The issue of climate change needs to rise above the bickering of party politics, according to Government Minister and Green Party co-leader James Shaw.
Speaking to The Front Page podcast in the aftermath of the damage caused by the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, the Climate Change Minister voiced anger at decades of political inaction.
“We’ve known about climate change since at least the late 1980s,” he tells The Front Page.
“We established a UN framework in 1991 when I was barely out of high school. And yet, we’ve taken so long to get to the start line, that [we’ve lost] the time we had available to take a different course of action and prevent this from happening.
“We gave away our window of opportunity and we are now dealing with the consequences.”
The hope at the end of the recent string of dire weather events is that they now galvanise politicians to work together on policies that can help protect New Zealanders from the impact of future catastrophes of this scale.
But that’s easier said than done.
While most politicians now agree that something needs to be done, what exactly that entails depends on which political party you ask.
Act Party leader David Seymour, for instance, recently expressed the belief that our climate change response needs to shift from mitigation to adaption, arguing that New Zealand can’t change the climate.
Shaw, on the other hand, argues that this simply isn’t true.
“We can’t stop trying to reduce our emissions,” says Shaw.
“We actually have to double down on that. If we say, ‘Oh, it’s too late to reduce our emissions and we have to switch all our efforts to adapting to the effects of climate change,’ that’s kind of like saying: I’m going to bail out my house, but I’m not going to fix the roof from letting water in’. That just means you’re always bailing water.”
Shaw compares the focus on adaption over mitigation to a form of climate denialism.
“It’s not outright denial. It’s now about delay or diversion. But it’s the same stuff. It’s what I would call predatory delay.”
The Act Party isn’t the only political force on a different track from the Greens.
Shaw’s own coalition partner, Labour, recently extended the fuel subsidy amid the cost-of-living crisis – a move that essentially incentivises the use of fossil fuels.
While Shaw defended the track record of this Government as doing “more for the climate in five years than the previous 30 years of governments before that”, the fuel subsidy decision did not sit well with him.
“I’ve expressed my exasperation at subsidising fossil fuels and, in fact, extending a fossil fuel subsidy the same week that Auckland was flooding. That’s just underwriting the root cause of climate change during a moment when climate-related events are causing hundreds of people to lose their homes and four people to lose their lives. I just think that’s wrong. And I don’t think we should do that.”
Shaw says there are better long-term decisions that can be made to ease the cost of living for New Zealanders.
“The more we insulate people’s houses, the less energy they use and the lower their household bills. Also, solar power is the cheapest form of energy ever created by the human race. So, the more we get solar onto people’s roofs and battery packs into their garages, the cheaper their household energy bills.”
Shaw says an approach like this could also improve our resilience against weather events in the longer term.
“Tens of thousands of homes have been without power as a result of Cyclone Gabrielle. If even every third or fourth of those homes had rooftop solar, then everyone on those streets could have had a hot shower.”
Shaw says that’s a failure of imagination and that taking action on climate change comes at a cost to households and the economy.
“The solutions to both reducing emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change can actually be the things that reduce our household costs and make us better off.”
Bringing big ideas like this to life will require collaboration between numerous political parties, given the long-term commitment it will require.
On the topic of cross-party collaboration, Shaw and National’s Todd Muller recently revived negotiations over how to help people living on flood plans, cliff edges or by the coast.
Shaw is confident that they’ll get something across the line, particularly at a time when many New Zealanders remain concerned about where their homes are located.
“The challenges we face are too big for petty partisan politics and I have no time for it. Time is too short and the scale of this is too great. And so, I’ll work with anyone in good faith who is up for trying to work out a solution to all of this. And we’ve also got to recognise the government will eventually change.”
The upcoming election is set to be incredibly tight, with smaller parties likely to determine a coalition government.
So would Shaw ever consider working with the National Party if the terms offered were aligned with Green Party policies?
“I cannot find a scenario in which if we had a choice between working with Labour and working with National, in which the Green Party membership would decide there would be a better outcome for the climate by working with National,” says Shaw.
“Certainly, we’ve had our frustrations with Labour and I think they should have gone much further and much faster on the climate crisis, but they much more directionally aligned with us.” Shaw also notes that National has historically shown an unwillingness to support climate change legislation put forward.
“While National has made some encouraging noises about out long-term goals and they’ve signed up to the framework of the Zero Carbon Act and the Climate Change Commission, they’ve also voted against and argued against pretty much every single climate change policy that we’ve put in place without providing an alternative.”
The recent climate-driven events have brought our politicians closer to a consensus, but whether this materialises into concrete policies that look at both short- and long-term solutions is yet to be seen – and Shaw knows better than to make predictions on what might or might not come to fruition.
“I stopped making predictions about the future, the day that Donald Trump got elected,” he says.
“But I do know that in Australia, the floods and fires [they experienced] changed the way people thought and felt about climate change over there. And that had an impact on the election.”
Listen to the full episode of The Front Page podcast to hear Minister Shaw elaborate on all these issues and more.