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James Shaw’s speech to the Asia-Pacific Green Federation

Green Party Co-leader James Shaw’s speech to the Asia-Pacific Green Federation Congress

It was exactly two weeks ago today that I gave my first speech as Co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.

I deliberately made that speech about climate change - about the need to build common cause on climate change, about how it’s our responsibility as politicians to talk to each other, rather than past each other, to come together and take ambitious action on climate change.

Because it’s too important to do anything else.

This weekend has been remarkable for that.

Bringing people from around the region to share our experiences, our challenges, our opportunities, our ideas, to transition our economies, our ways of life and our environments to tackle climate change head on.

So thank you for coming here to New Zealand.

For coming and sharing your stories and your passions and for inspiring us all to continue the important work we’re doing in each of our countries.

Thank you for being Green leaders.

This has been a long journey for me. I first joined the Green Party when I was in high school.

I saw that there were all these problems in the world - war, pollution, poverty - and I wanted to solve them all, preferably before I turned eighteen and started university.

But I wasn’t that engaged with the specific issue of climate change back then.

The New Zealand Green Party was talking about the “greenhouse effect” at the time. Warning about carbon emissions, greenhouse gases and global warming.



But I never felt passionate about climate as an issue. I was more into whales and nuclear disarmament back then.

It wasn’t until I went overseas and I was working in London that I had my Road to Damascus moment and realised the existential nature of the threat from climate change.

I was working for PriceWaterhouseCoopers. It’s a global consultancy firm.

At the time there was this fake debate in politics and in the media, about whether climate change was real or a hoax.

You had all these scientists debating energy lobbyists who were pretending to be scientists.

Politicians were saying ‘Well, we just don’t know who to believe. The science is disputed.’

But some businesses had to take climate change seriously because their profits depended on scientific modelling and long term forecasts.

Like insurance companies, which rely on accurate actuarial forecasts.

I read this report commissioned by the insurance industry on the long terms effects of climate change.
It did some projections based on the available data and it was all very calm and methodical.

And it concluded that the cumulative impact of extreme weather events and flooding caused by climate change would cause such catastrophic damage to property and loss of lives over the upcoming decades that it would bankrupt the entire insurance industry by the year 2050.

My first thought was, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?”

My second thought was, “Why aren’t I doing anything about this? I’m an environmentalist!”

And so here I am.

But it’s an important question.

Why isn’t everyone in the world terrified of climate change?

Every government in the world is terrified that terrorists might attack their cities. No cost is too great to prevent that.

But if we tell them that changes to the climate might devastate their cities, or their economies. [Shrug].

The awful truth is that if you were a villain in a James Bond movie and you decided to design a global threat that exploited all of our psychological and political and economic blind spots, you’d invent climate change.

Its cause is distributed across all of modern global civilisation.

But it’s hard to link the cause and its effects. We are told that it’s not possible to link any given extreme weather event to climate change.

Although, generally we’re told this by the same kind of people who used to tell us there was no link between lung cancer and smoking.

The best proof of climate change we have is occasional footage of remote ice sheets collapsing, or charts of atmospheric concentration.

And the people who profit from a carbon dependent economy in the short term, and who oppose any efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change are literally the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world.

That’s why everyday people struggled to grasp the magnitude of the threat.

It’s why we had that fake scientific debate.

The good news is that despite all those obstacles - the denial, the psychological blind spots, the entrenched opposition - we’ve won the argument. Well, in New Zealand anyway.

No one credible disputes climate change here anymore.

Five years ago prominent climate deniers were respected authorities in the media. Now they’re just a joke.

The bad news is that while we’ve won the debate we haven’t won any policy changes.

New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme, but it actually pays people to pollute.

We have a commitment to an emissions target, but we’re making virtually no attempt to actually meet that commitment.

New Zealanders do care about climate change but it’s one of a number of issues they vote on along with health-care, the economy, education. All the urgent day-to-day stuff.

I’m sure it is a similar situation in many of your countries.

New Zealanders only get to vote once every three years.

That’s the only way they can send a message about what they care about.

But voting for the climate gets diluted by all the other issues.

Whereas energy companies, whose profits are under threat from climate change policy really only care about that one issue, and because of their wealth and their influence, they get to talk to the government about it every day.

So we don’t get denial arguments any more.

But we don’t get action either. We get excuses.

The biggest excuse for inaction on climate change is this: we cannot afford to do anything about it.
If we do, it’ll wreck the economy.

Our Government recently got some independent economists to go out and price the total cost of reducing our carbon emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Those economists found that a 40 percent emissions reduction would reduce our GDP growth by 0.1 percent.

Basically a rounding error.

A lot of what government does is about planning for disaster.

We have a military. We have civil defence. We have an earthquake fund. We have the security agencies, given staggering powers and budgets to keep us safe from terrorists, or bad guys.

All this money, all this effort to keep us safe, and the one disaster we know is going to happen is the one thing we’re not doing anything to prevent.

Because we don’t want to give up 0.1 percent of GDP growth.

Maybe that’s because we here in New Zealand are only a small part of the problem. That’s the other excuse.

New Zealand only accounts for 0.15 percent of global emissions.

Most of the problem is somewhere else. It’s in China. The United States.

Even if we do something, it won’t make a difference to the overall issue.

We’ll make this terrible sacrifice of 0.1 percent of GDP growth and all we’ll get for it is sustainable cities and cleaner air and better transport and healthier happier people.

But globally the emissions will only reduce by a small amount. It won’t make any difference.

And that’s true.

We are a small part of the problem.

And that is the true challenge of climate change.

