, and Procter and Gamble are helping to create a revolution in the power sector by switching to 100 percent renewable energy. Forty-three percent of Fortune Global 500 companies now have clean energy targets, and some corporations have even set an internal price on carbon to drive innovation, despite the fact that Governments have not set one. Unilever’s chief executive office, Paul Polman, a global leader in sustainability, recently said: “Our share price is up 25 percent in the past 4 months alone, showing the world that you can address tough issues without touching the economic viability of your business model.” However, no one person or business—not even one the size of Unilever, a €50 billion company—can win this climate war alone. Business relies on clear signals from Government about the long-term price path of carbon before it can reasonably be expected to commit the large amounts of capital needed to shift to a low-carbon future.

It is now time for this House to play catch-up and to work with those who are helping the transition that the New Zealand economy needs to make to a low-carbon future. We need a partnership approach linking individuals, communities, non-governmental organisations, businesses, and Governments across the globe. Dealing with the threat of climate change is not only going to define us as a people, it is going to define the very nature of leadership.

This House’s record on climate change has been weak. The last two New Zealand Prime Ministers of our times—Helen Clark and John Key—will be remembered as expert political managers, as indeed they are, but neither really got on top of the big one: runaway climate change. To be fair, towards the end of the Clark Government it did manage to get an emissions trading scheme implemented despite significant resistance, but the Key Government immediately weakened the scheme.

When you look at New Zealand’s actual emissions over the course of the 21st century they have consistently increased. And when you understand that New Zealand’s emissions are set to increase by 50 percent in the next decade, you realise that there is a huge historical cost to the managerial style of politics that has dominated New Zealand politics for the last decade. How will we manage the sea when it is lapping at our doorstep?

The enemy of climate change will not be defeated by coal-driven political management and business as usual. Abraham Lincoln, Kate Sheppard, and Michael Joseph Savage achieved remarkable victories for slaves, women, and the poor, in moments of great political courage and conviction. Our great leaders—the ones we remember—stepped outside the current of history and showed how we could live better, how seemingly impossible hurdles could be overcome with effort and ingenuity. They defined the spirit of the age and expanded the definition of what it means to be human. Their inspired leadership was a gift of love—no less.

When it comes to the war against climate change we can no longer live in denial by saying we are so small that we do not matter—the mantra of this Government. That is not the Anzac spirit. That is not the spirit of the Māori Battalion. If you excuse the sporting metaphor, imagine if the All Blacks believed that when they ran on to the pitch to face a country ten times as large as theirs. The climate crisis is a universal call to arms, and we in this House need to play our part.

In John Key’s post-election interview with John Campbell on TV3, he said: “I will lead a Government that leads for all New Zealanders. I don’t want to pass everything 61 votes to 60. It’s a really bad place to end up as a Government, just passing everything with the barest of majorities. I don’t think that’s the right way to govern.” I was heartened by his statesmanship, his sense of inclusion, and his offer of good will. Surely climate change, the greatest challenge of our times, is one issue above all of them that we need to find a way to work on across the House. Our children’s livelihoods are too important to play partisan politics over.

National plus the Greens plus Labour plus New Zealand First plus the Māori Party—if we voted on legislation that halted our growing carbon emissions and made polluters pay, it would send the strongest political signal that we mean business on the climate. To whom, besides ACT, could the climate science deniers’ lobby turn to look after its interests? It sounds deceptively simple to choose collectively an energy-efficient, low-carbon path for our economy rather than the Government’s current choice of an energy-intensive, high-carbon pollution economy, one that at some point—we do not quite know when—is going to end catastrophically. Once we get the price on carbon right and we have the supporting incentives in place, we have the dynamic market economy, the scientists, the business people, and the social innovators that can do the rest.

This century will be the century of sustainability. The countries and the businesses that lead the shift to sustainability will dominate this century. How much harder could New Zealand push in crucial climate negotiations if we could show the world that we have our own house in order, instead of it being in a mess, and that we are beginning the necessary transition and the world has not collapsed? But if this Government continues with the business-as-usual, pollution-economy approach to the climate, we will fight it all the way. Our children’s future demands that we do so. The Green Party will work with the Key Government if this Government changes course and introduces policies to actually cut emissions, but we will fight it with everything we have got if it continues down the current path of increasing emissions.

