New Zealand’s Climate Reality: My speech in Town Hall in April 2013

Climate Reality Logo Small 3On 29 April 2013, I gave a public Climate Reality presentation in the Council Chambers in Wellington Town Hall.  The presentation was supported by Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council and Sustainability Trust.  Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown opened the presentation, and Dr James Renwick from Victoria University contributed his technical expertise to the session on questions and answers.  I am very grateful for everyone’s support.

Below are the speech notes that were my personal contribution to the core presentation designed by former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore under The Climate Reality Project.

I see a need for us to start a conversation. This conversation is a courageous conversation. It is a conversation about how we can meet the needs of New Zealanders by taking action on climate change. I believe that if we pass up the opportunities that are in front of us today, we will seriously regret that loss. After nearly 20 years of working on these issues, I have never been more concerned than I am today about the choices that we are making without being conscious of their true cost. I have also never been more certain – or more excited – about how much we stand to gain by seizing these opportunities and how important it is for us to do more now.

Look at where we stand right now. New Zealand is facing a carbon-constrained future with an emissions-intensive economy that is heavily dependent on tourism, agriculture, forestry and shipping, all of which are vulnerable to climate impacts.  While we say we are willing to do our fair share, New Zealand’s gross emissions have increased 22.1% between 1990 and 2011. Including forestry with full carbon stock accounting (which is what the atmosphere sees), our net emissions have increased 88%. Those figures exclude our international transport fuels, which increased 39% between 1990 and 2011. Our per capita emissions in 2010 were the 5th highest among developed countries. We are currently relying on forest growth to offset our emissions, but we are facing a major harvesting cycle in the coming decades.  We have failed to adapt our emissions trading scheme to changing conditions and we have lost a meaningful price on emissions in our economy. Alongside growing land-use conversions from forestry to agriculture, we are increasing investment in Roads of National Significance and oil and gas exploration.   

If we know that climate change is a very serious problem, and we know that there are solutions available with today’s technology, and we know that these solutions offer new economic opportunities and benefits for human health and the environment, then why isn’t New Zealand doing more to reduce its emissions?

I think that here in New Zealand, we are trapped in myths of our own making. While there are many, perhaps the most powerful myth of all is this one: “We are too small to make a difference.” This is not a myth of denial, but a myth of apathy. What we may not realise is that everyone feels too small to make a difference. I have heard the same argument from the US auto industry – why should the auto industry have to bear a cost when it can’t fix the problem?

The reality is that we as New Zealanders are not too small to make a difference. The world needs all the emission reductions we can make, and it doesn’t matter if those reductions come from large emitters or small emitters. New Zealand happens to be both. Our national emissions are small, but our per capita emissions are high. New Zealand has a proud history of showing global leadership and innovation, and of doing the unexpected. I am convinced New Zealand can do it with climate change as well. New Zealand’s potential sphere of influence over emissions is much greater than we may recognise.

What New Zealand is missing at the moment is a vision for the kind of low-emission future that will allow us to thrive environmentally, economically and socially. In the UN climate change negotiations, Parties have recommended creating national low-emission development strategies. New Zealand has not taken this on board, but I am wondering if that might actually be a really good idea.

I have worked on both a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme (ETS). While they are different in their purest form, these days the difference has become blurred. We can design a tax that works like trading, we can design trading that works like a tax and there are endless hybrids in between. I have reached the conclusion that in actuality, the “what” doesn’t matter as much as the “why.” And that is where New Zealand is struggling.

If we think of the economy as a complex piece of music, then an ETS is the soundboard that we use for mixing it. We can tweak the treble or the bass, augment one line and tone another one down, and correct a note that is out of tune. But first we need to know what kind of music we are making.

We have lost sight of why we are using our ETS because we do not have a common vision for the kind of low-emission economy we want to create for New Zealand. Do we want domestic emission reductions or not? How much do we want to rely on forestry and agriculture to produce our GDP and our export revenue? Do we want to drive investment changes by our industries or shelter our industries from investment changes? Do we care where the changes take place or do we want to let the market decide? Do we care how the costs get distributed across emitters, producers, consumers and taxpayers? Do we want a low price of power or a high one, and for whom, and why? Do we want to raise revenue or not? If we raise revenue, how do we want to return it to the people?

