As the Government shapes the face of climate change policy for decades to come, a range of leading Kiwi experts have written about the need for what's called a "careful revolution". In the new book, A Careful Revolution: Towards a Low-Emissions Future, they make the case for a just transition that strikes the balance between urgency and care. Its editor, Auckland policy researcher Dr David Hall, talked to Herald science reporter Jamie Morton.
First off, some background: what brought this book about?
The big gap in the climate conversation has been the politics. But it's the politics that will, or won't, make climate action happen. So the aim of the book was to explore these politics from a range of perspectives. And these politics are complicated, because they're necessarily disruptive. Not as disruptive as runaway climate change, of course, but disruptive nevertheless, especially for people whose livelihoods are tied up in the high-emissions economy. This is why we need a duty of care. We need to be attentive to the negative aspects of the low-emissions transition, so that we can speed up the positive aspects. Hence the title, A Careful Revolution.
You've described climate change action as a "matter of momentum rather than precipices". Can you elaborate on that?
For years political leaders have been telling us that this is "our last chance to do something about climate change". We hear a different version of this today when people misconstrue last year's IPCC report by saying there's 11 years to act, or else we face "the end of humanity". But in the 2030s and beyond, there'll still be people around, trying to deal with this mess. We need to help them as much as possible. Every emission reduction today makes tomorrow's challenge a little easier and less expensive. Every policy plan puts another option on the table for decision makers, to put into action when the timing is right. These are things we can do now for future generations, and also for our future selves. I mean I'm still planning to be around in the 2030s.
Further to that, the Greens' Julie Anne Genter has likened the required response to the climate change crisis to that of World War II. Is this a correct or helpful analogy?
Metaphors like war, disease, emergency – they all partially work, because climate change is such a complex, all-encompassing problem. They capture bits of the climate challenge – but they don't capture other bits, and they also open doors to things we might regret. War is divisive. Emergencies are scary and often undemocratic. Disease makes us think of cures rather than causes, like planting trees instead of reducing emissions.
I like climate crisis, because, in ancient Greek, crisis means "decision", which is exactly what we need right now. Our present sense of crisis is the growing feeling that we can't delay our decisions any longer. Also, obviously, given the name of the book, I think that "revolution" is fitting. The change that's coming is going to be on par with the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, partly because it needs to reverse some of their effects. So if revolution makes sense in that context, it makes sense of what's coming over the next few decades.
In the book, co-author and Victoria University Māori studies lecturer Associate Professor Maria Bargh, calls for a "tika transition". Why is tikanga Māori important in the context of climate change?
It's a matter of justice, first and foremost. If this is going to be a just transition, then it needs to be a tika transition too. Because ignoring tikanga Māori, or not involving Māori in the decision-making process, means doubling-down on historical injustices that New Zealand already lives with. On the other hand, if Māori are involved in shaping the transition, then there's a real opportunity to redesign the economy in a way that reflects the principle of Treaty partnership. I mean, how often do you get a chance to redesign your energy systems, your transport systems, your landscapes and everything else that needs doing? It's really a unique opportunity to do right by te Tiriti of Waitangi.
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Similarly, NZ Super Fund chief investment officer Matt Whineray has a fascinating chapter that looks at climate change as a market failure. What hope can we place in economic levers like climate finance?
I don't think New Zealanders realise the level of change brewing in the finance sector. That's why I asked Matt to write a chapter, because he's really in the thick of it.
There's this saying now that climate risk is financial risk. Insurers, pension funds and sovereign wealth funds are especially leading the way on this, because they've got long time horizons. The hard realities of climate change are entering their field of vision, and they're starting to act rationally to reduce their liabilities. I mean, it's a tragedy that the finance sector hasn't been more pre-emptive in this, by trying to avert climate change, but now that the risks are closing in, things are shifting.
Potentially, the financial system could move very fast on this. It isn't weighed down in steel and concrete like the real economy. Basically, it's just a matter of changing investment decisions. That can happen very quickly and it can become self-reinforcing, if other investors follow. Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, warned about this as "transition risk", the risk that investors all suddenly see the writing on the wall and flee from carbon-heavy assets, like fossil fuel reserves, at the same time. This could completely destabilise the global financial system. So the challenge is to start creating a low-emissions economy for investors to shift into. That's the upside of climate finance: it's about investing in the new world.
