Insights from New Zealand’s unexpected journey on climate change

Lakes for web v2The unexpected journey

As “The Hobbit” premiered in late 2012, New Zealand’s worthy climate change negotiators journeyed from Wellington, the Middle of Middle-earth, to Doha seeking the hidden treasure of an ambitious global climate change agreement. Guarding that treasure was the dragon of national self-interest, fuelled by the global fear of economic disadvantage.

Before the assembly, New Zealand declined a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, opting instead to take a yet-undecided and non-binding 2020 target under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. New Zealand was not alone; it joined major emitters including the US, Canada, Japan and the Russian Federation.

For “clean, green” New Zealand, this was a break from precedent and a surprise to many observers. Environmentally, the impact will depend on the government’s ultimate 2020 target. We are still waiting for that announcement. Legally, the only check on New Zealand’s performance will be international reporting and the power of public opinion. Time will tell.

Building on the Doha outcome, the June 2013 round of climate negotiations in Bonn was hardly a springboard to swift and ambitious global action. The negotiations remain bogged down in the politics of process. The International Energy Agency even reminded delegates that current policies will deliver a projected temperature increase of 3.6 to 5.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and identified a series of energy-sector solutions available at zero net economic cost using today’s technology.  Yet the action we need is just not happening.

Why has this become so hard?

Perhaps New Zealand’s Kyoto decision, taken against the backdrop of political pressure, the growing body of climate change research and recent extreme weather events, offers insights for the global journey ahead.

Unlike “The Hobbit,” the climate change negotiations are not about good versus evil. They are about choices and consequences in meeting basic human needs. Currently, the need to reduce emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate change is getting swamped by the fear that countries’ growth aspirations will not be met and countries must compete for insufficient entitlements to thrive.

Presumably the New Zealand government sought to safeguard New Zealand’s needs. The popular argument is that New Zealand will bear a disproportionate cost and set the wrong precedent if it commits legally to ambitious mitigation when others do not and it is too small to make a difference.

The problem is that most individuals, businesses and countries on the planet can apply that same argument while the ice sheets melt, weather patterns get more extreme, populations become more vulnerable to famine and drought and we continue to wait for consensus on a treaty.  We all feel too small to fix this problem. Unless we are vigilant, “We can’t do this alone” becomes “We won’t do anything yet.” Doing nothing on climate change is like environmental credit card spending with a whopping interest rate; the bill will inevitably come due across the global economy for generations to come.

The heart of the matter

The bottom line is that human-induced climate change is very real and very serious. All emission reductions help. Practical solutions to reduce emissions can benefit the environment, human health, energy security and the economy. Timing matters. Global inaction is already closing the door to the possible futures we would prefer. Since 2007, the negotiations have delivered an Action Plan, an Accord, Agreements, a Platform and a Gateway. What is still missing is a practical pathway to stabilization that will meet people’s needs.

Therefore, what matters most right now is not which agreement countries are in, but what people actually do. We can start by asking the question, “What future do I want and how can I help now?” Everyone has a sphere of influence over emissions and everyone can help.

We just have to shift our thinking.

Think of reducing emissions as an act of liberation, not regulation. Think of it as something we need – like our next breath. Think of it as an act of kindness – a precious gift to our loved ones. Think of it as a service – how can we help someone else in need? Think of it as an adventure – where will we find our next emission reduction? Think of it as a sport – how much faster can we reduce emissions? Think of it as an investment with immense dividends – the potential that our children will inherit.

We can choose whatever image speaks to our heart and make a start because we want to, even if we have no idea how we will reach our destination or how many are travelling with us.

Alongside taking personal responsibility, we can demand ambition and accountability from both governments and producers. We can advocate for emission reduction goals that are robust and supported by policy. Globally, countries fear potential trade repercussions from inadequate climate change policies. Informed producers and consumers exercising their power of choice will be a serious force for change.

Above all, new dialogue and political action should build globally to support meeting people’s fundamental needs by addressing climate change. First, people can learn more about climate change impacts and solutions. The Climate Reality Project offers information and presentations ( Second, governments, businesses and researchers can work together to stimulate global investment in lower-emission, more resilient development built on a conception of growth that respects environmental limits and prioritizes universal quality of life. Third, people can find new and creative ways to lead by example and mobilise political will to shift our course. Fourth, voters can make this a core election issue for governments. Fifth, governments can consult on national low-emission development and adaptation strategies that will deliver the kind of future humanity would actually want.

Building on this process, the international climate change negotiations can more easily shift their focus from defending entitlements and deflecting responsibility toward facilitating cooperative action.  We are interconnected and interdependent, and ultimately none will thrive unless we all do.

Our climate change journey can still be one of hope and opportunity. Perhaps along the way we will discover that we are worthy of the parting words from the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins: “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

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