The architecture of the NZ ETS is effective, but a soundboard is useless if we don’t have a vision for the music we are creating. Is our vision classical, hip hop, jazz, R&B or techno? At this point in time, not only are we not clear what kind of music we are making, but by withdrawing from the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, we have just unplugged the ETS soundboard from the electrical socket.

Do we think we might be ready now to have that courageous conversation? Do we really want to wait any longer?

Perhaps we could start by talking about what we want our beautiful country to look like. How do we want to meet our people’s needs in the next 10, 20 and 30 years? How might we shape the development of our stationary energy, transport, agriculture, forestry water and waste sectors in an integrated way – looking at how they interact with each other – to deliver that future? Perhaps if we took the time to develop this vision so it was widely shared across people and political parties, we wouldn’t have this problem of boom-and-bust policy cycles that are creating so much investment uncertainty and holding us back.

You probably came here expecting me to tell you what you should do about climate change. Well, the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t stand in your shoes and I don’t know what you should do. Globally, we have spent over 20 years arguing about what we should do and we aren’t getting anywhere. So instead, I am going to ask you a different question. A very simple question.

What do you WANT to do?

You see, my experience suggests that no one will be able to make us reduce our emissions, but when we decide that we want to do this, when we see that this actually meets our needs, we will. This is about shifting our thinking.

We can learn a lot from how we responded to the drought this year in Wellington. We got early warnings that we would be more vulnerable to drought while our storage system was being upgraded. And maybe there were some people who started taking precautions. But we didn’t seriously pay attention to this issue as a city until we only had 20 days of water. And at that point, when the call went out for urgent action, we all pulled together. It didn’t matter if we were big or small water users. We all helped in whatever way we could to save as much water as we could, whether it was by taking shorter showers, or changing how we washed our dishes, or not cleaning our police cars, or not watering our parks and sports fields. We became acutely aware of how much water we had been wasting without realising it, and how easy it would be to use our water more intelligently. All those actions by individuals added up and bought us the time that we needed until the rain started again. While we were lucky this time and the adjustment wasn’t really painful, it could have been even more gentle if we had started earlier. But this experience shows us that we can change when we decide that we want to.

Can you imagine what would have happened instead if we had followed the path of the climate change negotiations? We would have started by trying to reach consensus across the entire city on legally binding, short, medium and long-term targets for reducing our water consumption in order to lower our risk of running out of water over the next 100 years to 50%. We would then have adjusted the target based on the estimated economic cost of that target per litre of water in Wellington compared to that of our trade competitors in other parts of the world. And then we would have tried to find an equitable way to allocate water entitlements on the basis of how much water people were consuming before and after 1990, whether they qualified as rich or poor people, and how much water they should be allowed to consume in the future based on how much we thought they deserved it. Finally, we would have designed a system for monitoring, reporting and verifying our water consumption so that we could punish noncompliance by free riders. And we all know what would have happened – we would have run out of water!

This is exactly what we are doing right now in the climate negotiations. I wish I was joking. And it is not serving us. We are at a crisis point where we need to get down to the business of helping each other to reduce emissions so they can peak globally by 2020 and decline thereafter.

If you decide that you want to do something as an individual, what can you do?

First, you can join the courageous conversation. When you are at a dinner party or reading letters to the editor and someone blames climate change on solar activity, or suggests that temperatures have not increased since 1998, provide an alternative view and point them toward a reliable source of accurate information. Good resources are the Reality Drop initiative from The Climate Reality Project (www.RealityDrop.org) and Skeptical Science (www.SkepticalScience.com). Use your social media networks to share scientific updates, express your personal concern and raise a call for action.

Second, you can deepen your personal commitment. Identify opportunities to reduce the emissions that you generate directly by your daily activities, or indirectly by the goods and services that you buy. Your influence as a consumer exercising the power of choice can be greater and more immediate than that of complex trade negotiations. Ask yourself what steps you are ready to take to reduce your consumption of electricity, natural gas and transport fuels, generate your own renewable energy, reduce your waste, modify your diet and buy fewer goods that you may not really need.

Third, you can demand change from your leaders. Our leaders are elected as our representatives, and the power they wield is our power. They need to know that it matters to us what they do about climate change, and that we will cast our votes accordingly. Al Gore reminds us that “Changing laws is even more important than changing light bulbs,” and even more importantly, “Political will is a renewable resource.”

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This is the time for each of us to look deep into our heart and ask, “What kind of future do I want, and how can I help now?”

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