Perhaps it was unwise to expect a lot of last week's two-day Just Transitions Summit in New Plymouth.

Its genesis was the shock to the Taranaki oil and gas, engineering and local fine dining sectors of the government's decision last year not to issue any new offshore oil exploration permits.

The summit was offered as a concrete demonstration that this Labour-led government is committed to avoiding Rogernomics-style social and economic dislocation as it pursues transition to a low-carbon economy.

Judging by the army of Wellington bureaucrats in attendance – boosted by dozens of freely issued passes to environmental NGOs and E Tu union members – the summit was a one-off boon for Taranaki accommodation providers.


And in the tea breaks, at dinner and around the espresso kiosk serving coffee in paper cups, like-minded people with a fervent desire for climate change action made hopeful common cause.

Yet if the intent of the summit was either to advance a plan of action or to start constructive discussions between opposing views, it deserves a bare pass at best.

Structured to showcase consensus, the gathering erred on the side of staged discussions between the usual suspects rather than robust debate.

For example, where were the sessions on the knottiest problems facing farmers, who had been told a day earlier of new, challenging methane emissions reduction targets; or on the moral hazard conundrum that will put banks, insurance companies and politicians in the firing line when homeowners and businesses start facing uninsurable climate change-related losses?

Where was the honest discussion about the role that natural gas will continue to play in a transition that will last decades?

In a roomful of fellow travellers, the opportunity to advance stuck national conversations was lost, assuming it was sought in the first place.

However, there was one stand-out performance.

James and Suzy Amis Cameron's keynote address – widely derided as a "lecture from billionaires" because it questioned the future of animal protein as the backbone of this economy – was bang on for identifying perhaps the biggest threat facing global action on climate change: the deteriorating state of global politics.

Most media attention on the Camerons' talk amplified our national state of denial about the importance of shifting away from meat and dairy products as part of the global transition to a lower carbon future.

But Cameron's most truly chilling commentary related to a "dark political scenario" where the accumulating impacts of climate change can credibly be expected to uproot hundreds of millions of people displaced by rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and the conflict that will arise as a result.

"The chaos and the human suffering will be unfathomable and the political outcome will be intolerable," said Cameron. "It will be a ruthless future. It will be the end of democracy. It will be the end of peace. I can't bear to think that we're not doing everything that we can do to not leave that world to our children or our grandchildren."

Several hundred thousand refugees fleeing civil war and crop failure in Syria and North Africa had proven enough to threaten European democracies, with some countries returning to "the Dark Ages" under right-wing governments, said Cameron.

He is talking here about the return to global politics of fascism: the political cancer we thought the Second World War had quashed. It is on the rise again in countries like the US, Russia, UK, and other parts of the old Soviet-sphere Europe such as Hungary and Poland.

It gives comfort to theocracies in Saudi Arabia and Iran to kleptocracies such as Pakistan, North Korea or Uzbekistan.

It gives rise to extremists and to tragedies like the Christchurch mosque attacks, which seek to divide peaceful societies.

Variants exist in countries like China, where state control of personal freedoms is pervasive, but life is improving materially for hundreds of millions of people very quickly, offering a vision of successful autocracy in which the unpalatable choices required by a response to climate change might be more easily forced on a population accustomed to limited freedoms.

Naturally, this is all a bit depressing to think about. It's also perhaps a bit more important than a debate about whether or not New Zealand meat and dairy producers are right to assume that a small, moneyed elite will continue to pay high prices for animal protein grown in countries with the right 'brand story' to tell.

In a world where governments turn inwards, rejecting the good as well as the bad of globalisation, the challenges for a small, democratic trading nation will be greater than just trade access to lucrative markets.

It will be a battle for the values that underpin New Zealand society.

Unlike the apparent pointlessness of taking personal action on climate change, taking personal action to protect those values is within the gift of every citizen.

At a time when hope sometimes seems in short supply, championing decency, fairness, freedom of expression, and tolerance becomes as necessary a part of championing the interests of a small, democratic trading nation as seeking that next elusive free trade agreement.