This climate fight should unite us in this House against a common enemy, climate change, rather than divide us between the lines of short-term expediency versus long-term prosperity for our children and for our country. The Greens remember which side we were on in the battle over apartheid in 1981, and we know which side of the climate fight we are on in 2015.

Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that we are the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But he also said we are the first generation that can end poverty. Alongside climate change, tackling inequality is the Green Party’s other main priority. Like climate change, inequality denies our children the opportunity of the prosperity that they deserve. Inequality denies our children their health, their education, and the simple hope for a better future.

We have been waiting 30 years under economic orthodoxy—the spell that economic growth will deliver us out of inequality and poverty. How many times have we heard from this Government and Governments past that we just need to grow the economy first to enable us to address inequality and child poverty? Well, per capita GDP has grown by 40 percent since the late 1980s, while child poverty rates have doubled. New Zealand went from a child poverty rate of 11 percent in the late 1980s to 24 percent today. There are 35,000 more children in severe poverty in New Zealand today than there were when this Government—this National Government—came to power. That makes a total of 205,000 New Zealand children living in severe poverty. One in four Kiwi kids lives in poverty. Somewhere we have gone terribly wrong. These are children going without the basics like fresh fruit and veges, raincoats, and medicine. These are kids three times more likely to be admitted to hospital, five times more likely to die of cot death, and 27 times more likely to have rheumatic fever. They are likely to stay sick for much of their lives and die young. Our rates of child poverty are unconscionable. They are immoral.

The costly interventions and wasted potential also have a dramatic impact on economic performance. In what is likely to be a seminal finding, the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the world’s leading economic thinktank, found late last year that inequality hurts economic growth significantly. The OECD showed that New Zealand—one of a handful of developed countries where inequality has grown fastest since the mid-1980s—has experienced the biggest loss of economic growth as a result of inequality. The OECD estimates that New Zealand lost 10 percentage points of growth over the last 20 years due to our record levels of poverty and inequality. No country besides Mexico has had a worse record than us.

The OECD has found that “The gap between rich and poor is at its highest level … in 30 years.”, that “inequality has a negative and statistically significant impact on medium-term growth.”, and that “Policies that help to limit or reverse inequality may not only make societies less unfair, but also wealthier.” Put positively, policies that limit or reverse inequality in our society will not only make people’s lives fairer, they will make New Zealand, as a whole, wealthier. Doing the right thing about inequality will reward us economically. And why is it like that? It is pretty straightforward. The OECD and many others have confirmed that income inequality undermines educational opportunities for disadvantaged people, especially children, lowering their chance to upskill and break out of the poverty cycle. We are not talking just about 1 percent or 5 percent of people missing out on the basics, this is about the bottom 40 percent of families.

The Green Party’s “Feed the Kids Bill” is having its first reading in the first weeks of Parliament. It is a small, possibly imperfect, response to the fact that hungry kids cannot learn at school. Let us govern in the interests of all New Zealanders and vote to send this bill to a select committee, to turn it into the kind of legislation that will leave a significant legacy for our children.

In 2015—in this year—we can end child poverty and take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Are we going to see in this political term a resumption of business as usual, a style of political non-leadership that manages its way through the next 3 years doing whatever it takes to stay in power? Or can we escape the trap of the perfectly human instinct to protect our short-term interests, and provide real leadership?

We have done it in the past. The year 1981, with the anti - Springbok Tour protests, was the defining year in which many New Zealanders provided leadership on racial equality and opposed apartheid. In 1987 the passage of the nuclear-free New Zealand Act was the culmination of years of leadership by many New Zealanders on going nuclear-free. The year 2015 is the year for leadership on climate change and inequality. The Greens are ready to provide that leadership, and we look forward to working with many other New Zealanders who also are providing leadership on these critical issues. We sincerely hope that the New Zealand Government is one of them.

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