Where do we go but nowhere?

By Gareth Renowden 26/09/2014

New Zealand’s general election is over. The National Party has won itself another three years in government. With a probable overall majority and the support of three fringe MPs, prime minister John Key and his cabinet will be able to do more or less what they like. Given the government’s performance on climate matters over the last six years — turning the Emissions Trading Scheme into little more than a corporate welfare handout while senior cabinet ministers flirt with outright climate denial — and with signals that they intend to modify the Resource Management Act to make it easier to drill, mine and pollute, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the next three years are going to see New Zealand’s climate policies slip even further out of touch with what’s really necessary.

I don’t want to get into a discussion of why opposition parties were unable to persuade voters to unseat Key & Co: that’s being widely canvassed. I do want to consider what might be done to prevent the next three years being as bad as the last six from a climate policy perspective.

One thing is very clear: the climate issue is not going away. While carbon emissions hit new records, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon has been trying to galvanise world leaders to take the issue seriously. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens have taken part in people’s climate marches around the world. And the climate news remains, as ever, gloomy. Ice melts, floods surge and sea levels continue to rise. “Business as usual” continues, but is being challenged on many levels.

Gareth Morgan, the motorbike adventurer, philanthropist and prolific author, is no stranger to the climate debate. He understands the issue in the way only someone who has written a book on the subject can ( ;-) ). In a recent blog post, Morgan looked at what it might take to get climate action in the current New Zealand political climate. His conclusion? That we need a new “bluegreen” political party.

But for me, the most frustrating aspect of the election result is the entrenched inability of the Green Party to grasp that the environmental message is something that appeals to middle-of-the-road New Zealanders, not just Lefties.

Sadly the Green Party’s policies for environmental sustainability have always come with a nasty fishhook – the out-dated edict that social justice can only be achieved by rehashed socialism. This has rendered the Green Party a real melon to mainstream New Zealand – a watermelon to be precise, far too red on the inside for middle New Zealand to stomach.

For me, the frustrating thing is that the other Gareth’s1 political analysis completely misreads what’s going on at the same time as his analysis of National government’s performance on climate over the last six years is absolutely spot on….

Morgan’s view of the Green Party is common enough, and his bluegreen blog post has certainly attracted a fair bit of social media support. The “watermelon” trope is an accusation that’s been levelled at green parties and environmental activists around the world since at least the 1970s, and has its roots in the further reaches of far right US ideology. It’s a cheap shot, and not helpful to getting climate action, mainly because the NZ Green Party is what the Green Party is — an environmentally conscious party with deep roots in social justice campaigns going back 40 years.

The Green Party is what it is because that’s what its members want it to be, and as it is arguably the party most accountable to its membership for policy development and candidate selection, that’s entirely appropriate2.

Morgan’s misrepresentation of the Greens buys into the very message extreme right wingers are trying to reinforce in order to prevent climate and environment action. By doing that he also completely misreads what needs to be done if we are to get serious climate policy enacted by a centre-right government in New Zealand.

The last thing we need is a new and poorly defined political party: right of centre on economics and social issues, but reality-based when it comes to climate and the environment. How long would such a party take to build? How long before it could hold the balance of power in post-election negotiations. Six years? Nine years? Too long, by far, even if it could be put together in the first place.

Climate and environment issues do not sit on a left-right political spectrum, however hard the right might want it to seem so. They are external to party politics — challenges that all parties, whatever their ideology, have to come to terms with.

In order to endure, climate policy needs to develop out of a broad policy consensus and a shared assessment of the risk NZ (and the world) faces as a result of continuing warming.

The big question for the next three years is not so much about building a policy consensus — we (arguably) have one in the continued existence of an emissions trading scheme3 — but in communicating a realistic assessment of the climate risks NZ faces.

