This is an emergency???
“I’m sorry, my friends, I didn’t want to stop you”, begins the Extinction Rebellion song This Is An Emergency, and goes on “When you were having such a fine time.” “But this is an emergency!”, it declares.
In her 2017 election campaign launch speech the Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern called climate change “my generation’s nuclear free moment”. A year later she had “upgraded my position” and now said that the challenge was greater, “because of the battle to get everyone on board”. Interviewed for the Spinoff, the prime minister said “…the challenge of climate change had one critical difference to the nuclear-movement. Then, “we were unified”, she said. “And yet what we’re doing on climate change – it is just that much harder, because it’s a call to action for everyone. And so I’m hoping we can get to the place of having that same unified moment that we had around nuclear free…”
Now I know that Ardern was less than 1 year old when the first Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone was declared in Devonport in March 1981, and not much older when the Nuclear Free Zone Committee was formed in December 1981. She was still ten years away from joining the Labour Party when the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act was passed in 1987. Further, she would make no claims to being a scholar of New Zealand political history. Nevertheless… where does she get the idea that society has to be “unified”, or that everyone “has to be on board” before important changes can be made by governments? And just how ‘unified’ and ‘on board’ do we all have to be?
Such considerations never troubled her predecessors in the 1984-1990 Labour government. They initiated a blitzkrieg of neoliberal ‘reforms’, which have transformed New Zealand from one of the most equal to one of the least equal states in the OECD. If they could act so boldly – and against the public will as shown by all the polls – surely the climate emergency the whole world is in right now should call forth much bolder and more decisive government action?
Seemingly not. The leader at Stuff called Ardern out on her lack of action in April 2019, asking ‘Does the Government have the stomach to tackle its ‘nuclear-free’ moment?‘ It pointed out that as the Labour-led government had bottled on the capital gains tax which two of the three parties in it had promised during the election campaign, what were the chances that it would step up and do something about the dire state of New Zealand’s natural environment, as outlined in the just-released Environment Aotearoa 2019 report?
This desire to have everyone on board is one of the reasons given by the Climate Change Minister James Shaw for why the zero carbon legislation, which was announced in December 2017 with a promise it would be introduced in October 2018, did not actually get its first reading until May 2019. But anyone who has ever been a member of a social movement which has affected change would know what Ardern and Shaw (who have never been such members) clearly do not – that change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. Certainly no one is going to answer Ardern’s call to action and get behind it in unity when her idea of a ‘nuclear-free moment’ is something as feeble as the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill (or as I call it for short the Carbon No Zero bill).
They did not do so in the case of the Nuclear Free Zone Act. New Zealand was not unified in its support for that Act. The National Party did not get on board with it until 1990, and its support was always weak. During the 2005 election campaign the National leader Don Brash famously promised that it would be “gone by lunch time”. What New Zealanders had done before the Act was introduced, however, was protest against nuclear and nuclear-armed warships and nuclear testing from the 1960s onwards. They had begun to turn New Zealand nuclear free – one borough, one town and one city at a time. They had a highly organised and systematic campaign, which had the following plan:
“a) Public education materials on the dangers of nuclear weapons were mass produced and widely disseminated;
b) Petitions to parliament to adopt the Nuclear Free Zone policy which included withdrawal from ANZUS, instituting a Peacemaking defence and foreign policy and delivery of humanitarian aid;
c) Peace Groups lobbying local councils to declare Nuclear Free Zones;
d) Promotion, marketing and popularising the idea in mainstream society with badges, stickers, stalls, organisation of lecture tours, media publicity, events and newsletters.”
So by the time Ardern was four years old there were 86 local councils covering 61% of the population which had declared their municipality a Nuclear Free Zone, while by the time she was seven and the Act was passed there were 105 councils covering 72% of the population. This included cities like Wellington and Christchurch, where it may be safely said that a majority of citizens were not as one with the radical (and organised) peace activists – and the same goes for the smaller centres as well.
