Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsNovember 4, 2021

If climate change is a new ‘nuclear-free moment’, will NZ abandon the Pacific as it did then?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

New Zealand’s nuclear-free moment came at the exclusion and expense of our Pacific neighbours. Our climate change moment is heading the same way.

There will always be those who say it is too difficult. That we are too small, and that pollution and climate change are the price of progress. They are wrong. We will take climate change seriously, because my government will be driven by principle and not expediency and opportunity and not fear… This is my generation’s nuclear-free moment, and I am determined that we will tackle it head on. – Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern delivered these words at the 2017 Labour campaign launch, a month before her ascent to New Zealand’s top job. Flanked by posters of Norman Kirk, David Lange and Helen Clark, the messaging was clear: here was another principled Labour leader who would make a difference.

The nuclear-free moment she referred to has a special place in New Zealand national identity and myth-making. Today, New Zealand’s nuclear-free stance is eulogised as a David and Goliath struggle, a hard-won moral victory. In this story, a passionate public, championed by such figures as Kirk and Lange, refused to be bullied into giving up their principles, even when faced with French terrorism and American threats. We are told that thanks to their courage, New Zealand deplores nuclearism and refuses its presence in our territorial waters to this day.

Most New Zealanders remember this anti-nuclear victory in the same way it was won, with the exclusion of the Pacific Islands. More specifically, most New Zealanders ignore the most vital strand of the anti-nuclear movement – The Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific – and conveniently forget that in 1985, Australia and New Zealand sold the Pacific out. Such remembrance is especially ironic given the Pacific was where the struggle was largely staged and whose people New Zealanders were supposedly fighting alongside.

What happened in that moment echoes the present one, but probably not in the way Ardern envisaged when she drew the comparison. That is because, to date, New Zealand’s climate policy has been similarly narrow and unambitious. We are failing to meet our own targets and are at risk of violating international conventions. So, as Cop26 proceeds, New Zealand must rapidly scale up its ambition or risk selling out once again on core political promises. We are at an inflection point, and the Pacific is watching.

Nuclear testing and the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement

Between 1946 and 1996, France, the United States and Britain conducted approximately 350 nuclear tests in the Pacific. Over time, opposition grew and became especially strong in the form of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement (NFIP). Established in Suva in 1975, the NFIP was a decentralised, grassroots collection of groups opposed to the colonisation and nuclearisation of the Pacific. Loosely coordinated with a conference every three years, the NFIP was diverse and attracted a wide range of supporters: Indigenous activists and environmentalists, church figures and politicians, peace protestors and trade unionists. Like the green, women’s and civil rights movements, many different actions could contribute to the vision for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (and often there was disagreement over the right path to take). The movement peaked in 1983 at a conference in newly independent Vanuatu, whose new prime minister Reverend Walter Lini was himself a member.

In 1980, South Auckland’s Ōtara became home to its very own NFIP organisation, the Pacific People’s Anti-Nuclear Action Committee (PPANAC). Led by Hilda Halkyard-Harawira, the group’s role was twofold: “to raise the Nuclear Free and independent Pacific issue within Māori circles; and to give an indigenous perspective of the anti-nuclear issue within the predominantly Pākehā Peace Movement.” PPANAC marked the first consolidated Māori effort in the movement and unsurprisingly it took on the character of Ōtara itself: part self-determination, part resistance in Auckland’s Māori and Pacific heartland.

Excerpt From Te Hui Oranga o te Moananui a Kiwa pamphlets (Image: Supplied)

A stubborn refusal to disconnect social justice issues within Aotearoa from the group’s anti-nuclear and pro-independence Pacific message meant addresssing the realities of life in Otara. PPANAC called out police for “overkill” and “random arrests of young Māori and Pacific Island youths”. In part, confronting Ōtara meant confronting privileged Pākehā, including those within the peace movement. Many traditional peace protestors had not considered the contradictions or racism within their own movements. The war was on alright, but now rather than later, in Otara as well as O’ahu.

Local youth provided “Some Maori Thoughts on Peace”:

Some people have said that the threat of the bomb has pulled us all together, indigenous and nonindigenous people. This is a very naïve attitude. Indigenous people have been fighting the little bombs ever since the first foreigners came ashore. An indigenous person does not give up struggle for land, culture and survival to be over-awed by the threat of a big bomb. That would indeed be a luxury. Indigenous people have been facing the possibility of extinction and human degradation over 145 years. The NFIP movement is not necessarily just anti nuclear, anti military bases, anti superpower domination; it is also pro the land, pro aroha ki te whenua, pro self-determination and pro independence.

