Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently addressed the UN General Assembly about the reality of climate change in the Pacific, and the threat inaction holds for the island nations. Maxine Jacobs reports for Asia Pacific Journalism that while climate and energy commentators welcome her leadership, they call for an even stronger “action” approach.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s challenge to United Nations members last month to reflect on the impact climate change is having on the Pacific has been welcomed by social justice advocates.
But they would like to see the rhetoric matched by even stronger action to give the world its best chance of coping with climate change.
The Prime Minister spoke of Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands as the Pacific’s most at risk nations which have contributed least to global emissions but are facing the full force of their consequences.
“Our actions in the wake of this global challenge remains optional, But the impact of inaction does not,” she told the UN.
“If my Pacific neighbours do not have the option of opting out of the effects of climate change, why should we be able to opt out of taking action to stop it?”
Ardern said that in the South Pacific there was a reality of rising sea levels, increases in extreme weather events and negative impacts on water supply and agriculture.
“For those who live in the South Pacific, the impacts of climate change are not academic, or even arguable.
“We can talk all we like about the science and what it means … but there is a grinding reality in hearing someone from a Pacific island talk about where the sea was when they were a child, and potential loss of their entire village as an adult.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s speech at the United Nations. Video: UN
Although New Zealand represents less than 0.2 percent of global emissions, the Prime Minister then vowed to “play our part” in continuing to decrease in emissions and support the global climate change battle.
Goals have been set of:
• 100 percent renewable energy generation by 2035;
• zero emissions by 2050;
• a halt on offshore oil and gas exploration permits;
• a green infrastructure fund to encourage innovation, and
• a 10-year plan to plan one billion trees.
“These plans are unashamedly ambitious [but] the threat climate change poses demands it.”
A few days before her address to the UN in New York, the Prime Minister announced a $100 million increase to its global climate finance – an increase from $200 million, which will be spread in $25 million blocks over four years.
The Prime Minister said the additional funding would focus on practical action, helping Pacific states to build resilience and adapt to climate change.
“The focus of this financial support is on creating new areas of growth and opportunity for Pacific communities. We want to support our Pacific neighbours to make transition to a low carbon economy without hurting their existing economic base.”
The Prime Minister said she planned to bring greater attention to the impact of climate change alongside Pacific leaders and ensure global awareness of the cost of inaction.
“We recognise our neighbours in the Pacific region are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
“We have a responsibility to care for the environment in which we live, but the challenge of climate change requires us to look beyond our domestic boarders.”
Communications accounts manager for the Ministry for the Environment, Karen Goldsworthy, says two thirds of the global climate funding would be going towards Pacific nations to help adapt to their warming climate.
“We recognise that New Zealand alone cannot fix the challenge climate change poses to our region: it is a global problem that requires a global solution.
“New Zealand will continue to work actively to contribute to an effective global response to climate change through which Pacific resilience improves … and lose work more widely to encourage ambition through our leadership.”
A global model
Renewable energy and climate change consultant Dr Bob Lloyd, a former director of energy studies at Otago University, says New Zealand’s commitment to climate change is a show of leadership to the rest of the world of what is achievable.
Lloyd called New Zealand a small-scale model of what can be achieved on a global scale, however this issue is one which cannot be resolved by one small nation.
“It’s up to countries like Australia, New Zealand, Europe and unfortunately the US to bring their emissions down.
“The big dilemma at the moment is that a lot of the poor countries want to increase their emissions and they’re not going to consider bringing their emissions down unless the big countries bring their emissions down first.
“The other onus is on the rich countries to actually help the poor countries come down, which means they need to transfer money to them to achieve their goals.”
Lloyd said the extra $100 million from New Zealand towards the global climate change fund was a good effort but would not have a huge impact. To achieve emissions reductions, developing countries would need trillions of dollars.
“The amounts of money which are needed just for the Pacific region – which are tiny compared to the rest of the world – are enormous,” he said.
Putting over ideas
Although Lloyd, a self-proclaimed pessimist, thinks the world would not be able to outrun climate change he does not want to “hamper people from trying”.
“Without some countries trying, then the poorer countries and other countries will give up completely, so I think it’s extremely good that Jacinda is putting these ideas over and they’re trying to help as much as possible.
“She’s doing a remarkable effort. It’s also enthusing government. I was pleasantly surprised at how much influence Jacinda and the Labour Party is having on both New Zealand and internationally.”
Dr Kevin Clements, the foundation professor of Otago University’s National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS) and current director of the Japan-based Toda Peace Institute, says the Prime Minister’s plea for climate change awareness has powerful emotional and normative appeal, but at the end of the day it is a numbers game.
“Every little bit helps. New Zealand’s voice on its own isn’t going to change Donald Trump or the behaviours of the major US multinational companies, but on the other hand it’s all part of creating a normative order which acknowledges the centrality of climate change and what it’s doing to us.”
Dr Clements says the Pacific is feeling the brunt of global emissions and has little capacity to do anything about it. However, the moral weight of New Zealand and the South Pacific can help larger nations become more proactive.
The Prime Minister advocating for climate change issues humanises her, says Dr Clements, but she needs to be stronger to be seen as a serious political leader on these issues.
“She really needs to make sure she’s coupling her soft power appeal and her own personal charisma with some hard-headed arguments and evidence based research so she is seen both as a wonderful human being but equally as a hard-headed negotiator on the issues that matter.”
Maxine Jacobs is a postgraduate student journalist on the Asia Pacific Journalism Studies course at AUT University.