We used to detonate atomic bombs among the Pacific peoples – now we drop weather bombs. Vanuatu lies in ruins. Aid workers arriving in Port Vila have already described the death toll and damage as catastrophic, and Vanuatu’s lands minister, Ralph Regenvanu, expects that much of the population – 266,000 people – will have been affected. Eight people are confirmed dead at time of writing, but more will almost certainly be reported as communications are re-established with the country’s many remote offshore islands. “This is the worst disaster to affect Vanuatu ever, as far as we know,” Regenvanu told media yesterday.
Everybody is blaming a Category Five tropical storm called Pam. But in fact, we all had a hand in Pam’s rampage across the Pacific, which also mangled Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. I drove my car just yesterday, and I probably will again today, as though nothing has happened. After all, it looks like New Zealand will get away pretty lightly – again. As usual, nobody – except bloggers and climate campaigners – will present Pam as the unqualified enfant terrible of climate change. But they will suggest the link, as already has Rachel Kyte, World Bank vice president and special envoy for climate change. You already know how this goes: “I don’t think I would say climate change caused (Cyclone) Pam, but I would say the fact is in the past three or four years we’ve seen category fives coming with a regularity we’ve never seen before. And that has some relationship with climate change. It is indisputable that part of the Pacific Ocean is much warmer today than in previous years, so these storms are intensifying.”
That’s fair comment. Wind speeds of up to 270 km/h have not so far been common – only Orson in 1989 and Monica in 2006 have matched her, but in terms of sustained wind speeds, Pam has hiked a furious new bar. At the bottom of it all lies some incontrovertible physics. Warmer air can hold more moisture – roughly four per cent for every 0.6ºC increment – one reason blizzards shut down New England cities in January. More moisture means more energy, higher wind speeds, more destruction. Those doing all they can to avoid action on climate change – governments, industries, corporations, business lobbies – will go on insisting that no link has been proven, much like the one the tobacco industry insists doesn’t exist between smoking and the premature death of its sales base.
But scientists are getting bolder in their findings, and more assertive about presenting them. In January, researchers published a paper that found 35 per cent of the deluge unleashed by Superstorm Sandy, the Atlantic Hurricane that killed a least 233 people in eight countries, was a consequence of climate change. And there, at the very least, lies one truth we cannot go on denying: such storms are not conjured by climate change, but it undoubtedly makes them very much worse.
New Zealand has lately donated between $14m and $12m in development aid to Vanuatu each year. Much of what that helped build is now rubble. Vanuatu must start over, beginning with $1m of emergency funding from us and AUS$5m from Australia. The Government would likely point to such largesse as nothing more than the compassion of a good Pacific neighbour, but while it’s happy to be seen bankrolling band aids for the symptoms of climate change, it cynically obfuscates action to ease the cause.
Come December, a New Zealand delegation will sit down in Paris at what commentators are calling our last, best chance to reach agreement on climate action. Our Climate Change Minister, Tim Groser, has been tight-lipped about the position they will take there – unsurprising, since Cabinet has yet to announce any post-2020 emissions commitment targets (the deadline for our national plan is the end of this month). But pre-2020, our commitment has looked less than total – a cut of just five per cent from 1990 levels – and a number of countries have called us out on it.
In 2012, Naderev Saño, lead climate negotiator for the Philippines, broke down midway through his address to the COP18 climate talks at Doha. Overwhelmed by the destruction of his homeland by the shrieking violence of typhoon Bopha: he begged for action: “I appeal to ministers: no more delays, no more excuses. Turn things around at Doha. Let 2012 be the year the world found its courage.” That was, instead, the year Aotearoa walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, even as climate bad boy Australia confirmed its re-commitment to what was the only binding climate game in town. In doing so, the National-led Government neatly escaped having to pay any penalties in the event of missed targets, which will likely be the case. Now, New Zealand is party instead to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an entirely voluntary proposition that provides the perfect set of eminently moveable goal posts and vertiginous playing field the Government much prefers.