In 1982 PPANAC held the first Te Hui Oranga o Te Moananui a Kiwa, “a hui for those concerned about the wellbeing of the Pacific”. These meetings brought Pacific activists to New Zealand for tours of speaking, protesting and aroha. As a prelude to the 1984 Te Hui Oranga, PPANAC held an Indigenous Peoples Retreat at the Awhitu land occupation, Manukau Heads. The overseas guest list was extensive with Native Americans, Hawaiians, Tahitians, Belauans and Aboriginal people present and taking part in each other’s cultural traditions, including a peace pipe ceremony, a blessing of the corn and a taro planting ceremony.

By receiving other Pacific peoples in Aotearoa, Māori and Pacific people created opportunities to share in the struggle for recognition. These connections were vital because it was a united vision of a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific that posed a real threat to colonial and nuclear powers. If the whole Pacific was to gain independence and to deny nuclearism, France and the United States would have no choice but to test, store and dump their weapons elsewhere.

Te Hui Oranga o te Moananui a Kiwa 1982 (Image: Supplied)

The Treaty of Rarotonga

Ten years after the establishment of the NFIP and as the culmination of decades of activism, the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga established a South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone. Unfortunately, the treaty did not live up to expectations. It was limited and focused on nuclear testing, rather than the transit or storage of nuclear weapons. It made little mention of militarisation more broadly and excluded paths to independence.

But this was no accident, and rather intentionally designed by Australia to do nothing to curb US ambitions or hurt their ally’s strategic interests. To make matters worse, the toothless treaty was enacted through New Zealand and Australian collusion in the negotiating phase, where the two countries strong-armed other Pacific nations into compromises, insisting that America would sign the altered, watered-down text. Michael Somare, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, later said the “Australians assured us that the Americans would eventually come in”. Once that happened, then they could work towards anti-nuclearism, so Lange’s argument went:

Now if you work from reality, you’d get what you can. The problem with the Treaty [of Rarotonga] was that there were some countries who said, still do, “this does not immediately disarm the world” you see. You don’t actually have to knock off Mt Everest – you can climb a hill first before you do that. And I reckon you actually should get the hill under your belt before you have a crack at Everest.

Meanwhile, the reaction to the Treaty of Rarotonga from those in the NFIP movement was scathing:

We felt that, in fact, the treaty that has been proposed was only made to sound as if the governments are serious about banning of nuclear things in the region but in fact it has nothing substantial in the treaty. – Walter Lini, president of Vanuatu.

The 1985 signing of the Treaty of Rarotonga by Australian PM Bob Hawke, making Australia a party to the South Pacific Nuclear-fFee Zone. Epeli Kacimaiwai, Fijian high commissioner to Australia, is second right. (Photo: David James Bartho/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

PPANAC gave a Māori view:

Well the NZ government sold Aotearoa down the drain at the recent South Pacific Forum. Lange’s attitude was to settle for less and work for a totally Nuclear Free Zone. It is a basic sellout on the policy that brought their government to power.

PPANAC was spot on. Two years later, New Zealand declared itself nuclear-free, exclusively. For those in the Pacific, it had little or no effect. Lange had sold a hill (or speed bump) to Pacific leaders, claiming it was Everest back home. And New Zealand still believes it. Of course, the United States did not sign the Treaty of Rarotonga, and today the Pacific remains one of the most securitised regions on the planet. Although nuclear testing stopped with the last French test in 1996, colonial occupation and military presence continues. Pacific places such as Pearl Harbour, Guam, Kwajalein atoll, Noumea and Papeete are still key sites in the military plans and geostrategic manoeuvring of the US and France.

The US maintains the world’s largest testing and training missile range, the Pacific Missile Range Facility, on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i. Pacific people in Hawai’i, American Sāmoa, the Marshall Islands and Guam have enlisted in the US Army in great numbers for wages and to see the world, largely in the absence of other opportunities and in a process that furthers military control and its political acceptability. In short, as long as these geographies remain important and their peoples kept dependent, it is likely that the Pacific will remain dispossessed and subject to military presence. Neither independent, nor nuclear-free.