The key to that lies in persuading the leadership of the National Party that they can’t just leave climate policy on the back burner, a plaything for diplomats and Tim Groser. John Key, Bill English, Steven Joyce, and Gerry Brownlee need to be persuaded to accept that climate change represents a clear strategic and physical risk to the economic and social well-being of all New Zealanders — including all the people who voted for them, and all the financial backers who funded their re-election.

This will not be easy. Philip Mills, one of the founders of the Pure Advantage and 100% Plan lobby groups, gave up his efforts to lobby Key & Co earlier this year. The NZ Herald reported on his frustration:

Mr Mills, son of Les Mills and a former New Zealand athlete, said he had been personally lobbying Prime Minister John Key and his Government for five years to make a meaningful response to the threats posed by a warming atmosphere.

[…] “I’ve been trying impartially to deal with National. I’ve met with John Key around this a number of times, and really I held the hope that I and groups that I’ve been involved with would be able to get National to see sense.”

[…] Climate Change Minister Tim Groser said New Zealand was doing its fair share to reduce emissions and that the onus was on local councils to respond to the effects of climate change such as sea level rise.

Mr Mills said: “For me that was the end. I thought ‘I’ve got to stand up and be counted now’.

“I think that it is morally reprehensible for any country to shirk its responsibilities in this area.

“Furthermore I think it makes no economic sense as we know green industry will be one of the biggest growth opportunities of our time.”

So how do we succeed in motivating Key & Co to act, when years of effort by Mills and others has been rebuffed? There are three potential approaches.

The first is to recognise that there are genuine bluegreens already present in the National caucus and the wider party. The Bluegreen brand is a National brand, presented as the party’s “advisory group on environmental issues”. However, if you look at Bluegreen activities over the last few years you will find it hard to view them as anything other than a fig leaf, at best a rubber stamp for policy made elsewhere.

But there are National MPs and party members who really are green as well as blue, who do “get” the climate issue and understand the real risks the country faces. They need to be cultivated — encouraged to push the issue in the corridors of power, even if confronted by the same intransigence that Philip Mills encountered. Bluegreen MPs have to feel empowered within their caucus.

If they are to do that then they will need support. That will have to come in two forms.

The first is already under way, albeit in a rather low key manner. Alan Mark and the Wise Response initiative have shown the way. It’s time for the scientists and public intellectuals of New Zealand to knock on John Key’s door and refuse to take no for an answer. The Royal Society of NZ, the Prime Minister’s science adviser, the universities, and business leaders like Philip Mills now have to redouble their efforts. NZ’s intellectual leadership needs to stand up and make a powerful case for the cabinet to base climate policy on a realistic assessment of the risks. The lazy demonisation of all things green by senior National figures has to be countered by relentless rationality from those best equipped to deliver it.

Ultimately, it is voters who decide the future governments of NZ. Public opinion on the importance of climate policy will depend on both the leadership given by political parties — including National — and on the development of grass roots support for action. The Climate Voter initiative may not have had much impact on the final vote in this election, but it did provide a powerful demonstration of how the issue could be made to gain traction despite political and media indifference.

To make progress on climate issues there must be a concerted and non-partisan effort to put climate action high up on the political agenda. We have to move Key, English and Joyce from their pernicious “fast follower” stance into at least a middle of the (international) road position on emissions reductions, achieved through an emissions trading scheme or carbon tax which actually incentivises real reductions in NZ, the creation of carbon offsets through tree planting and land use change, and a serious effort to prepare the country to adapt to the warming, weather extremes and sea level rise that are now completely unavoidable.

[What, lugubrious? Nick Cave? Never. Well, perhaps not never. Sometimes, certainly.]

  1. No, not that other Gareth. This one.
  2. Disclosure: I am not a member of the Green Party, but have party voted for them in recent elections because I regard their climate and environment policies as the best on offer, and I have no problems with their stance on social justice issues. For the record, I have also voted for Labour and National on occasion over the last 18 years.
  3. When I discussed climate issues with a (largely sympathetic) National MP a couple of years ago, the response to my criticism of the gutting of the ETS was “well, we could have got rid of it…”