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‘You have been negotiating all our lives’

(Headline abbreviated, original headline: ‘You have been negotiating all our lives’: On the importance of climate stories and activism in Aotearoa New Zealand)


The trail into the valley wound its way through mountain beech forest and up onto a plateau of large sandstone platforms. On a clear day you could see the peaks of other as yet un-mined mountains. While on the trail we passed the shells of carnivorous Powelliphanta snails and the first night in the valley I heard a Kiwi call, a high-pitched keening. The ridge above the camp glowed with the lights of Stockton mine and occasionally we could hear the industrial sounds of mining carried on the wind, as coal was cut from the neighbouring plateau.

When I was sixteen I walked into the Upper Waimangaroa Valley, also known as ‘Happy Valley.’ I had recently organised my first protest march in Ōtautahi Christchurch, a mock funeral for the many native species that were threatened by a planned coal mine. Our teachers then organised a school field trip to stay in the valley at the site of the occupation, one of the longest running environmental occupations in Aotearoa.

We fought so hard to save Happy Valley. The Save Happy Coalition was one of the first concerted campaigns in Aotearoa that was argued on the basis of the impacts of climate change as well as conservation. This unique environment of red tussock wetlands and mountain beech forest, home to Roa (Great Spotted Kiwi), Mātātā (Fernbird), carnivorous snails and other endemic species, is now gone. A black pit of raw coal seam replaces it while crude roads for heavy machinery wind their way out of the valley. I still find this loss hard to comprehend.

Unlike many of the school strike generation who have been aware of climate change since much earlier, I only became aware of climate change at high school thanks to a wonderful social sciences teacher who connected us with tangible issues and people working on solutions in our community. I was soon involved in organising and activism that carried me through to university and my career as a researcher in human geography and political science. I trained in this field because I thought it would, in some small part, help to contribute to action on these issues.

I was born two years before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was established in 1992. In 2009 I had the privilege to be in Copenhagen for the 15th Conference of Parties as part of the first New Zealand Youth Delegation. During our time there we watched as world leaders protected by military escorts failed to heed the call from of Indigenous communities, young people and scientists to sign a new global agreement for urgently reducing emissions. As Christina Ora said during a speech to delegates in Copenhagen, “you have been negotiating all my life, you cannot tell us that you need more time.” In many ways it feels like climate change has shaped my entire adult life. I have watched the thousands of hours of work and effort poured into stopping climate change from people around the world. All the while emissions have continued to climb, more forests have been cleared and inequality has deepened.

The latest wave of climate activism around the world has mobilised a level of support that I have not previously seen in my lifetime. But in amongst this I am hearing smatterings of comments about how finally young people are speaking up on climate change, we have done nothing on climate change at all or that climate activism in the past has failed. I agree with Tim Flannery that we have failed to reduce emissions and stop climate change. But I don’t agree this is a failure of climate activism. It’s more complicated than that and is certainly intertwined with Western capitalist society and politics which has, for far too long, prioritised the voices of the few with money and power.

The earliest recorded instances of climate change activism in Aotearoa in print media that I have found are a number of small actions led by Greenpeace. A couple of these were actions at Mobil petrol stations in 2001 and the earliest in 1997, when a banner was dropped from Parliament. The Save Happy Valley coalition emerges in news coverage of climate activism from 2003. The coalition organised and maintained a three year occupation of the valley, multiple direct actions, Environment Court cases and many other actions and events across the country.

More broad climate campaigns start to appear in the mid 2000s, particularly developing around the 2009 UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen which saw 74 actions across Aotearoa as part of the 350 day of action in October. Later that year in December, Greenpeace held the ‘Sign On’ campaign which saw four thousand people march for climate action in Auckland, while Camp for Climate Action Aotearoa undertook direct action at MFAT and the stock exchange in Wellington.

Throughout the 2010s there has been a diverse, concerted and consistent climate movement in Aotearoa. In 2011 Generation Zero was formed, in 2012 the Powershift conference for young people from Aotearoa and the Pacific was held and during this time 350 Aotearoa became further established through campaigns calling for divestment from fossil fuels. These 350 campaigns in particular have been successful in lobbying several councils and universities to divest from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Generation Zero and their Zero Carbon Act campaign have been widely credited with influencing the creation of the Zero Carbon Bill currently before Parliament.