That is why we need to remember the Pacific when we think of anti-nuclearism. We must recognise that New Zealand’s nuclear-free moment was a compromise against a more ambitious and far-reaching Pacific-led protest. We need to place New Zealand in the Pacific and nuclearism alongside colonialism, because removed from these contexts, New Zealand’s anti-nuclear position was globally inconsequential. It did little to change the realities of Pacific people. Because anything less than a comprehensive nuclear-free zone was tolerable to the United States, New Zealand was permitted to have a nuclear-free policy as the nuclear powers effectively lost nothing. Through a commitment to exclusive anti-nuclearism rather than a shared vision of independence, New Zealand ensured an independent and anti-nuclear Pacific future went unrealised.

Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern speaks at the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations on September 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Climate change, our nuclear-free moment?

Perhaps the full ramifications of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear moment were lost to Ardern when she drew on its legacy. Nevertheless, it is an apt comparison. The climate crisis is of paramount importance, it poses an existential threat and it has generated a mass movement. But ultimately and unfortunately, climate change is our nuclear-free moment because New Zealand stands to repeat history by condemning the Pacific.

The same misplaced exceptionalism and lack of ambition that characterised New Zealand’s anti-nuclearism dominates our climate response. For three decades our leaders have peddled a clean green image while forestalling any real action. Size is no excuse, for while New Zealand’s gross emissions are comparatively small, they are high per capita and form part of a bloc of 100 similarly small nations that collectively contribute a third of global emissions.

There was fanfare over our Paris targets, subsequent Zero Carbon Act and forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan, which together constitute the broad framework aiming to get us to net zero emissions by 2050. But we have failed to meet our own targets, known as “carbon budgets” (which themselves are criticised as lacklustre and less than our fair share). A recent discussion document on our Emissions Reduction Plan tacitly admitted the government is not fully in control, relying on unproven agricultural technology, increased forestry (which offsets rather than reduces emissions) and private sector buy-in to get through. The document was roundly condemned by prominent environmental groups, which labelled it yet more “hot air”.

In fact, New Zealand’s response has been so bad that Climate Action Tracker deems it “highly insufficient”, suggesting that if all nations followed New Zealand’s lead the world would be heading for four degrees of warming, rather than staying below the crucial 1.5°C threshold whereby the most severe impacts of climate change might be avoided.

Waves crashing on the shores of Funafuti, Tuvalu, a country that will be particularly susceptible to climate change and rising sea levels. (Photo: Getty Images)

Because our leaders refuse to acknowledge our obligations in the Pacific, New Zealand has become a climate hypocrite. Our policies have continuously and consciously worked to the detriment of regional efforts, even going so far as to undermine Pacific climate leadership. This dates back to 1989 when the scale of the impending disaster became known.

Given the seriousness of predicted sea level rises, Pacific nations afforded the issue the utmost priority and were the first globally to convene at the highest level, first politically, in Tarawa in Kiribati, and then scientifically in Majuro, Marshall Islands. Here, the Pacific Islands Forum nations (New Zealand and Australia included), agreed to treat the issue regionally, while throwing support behind New Zealand’s candidature to the governing council of the United Nations Environment Programme. “On its part, New Zealand stated that if elected [it] would forcefully voice the concerns of the Forum [nations]”.

New Zealand clearly understood the stakes, committing itself to Pacific interests and even volunteering itself to represent them. Since then, New Zealand’s total emissions have increased by over a quarter, while net emissions (accounting for carbon removal from forestry for example) have risen by over a third. And yet, shamelessly, we turned up to Nauru in 2018 and signed the Boe Declaration “reaffirming that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and [committed] to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement”.

The following year, in Tuvalu, we stood idly by while Australia’s Scott Morrison watered down the forum communique, removing mention of the “climate crisis” and all but one reference to coal. Probably because we knew to do otherwise would be hypocritical. New Zealand is at risk of violating our obligations under the Noumea Convention and the Paris Agreement; we are making a mockery of the Boe Declaration. We have done less than the bare minimum. No longer can we reasonably claim to speak alongside the Pacific or represent its best interests.

Pacific climate leadership risks becoming subsumed by nations like New Zealand and Australia, who claim to speak from and for the region, all the while betraying bloc priorities and cynically meddling in regional groupings. Unfortunately, this has occurred precisely when Pacific climate leadership is needed most.