Leading Victoria University researcher Dr Judy Lawrence, discusses adaptation and mitigation, and the complexities inherent within. It seems we're only just now seeing councils taking the Government to task for being left to make many of these tough decisions themselves. Why has it been left so long that we now have an "adaptation gap" to address, on top of serious emissions reductions?
Adaptation is really hard. Up until recently, it's been about preparing for problems that haven't properly arrived yet. Now that those problems are arriving, like sea level rise, people are being forced to act. But, as Judy writes in her chapter, there's often this tendency to fall back on business-as-usual thinking. We dig in our heels, or we try to recreate a world that's familiar to us. That's totally understandable, but it won't necessarily lead to the best outcomes. At worst, we might just end up reproducing our vulnerabilities.
The other big problem is the perennial one of money. Who pays? A lot of councils are cash-strapped, so there are real questions about how to fund new infrastructure, and how to support communities when disaster strikes. Perhaps the easiest thing is simply to build climate resilience into all future expenditure. Judy and [fellow Victoria University academic] Jonathan Boston have also proposed a climate adaptation fund, like an EQC for climate change. Above all else, though, Judy says it'll require new ways of thinking and doing. And maybe that's the hardest thing.
This year, we've seen our young take to the streets in anger over climate change and it's good to see the intergenerational aspect addressed in a chapter. Indeed, the book opens with a quote from this youth movement's 15-year-old heroine, Greta Thunberg: "We have not come here to beg world leaders to care, we have come to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not." Has the voice of tomorrow's generation, which will reap the whirlwind, been missing for too long from mainstream discourse?
Well maybe. I mean, Generation Zero were young once, and they got the Zero Carbon Bill into Parliament, which is no small feat.
I think that what's really happening is not just a shift in who has a voice, but a shift in what the general public are willing to hear. Greta Thunberg has had a catalysing effect, no doubt. She is an incredible political orator.
But it's also true that many people were finally ready to listen, in a way that they weren't for earlier generations of climate activists. I actually think that the IPCC Special Report on 1.5C was a crucial shock to the system: it mobilised groups like Extinction Rebellion, but it also made the public more receptive to their messages. And people are noticing the effects of climate change too – that's also making a difference.
Something else that might also get lost amid calls for rapid decarbonisation: ensuring that climate policy takes people with it. Why are Victoria University climate researcher Professor Dave Frame's points so crucial here?
If we don't bring people along with the low-emissions transition, then they're going to revolt. And if they revolt, then climate action will get stalled or reversed. That leaves us only slightly better off than no action at all.
Dave has a great analogy in the book about a custard square. If the custard topping pushes too hard and fast, and the biscuit base stays where it is, then you get shear and strain. You get social division. But that's no good if you're trying to transform the economy, because you need the whole custard square to move together. So climate politics involves this delicate dance. We need ambition, or we won't move anywhere. But if ambition runs away on its own – without coalition-building, without solidarity – then we end up with a custardy, biscuity mess.
In the same vein, you outline a "duty of care" that successive governments have arguably failed at. Might the answer lie in an independent Climate Change Commission, like that which New Zealand is establishing?
Actually, not directly. The duty of care is a fiduciary duty, so it's a duty that falls upon those who act on behalf of others. This is something that political representatives do: they act on behalf of their electorates to create law. But the role of the Climate Change Commission is not to make law. It is to provide independent expert advice to law-makers. It certainly has duties in this respect, to make sure that its advice is based on solid evidence and analysis. But the final responsibility for legislation and policy choices quite rightly falls upon Parliament. We're in in a representative democracy after all.
The real issue is reimagining the duty of care in an age of climate crisis. How do we protect the interests of others once we recognise climate-related risks? This isn't only a question for elected officials, but for other fiduciaries too: directors, insurers, fund managers, boards of governance, and so on. For decades now, these decision makers have been careless about climate change. They've created infrastructure that locks us into high-emissions lifestyles. They've created future liabilities. But there's a wind of change happening, which is cause for hope.
Can you summarise this book in a haiku?
A duty of care
To the future and present
To do us all good.
A Careful Revolution: Towards a Low-Emissions Future; BWB Texts, RRP: $14.99