With the new government gaining international infamy for its climate policy, for rangatahi Māori like Kaeden Watts, attending climate conferences is more important than ever.
Every year world leaders meet for the annual Conference of the Parties (Cop), the world’s most powerful climate crisis conference. Despite Cop being criticised for all sorts of things – like last year being sponsored by Coca-Cola, one of the world’s most polluting companies, and for being hosted in the oil-rich nation of the United Arab Emirates this year – it still has the important task of solving the ever-present and ever-worsening climate crisis. At this year’s Cop28 in Dubai there are big meetings where essentially all attendees are present, like when King Charles spoke at the opening ceremony, alongside many smaller occasions, such as when Tonga’s King Tupou VI presented to a room of only 30 people.
Heading along to many of Cop28’s events this year is 25-year-old Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāi Tūhoe uri Kaeden Watts, who works as Wellington City Council’s principal adviser for climate change adaptation and engagement. While he has attended previously as part of New Zealand’s official delegation, this year Watts is there as a member of a special indigenous group convened by the United Nations climate agency. This is Watts’ fourth Cop, and he says across them, “9.5 times out of 10 I’m the only Māori person in the room, and I’d say 9 times out of 10 I’m the only indigenous person.”
“Climate change is the continued colonisation of our people,” says Watts. “In my head, colonisation, capitalism, overconsumption, all these different -isms are the things that have put Māori in this position. If capitalism and colonisation got us in this position, I therefore can’t believe that they’ll also have the solutions to the problem.” Instead, he believes decolonisation and reindigenisation are the sustainable solutions the world is searching for.
Watts says he keeps returning to Cop because if he didn’t, the rangatahi Māori voice would likely not be represented. Ensuring the continued presence of the indigenous perspective in these spaces is integral to holding governments to account, both at home and internationally – a crucial act given that indigenous peoples feel the effects of the climate crisis first and foremost plus most brutally, says Watts. Those effects include loss of additional land and, with it, culture, community and knowledge, alongside further migration away from their tūrangawaewae.
When indigenous peoples attend events like Cop, “it’s definitely not like you come here and all the doors are open. They are very much closed, and you need to fight, fight, fight, or find back ways and back alleys,” he says. It’s hard for Māori to attend in the first place, he says, as not only is it expensive to get there, but to attend you must be accredited and be able to take between two and four weeks off for the conference. New Zealanders who aren’t part of our official delegation, like Watts this year, must pursue sponsorship from their communities and corporates to attend Cop because the government doesn’t support them to attend – and that is not exclusive to the new government.
Speaking of our new government, it’s impact has been felt strongly at this year’s climate conference, says Watts. Compared to previous years, at Cop28, he has noticed a significant change in how New Zealand has conducted itself and how other nations perceive us. Under the last government, New Zealand was considered a leader in this space. To prove we were a big player who took sustainability and our sustainable image very seriously, often we’d quickly come out with big announcements other nations would end up emulating, says Watts. But “that could not be further from what’s happened at Cop28”.
Watts believes there’s a perception among Cop28 attendees that New Zealand has regressed on its climate action recently. “In the space of a couple of weeks, we’ve managed to completely drag our sustainable image through the mud on the international stage,” he says. New Zealand even picked up the sarcastic award “fossil of the day” earlier this week for reinstating offshore gas and oil exploration. The award is handed out by Climate Action Network International daily at Cop to countries deemed to be “doing the most to achieve the least” or “doing their best to be the worst”. Our nation picked up one of these awards last year also, for delaying progress on a framework for high-emitting, wealthy countries to financially support lower-emitting nations.
Not only has the new government gained international infamy for its policy, but its climate change minister, Simon Watts (no relation), has missed more than half of the conference – he only left for Dubai yesterday. (Former minister James Shaw is representing the country in Watts’ absence, but as a member of the opposition he has no power to negotiate on New Zealand’s behalf.)
While Aotearoa has lagged behind, our Pacific brothers and sisters are taking the lead at Cop28, says Watts. “You’ve had Sāmoa, Tonga and Tuvalu all doing incredible stuff,” he says, which includes supporting a treaty to phase out fossil fuels. “I think it’s very rich that New Zealand likes to call itself a leader in the Pacific,” he adds, “when it’s our [Pacific] brothers and sisters who are actually taking hard stands and showing the strongest leadership.”
Given the perception of our new government, Watts believes that his involvement, and that of the other rangatahi Māori Cop28 attendees, is as crucial as ever – if not more so. “It’s really important that you have rangatahi Māori here who can be in these negotiation rooms as well to be like, hang on, XYZ is missing, all these priorities from te ao Māori, from indigenous peoples are missing.”
Even if New Zealand doesn’t make any big announcements, as is anticipated, once the minister arrives the country will likely still sign up for some sustainable solutions at Cop28. What Kaeden Watts believes is most important about the conference is that what New Zealand signs up for is communicated back home – and once he returns to Aotearoa he’ll be going hard on that mahi. “It seems like a really long way away, what’s happening over here, but in actuality, the signing of a pen here can have huge implications for what the future of Aotearoa looks like.”
This is Public Interest Journalism supported by NZ On Air.