People from Pacific islands march as part of the world’s largest climate strike in Sydney on September 20, 2019. (Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

Kia Kotahi rā, Te Moana Nui a Kiwa

Make no mistake, as the world comes together for Cop26 and the “last chance” for global accord on climate, it is most certainly the last chance for the Pacific as we know it. Prime minister of Sāmoa Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa has called it “our point of no return”, adding that “commitments from there onwards will determine the future trajectory of our planet”. Halting warming to 1.5°C (itself a compromise) is vital for the Pacific, which has lost and will otherwise lose further islands through sea level rise, coral reefs through bleaching, and agricultural land through salination, all while the frequency and severity of cyclones increases.

Because the island system is the basis of society and culture in the Pacific, this is a fight for survival. And already the dual crises of climate change and Covid-19 have wreaked havoc on life and livelihood in the region. To stop the situation becoming impossible, Glasgow policy must overtake empty words. Countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s) must ensure further and faster cuts to global emissions, limiting global heating to 1.5°C. Climate finance must scale up drastically to meet adaptation needs. Fossil fuels must be phased out promptly, with an immediate end to new coal, oil and gas projects and fossil fuel subsidies.

There is also the touchy issue of “loss and damage” due to the current and unavoidable effects of climate change. Pacific nations will be hoping that the Santiago Network is operationalised immediately and robustly to mobilise public finance to cover this, (as opposed to inequitable insurance mechanisms suggested by richer nations). As a benchmark on these and other matters, the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network and a coalition of Pacific civil society organisations have outlined a list of imperatives here. These would ensure that climate justice is justice for all in the Pacific, regardless of race, gender, age or ability.

Unfortunately, groups like Pacific Islands Climate Action Network, Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change and 350 Pacific Climate Warriors are largely having to advocate from afar. Cop’s occurrence in Britain during a pandemic means that Pacific attendance could be the lowest in history, and only six of 14 Pacific nations are sending specialist representatives direct from the islands to make up their delegations. The situation is particularly acute for New Zealand’s realm countries. The Cook Islands are reportedly sending no one, nor apparently is Tokelau, while Niue will be represented by a London-based surgeon (albeit the grandson of Robert Rex, its first premier!). Of course, New Zealand will be sending a large delegation, but whether they represent New Zealand’s Pacific remains to be seen.

New Zealand appeared to pull its weight last month when it quadrupled its climate finance contribution from 300 million to 1.3 billion, with half of that earmarked for the Pacific. Undoubtedly this is an encouraging step, bringing us into line with our “fair share” as identified by Oxfam. Many questions remain for the Pacific, however, and our government should know these are problems money alone cannot fix. So, all eyes turn to Glasgow. Here, New Zealand has just released an NDC that sounds better than it is, signalling that we will rely heavily on offshore carbon offsets to make our targets, while refusing to meaningfully reduce our total emissions. Selfishly, the government is trying to buy our way out of the problem, knowing this means selling out the Pacific and mortgaging our future.

With climate, New Zealand faces a decision much like it did in 1985 with the Treaty of Rarotonga. We are caught between metropolitan allies and Pacific family; our choice will be either pragmatic or principled. We can either proceed with meagre domestic targets or step up to the regional consensus for real. And if New Zealand’s “nuclear-free moment” can teach us anything about climate justice today, it is that the cause must fundamentally support those most at risk, lest they be abandoned at the crunch.

But New Zealand cannot quietly settle into the same exclusivity that foreclosed a nuclear-free and independent Pacific with a clear conscience. No, this time we are not so innocent. Causes and effects of the climate crisis are well established: they have not and will not be shared equally. We are not bystanders but active participants in Pacific ecocide. We will be culpable for further Pacific death. This time around we are the French (or the Americans, or the British).

In Aotearoa, because of our regional position, we have always had an opportunity to offer something unique to the global movement for climate action. Unfortunately, to date New Zealand has missed opportunities and neglected responsibilities. And yet, because we have a colonial obligation, because we have a Pacific identity, we can still be the ones to stand with the Pacific. Time is running out to be on the right side of history. We must not let climate change be our nuclear free moment. Let it be our independence from climate colonialism and injustice in Te Moana Nui a Kiwa.

Keep going!