Groser, who by now must be suffering OOS from having his fingers perpetually crossed behind his back, defends our climate position in artful language: in 2013, he insisted that our dismal five per cent target “demonstrates that New Zealand is doing its fair share to address global climate change.” In fact, Ministry for the Environment briefings show that the only way New Zealand might meet even this pitiful token is by buying cheap overseas “hot air” carbon credits at an estimated cost of $68m. Without them, we’re on track to blow out to a roughly 20 per cent increase in emissions – more than 130 million tonnes extra – by 2020, and a 50 per cent rout by 2050. Yet Groser must have been feeling lucky, because he went still further to claim the target “compares favourably with our traditional partners’ actions”, assuming that nobody would go away and check, thereby discovering that the UK and EU had actually committed to cuts of 30 per cent and 20 per cent respectively over the same period.
Aotearoa has become a pariah at climate talks, not least because it leads a camp seeking “opt-in, opt-out” provisions, and a ban on any legally-enforceable penalties should national targets be missed. It also seeks to have the warming effect of methane – one of New Zealand’s most voluminous pollutants – redefined so as to lessen our total emissions. It continues to seek exemption for agriculture, claiming – fatuously – that it is our role to “feed the world”, when in reality we barely figure in the grand scale of global food production rankings (we’re the largest global trader in dairy, but not the biggest producer by some margin). It insists that, given our preponderance of hydro power, there’s little more we can do to curtail energy emissions, as though our almost entirely fossil-fuelled land transport and industrial energy sectors were not, in fact, the fastest-growing sources of new emissions. As though this Government hadn’t borrowed billions for an orgy of motorway building. As though it hadn’t slashed spending on public transport, walking and cycling, even as it woed oil and gas companies with $8m of enticements last year.
Our delegates point also, to the fact that we have an emissions trading scheme. Well, yes we do, and it’s widely recognised as one of the most dysfunctional, ineffective and grossly unfair regimes to have been floated anywhere. It has repeatedly exempted farmers, who are responsible for nearly half of all New Zealand emissions, and will likely go on doing so until somebody summons the courage to start making them pay for their own pollution, as the forestry and energy sectors are already forced to do. Most significantly, it has manifestly failed to make the slightest dent in greenhouse emissions. This is the travesty the Government offered up as “New Zealand’s primary tool to help reduce New Zealand’s emissions and help New Zealand meet its international obligations” when it signed the Majuro Declaration for climate leadership in the Pacific in September 2013.
But of all our deceits around the climate table, the one that raises the most ire is our insistence that, because New Zealand contributes something like 0.15 per cent of global emissions, our response should be somehow commensurate until, as Groser has stated, “we can see more effective global action. Then we will increase the pace.” In other words; “you go first.” Breathtakingly, he told Lisa Owen late last year that he believed the key to success was “to get more countries to do stuff.” Until recently, Groser has been able to point to China and the U.S. and chant the same facile excuse that, so long as the world’s largest emitters had shown no commitment, we should feel no moral compunction ourselves. As though New Zealanders were not the fourth-highest per capita emitters on the planet.
But in November last year, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping announced a bold deal to slash their respective countries’ greenhouse gases. The U.S. has pledged to double its current reduction trajectory, to between 26 and 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 – on top of the 17 per cent reduction it’s already committed to before 2020. China has promised that its climate emissions will peak by 2030 (its dependence on coal-fired generation means it’s starting from the back of the grid). The EU has already adopted a new, higher target of 40 per cent reductions by 2030 that it will take to Paris.
It will be fascinating to see how the New Zealand Government responds to this gauntlet. The game is well and truly up: the last of its excuses has been whipped out from under it. Any further attempts to weasel out of meaningful binding reductions, to cynically sandbag our agricultural exports behind a wall of protectionism, to keep on denying our role and responsibility as a global citizen at this last, best chance for action, will be received very poorly.
New Zealand has a history of colonialism in the Pacific its copybook blotted by the annexation of Samoa, and its subsequent shameful treatment of Samoan independence fighters. Today, we see a new kind of colonialism, in which the interests, the welfare – even the survival – of our Pacific neighbours is still a matter of minor importance compared to those of the business interests that this Government believes are all that shore up our domestic economy. So it will slip another cheque inside a condolences card and send it to Vanuatu. Let’s hope that the Government has more stomach for this cynical climate colonialism than the voting public.
As I write this, people are being evacuated from coastal communities along the East Coast. Pam, and the superstorms that will inevitably follow, will draw ever closer, and ordinary New Zealanders will one day understand the agony of Vanuatu, and Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and finally behold our true place and predicament on this small, shared planet. Maybe then we can approach the climate table with our heads high, and our fingers uncrossed. Look our Pacific neighbours in the eye. Because we’re all in this together…