Everyone is a small part of the problem.

Every city or region in China or the US with a population our size – four million people – can point to their own emissions and say ‘Hey! We’re only a small part of the problem. Why should we do anything?’

Imagine a situation where the United States says it wants to do something about climate change, but then Los Angeles – population four million – says, ‘Hey! We’re only a small part of the problem. Why should we do anything?’

And New Zealand’s guilty secret is that our emissions are larger than almost everyone else’s.

We’re 0.06 percent of the world’s population, but we cause 0.15 percent of global emissions.

On a per capita basis, out of 189 countries, we’re in the worst 17 percent for net emissions.

The way to confront climate change is to take responsibility for our share of the problem.

The public has woken up to that but our current Government is still asleep.

My challenge as Green Co-leader is to convince New Zealanders that the Greens need to be in government responding to this crisis.

It has to be us.

It’s tempting to think that as things get worse other political parties will wake up to the threat.

Surely, eventually, they’ll realise what’s going on. They’ll do something.

But that’s just not happening.

We’ve had droughts and floods and storms causing massive disruption, massive economic damage, and all we get are glib excuses.

We have to get into government.

We have to manage the damage that’s already been done.

We have to stop it from getting worse.

That’s the only way.

Our first task is to show the public what a government with Green leadership will look like.

Because all they’ve heard until now is that it will be scary.

Crazy.

We’ll wreck the economy.

The reality is that for most people there will be little change. And what change there is will be positive.

We want to address child poverty.

We want to address inequality.

We need to confront climate change.

But the Green Party is about long-term thinking. It’s about sustainability. It’s about consensus building.

Any changes we make have to be measured and built to last.

They have to survive political crises and changes of government.

Green government is about smarter government, not necessarily big government or radical government.

Let me give you an example.

Parliament is there to write laws.

Behind all the bickering and politics, that is what we actually do.

And, in New Zealand, when a Minister introduces a new law to Parliament the relevant Ministries all write Regulatory Impact Statements, which take an objective look at what this new law will really do.

What will it really cost?

Will there be unforeseen consequences?

Who will be impacted – and how?

One of the reasons that we know that this Government’s recent deal with SkyCity to build a convention centre in Auckland in exchange for a bigger casino is so terrible is because of the Regulatory Impact Statement which outlined all the social harm that the vast expansion in the size of the casino will cause, in terms of family violence, depression, bankruptcy, suicides and so on.

These statements warn us about what new policies will actually do, not what politicians say they’ll do.

Unfortunately the SkyCity deal is going ahead anyway, but there have been many instances where the reports from the Regulatory Impact Statements shed light on the Government’s hidden agendas and forced changes to the proposed new law.

It’s a process that’s invisible.

It costs next to nothing.

No one apart from public servants and politicians really know it’s there.

But it saves us incalculable amounts of money and energy and time just by creating political risk for politicians who want to pass terrible laws.

It works just by being there.

And it’s a very important part of the way in which the public service provide honest advice about what new laws will do.

What I want to see is a version of this process focusing on climate change. This is the biggest problem in the world, so we should probably think about it when we introduce new laws.

That is why today the Green Party is launching a bill that will require every government bill to have a statement setting out how the legislation will impact on climate change.

When a Government bill is introduced, it will come with a report, prepared by the Ministry for the Environment, letting us know what implications the law will have on New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, and our ability to meet our international greenhouse gas reduction target.

Put simply, if a new law causes pollution, the public gets to know. It will allow the opposition and the public to hold the government to account over climate issues.

It will inform us as politicians about what the impact of the legislation will be, on the biggest issue we face.

This Government has introduced and passed legislation to make it easier to mine for fossil fuels and subsidise the trucking industry, both of which have serious impacts on our emissions, so that’s going to cost us.

But they didn’t have to be upfront about the costs.

We don’t know the cost of their legislation on our climate.

We need to change that.

A bill like this doesn’t sound like much. But, actually, that’s the point.

It’s not going to change our society overnight.

It’s not going to wreck the economy.

But by forcing every new piece of legislation to acknowledge the reality and costs of climate change it will have a cumulative, gradual effect.

It means our Parliament is thinking about our climate all of the time.

It will save us billions of dollars.

It will save lives.

And hey, if the only people who even notice its introduction will be the public servants who implement it, and a handful of outraged lobbyists, that’s ok.

This is the essence of Green government: smart, strategic policies that slowly but surely lead to transformational change.

I’ve only been in this job a couple of weeks.

I’m still figuring things out.

But one of the things I think political leaders are supposed to do is show long term leadership.

In my first Parliamentary session as Co-leader I offered to work with Prime Minister John Key and his Government to find common cause with us on climate change.

To build policy certainty and stability for New Zealanders on the most important policy issue facing our Government.

Because climate change affects all of us and the things we love I think we politicians need to rise above the destructive Punch and Judy routine that we so often engage in.

If the G7 can commit to ditching fossil fuels, surely politicians in New Zealand can put our differences and electoral interests aside for a good cause to find common ground.

Because if we don’t we all lose.

If we don’t make a good enough plan now, a future Government will have to fix the mess.

That sentences New Zealanders and businesses to decades of uncertainty and a climate policy we won’t be proud of.

We may not reach a perfect solution, but anything we come up with will be better than nothing, which is what we have now.

Neither of us can lose.

If we don’t work together then we both lose.

And New Zealand loses.

Let’s be leaders instead of followers.

Let’s find solutions and not excuses.

Let’s build a plan we can all be proud of.

Let’s come together and find a way, because if we stand apart, divided, we’re lost.

ENDS

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