Today one of the core demands of Extinction Rebellion groups is for national governments to declare a climate emergency. The UK parliament did so on 1 May 2019 with unanimous assent to a Labour motion to declare a formal climate and environment emergency. Responding for the government, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, said: “Not only do I welcome the opportunity that this debate provides, I also want to make it clear that on this side of the house we recognise that the situation we face is an emergency. It is a crisis, it is a threat, that all of us have to unite to meet.” He also claimed that there is “a green thread of ambition running through Conservative governments”.
Will the New Zealand parliament do the same? What would that actually mean? When British Green MP Caroline Lucas asked Michael Gove how his support for the declaration of climate emergency could be reconciled with the government’s decision to back a third runway at Heathrow airport, Gove refused to reply. On May 2nd the UK Committee on Climate Change (the UK equivalent of the proposed Climate Change Commission in the NZ Carbon No Zero bill advised the government that it needed to set a legally binding target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 immediately. But with really strong measures required to achieve this, such as phasing out petrol and diesel cars and gas boilers, eating a lot less meat, taking fewer (or no) flights, quadrupling clean electricity generation and planting an estimated 1.5 billion trees, are future British governments going to wait until the British people are united on taking this sort of action?
Perhaps they are already united. At least business interests in the UK are backing the target, which is very different from the heavy criticism of the Carbon No Zero bill (which has the same target) coming from the agri-business sector in New Zealand, which stands to lose the most profits over any change to business as usual. Is this what is spooking the prime minister?
Whatever, we are seeing that national governments can and will declare a climate emergency, and have produced or will produce climate change acts and set up committees or commissions to advise on them. They will also set targets for reducing emissions, and task the bureaucrats with producing emissions reduction budgets, adaptation plans, and regular and frequent reports to government. The UK has had such an act and committee in place since 2009, and since then the UK’s emissions have continued to soar. Whatever it takes, declarative and bureaucratic actions do not seem to be it.
What would make a difference? How about getting local bodies to boldly constitute themselves as ‘Emissions-Free Zones’ and develop their own mitigation and adaptation plans (as part of their regular long term planning cycle) NOW. How about learning from the Nuclear Free Zone campaign and do all the things they did, just with the content re-purposed for climate change?
In 2015 a group of activists made a start on this, putting together a Climate Declaration in 2016 for individuals and organisations to sign on to. In 2017 the Local Government Leaders’ Climate Change Declaration came out, and by March 2019 it had been signed by 59 mayors and regional council chairs – three-quarters of all mayors and chairs in the country. Nineteen are still to sign – some because their council hasn’t discussed it yet and a few because they are hostile to it. These include the West Coast Regional Council chair Bruce Smith, who chairs a council which made a submission opposing the creation of the Zero Carbon Bill, claiming that there is no proof of climate change being caused by human activity.
But with all the big cities except Hamilton signing, and a majority of the smaller ones, can we feel sanguine that those West Coast denialists will come round? Especially after the March 2019 extreme weather event which cut the tourist highway at Franz Josef for nearly two weeks, and spread waste from an old Fox village landfill over 70 km of coastline.
While the West Coast councillors are still working that one out, some councils have also signed up to a Climate Emergency declaration. So it seems like now is the time to start adding value to both Declarations by getting specific, and pressuring local bodies to “show us your plan” to reduce emissions at the local level. Also working with them in a constructive way to get to the goal we all desire – zero greenhouse gas emissions a.s.a.p. That’s how it seems to me, and it is certainly what is being advised by activists and analysts who are rightly sceptical of the ability of central government to deliver enough change, fast enough. They are pinning their hopes (and practice) on prefigurative actions to de-carbonise the world one district at a time and simultaneously, by re-localising and shrinking economic activity. Read Kevin Carson’s sensible take on what’s required at One Cheer- More or Less – for the Green New Deal.
This bottom-up, citizens’ movement approach, like the Nuclear Free Zone campaign, has almost always been better at delivering the desired results in the fastest and most democratic way. It is the level where we can get together with our fellow citizens and have the necessary constructive dialogue to come to agreement on the best ways forward. We can meet with local body politicians and staff and help move them in the right directions – and we can work with our neighbours, helping and caring for them just as we would in any other kind of emergency.