One of the crucial campaigns throughout this time was the oil free movement. Led by Te Whānau ā Āpanui in 2011, an initial flotilla was organised to disrupt oil exploration by Petrobras in the Raukumara Basin. Petrobras withdrew from oil exploration in these waters in 2012 and while they claimed this was due to the lack of oil and gas reserves, they had previously warned that local opposition could lead them to leave the region. Oil free activism continued through the mid 2010s as groups sprung up in cities across the country, organising protests, flotillas and blockades. Steve Abel of Greenpeace comments that the further exit of other oil and gas companies in the following years was in part due to “unrelenting peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and iwi opposition up and down the country.” These campaigns led by iwi and supported by Greenpeace and other groups have also played a role in influencing the ban on new government oil and gas exploration.

These are just a few of the many stories of climate action in the last twenty years. In building a larger scale mobilisation for climate action it is crucial that we remember the stories of this activism and other struggles. Many people in Aotearoa and around the world have fought long and hard for action on climate change and I do not agree that we can pronounce these efforts as a failure. This is particularly important in that Indigenous communities are at the frontlines of climate change, as well as global and local activism to defend land and communities from environmental destruction and ongoing colonisation. To say climate activism has failed completely in the past, or that nothing has happened until now, erases these movements and the work of many people.

Mary Annaïse Heglar describes the importance of challenging ‘existential exceptionalism’ in the environmental movement that has positioned climate change as the first existential threat, despite the many historical and current existential threats that have been faced by different communities, particularly by people of colour. Central to this is seeing history as woven through the present. As she writes “the next time you want to “educate” communities of color about climate change, remember that they have even more to teach you about building movements, about courage, about survival.”

When you unpack the records of climate activism in Aotearoa the diversity of approaches and experiences is clear. One thing that struck me when compiling these histories of local climate activism was just how vast the range of tactics utilised. People have taken corporations and the Government to court. There have been petitions, submissions, conferences and presentations. Banners have been dropped from Parliament, off coal trains and even a school building. Train tracks, weapons conferences, petroleum industry conferences and oil exploration ships have been blockaded. There have been marches, flotillas, sit ins and lie ins. Campaigns have been funny, serious, intellectual, policy based, youth oriented, led by grandparents, bi-partisan or unapologetically partisan.

The sheer breadth of experience and determination of activists has surely resulted in a number of lessons, successes, failures and wisdom. There are so many stories from this history and that of other resistances that can equip us to navigate the climate changed present and future. As Omar El Akkad in an essay on memory and climate change argues:
“We must create new ways to think about what comes next, but also about what came before…We have an obligation to document and preserve this compendium of fiction, these stories we tell ourselves. And we have an obligation to do it now, meticulously, because the stories and the empathy they engender might save us still, might move people to act. And because in time the world in which those stories took place may well vanish, in its place a different, emptier world—emptier of nature, emptier of life; the stories, once lost, lost forever.”
Instead of assuming activism in the past has failed, I believe we need to make sure the stories of activism, protest and resistance are documented, recorded and remembered for those now and in the future. These are stories of struggle against the fossil fuel industry and governments, and the many movements and people who have fought to preserve a stable climate and ecosystem for humanity.

At the start of this piece I shared with you a little of my own climate story. It is small and insignificant in the context of others but I share it in the hope that we can recognise the importance of our own climate stories and those of others. If you feel you have failed in being active in the climate movement then please use that to motivate yourself to be involved where you can. But let’s not write collective stories that minimise and erase the prior activism and hard work of thousands of people across the world or the resistance of generations of communities to colonisation and imperialism. Climate activism is not beginning anew in the year 2019 but is being built from movements that have been gaining momentum over the last thirty years and more. Collectively learning from and remembering these and other struggles is critical to our future.

This essay draws on data from a research project on climate activism and policy change in Aotearoa New Zealand with Professor Priya Kurian, Professor Debashish Munshi and Associate Professor Sandy Morrison at the University of Waikato. The views are the author’s own.

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