Climate change is a harsh reality for the Pacific Islands. After travelling to the Solomon Islands to meet the communities already affected by climate change, Madeleine Chapman looks at New Zealand’s responsibility in the region and the campaign for the Zero Carbon Act.
There’s a completely unfounded and illogical belief among humans that, at the end of the day, we can tame nature. We build whole societies over fault lines despite endless predictions of catastrophic natural occurrences. And when those natural disasters do strike, we suffer. But after a while the tragedy becomes a source of pride. We got knocked down, we say, but it brought us together and made us stronger. It’s probably true that with every earthquake, tsunami, cyclone, and hurricane, we see the best of humanity, people uniting to survive. And yet, there’s still an insistence that these ever more frequent natural disasters are just what we as a species must deal with. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just nature doing its thing and we’ll get through it and come out stronger for it.
This is the very same mindset of most Solomon Islanders who deal with minor natural disasters every other week. Their crops are dying from salinisation by the sea, their islands are frequently submerged during high tides, and whole communities are being displaced with every king tide. They figure it’s just nature and they’ll get through it. A group of women living in an inner-city settlement after being forced from their island homes were shocked when I told them the extreme weather was at least partly caused by the actions and practices of Western countries. “We had no idea,” one woman said, “we thought it was because people weren’t obeying the chief and not going to church.” This is an entirely reasonable conclusion to draw if, like these women, you’ve spent your life on an island without electricity, cell service, or radio. They see the climate changing and they deal with it at their level. But many people, especially in Western countries such as New Zealand, have yet to see these changes themselves and so instead of seeing a neighbouring country struggling with a rapidly changing climate, they see a neighbouring country struggling to do what we all believe is possible with a bit of humanity and grit: tame nature.
The responses to my reports of climate change effects in the Solomon Islands showed a generational gap in reaction, or lack thereof, to climate change. While there are plenty of climate change sceptics of all ages, the younger, dare I say millennial, generation overwhelmingly acknowledge the changes happening in our environment and the dangers of those changes continuing. So it’s not at all surprising that a new campaign to get the ball rolling with intent on reducing our net carbon emissions was started by youth-led organisation Generation Zero.
The Zero Carbon Act is a plan to reduce New Zealand’s net carbon emissions to zero by the year 2050 through legislation that would enforce the curbing of carbon-heavy practices. Modelled off the Climate Change Act from the UK which was passed in 2008, the team at Generation Zero adapted the Act to cater to our agricultural-heavy economy. They propose what’s known as a “Two Basket Approach”. New Zealand should have zero net carbon emissions (those from cars, coal etc) while working towards a decrease in methane emissions (cows, farming). They’re drafting legislation that would put this target of zero net carbon emissions by 2050 into law, as well as the forming of an independent climate commission to keep all parties accountable.
New Zealand is a relatively small country and we love to tell everyone. But when it comes to environmental shifts, we hold a much bigger stake in the game than almost any other country. Yes, when the UK put through their Climate Change Act, they had an CO2 equivalent output of 642 million tonnes, which they reduced to 495 million tonnes by 2015. And yes, our net emissions in 2015 were a fraction of that at 56 million tonnes. But as a developed nation in the Pacific, where so many islands are vulnerable, we have a responsibility to step up and lead the charge. We watch on the news every year as cyclones hit Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, and we send aid. “World Vision and other aid agencies can be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and help when disaster strikes,” said Carsten Bockemuehl, advocacy manager at World Vision. “We will continue to do so but it takes more than that. We need governments to start pulling their weight and put us on pathways towards carbon neutrality.” The Zero Carbon Act is the first push to being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to climate change.
Generation Zero have united some 14 of New Zealand’s major NGOs to back the plan, organisations like World Vision, Oxfam, WWF, and Amnesty International. It seems to be one of few initiatives that global charities can agree on, and they know they need the same to happen in Parliament for the Zero Carbon Act to work. A cross-party approach is essential to the ongoing application of the Zero Carbon Act. After meetings with all the political parties, Labour and Greens have come out in full support of the Act, at least verbally, while National, though reluctant to sign off on it, appear to have an open ear and are taking their own admittedly smaller steps to bring down emissions while in government. Unsurprisingly again, all the youth wings of the major political parties have put their support behind the Act, including the Young Nats, who no doubt would’ve had to get permission from upstream before announcing a position.
The warming of the planet and the increase in extreme weather events have been brought about by many nations and millions of people. And the same needs to happen in the fight to right that wrong. While New Zealand may be small, it’s a big brother to so many Pacific Islands and it’s about time we starting taking that role seriously by committing to being a leader in getting to zero net carbon emissions.
The time to start was twenty years ago, but today will have to do.
Our Pacific neighbours bear the brunt of climate change as sea levels rise, homes are washed away, and crops fail. World Vision New Zealand, along with 14 leading New Zealand humanitarian organisations, is asking New Zealand politicians from all parties to back the Zero Carbon Act, and reduce our country’s emissions to zero by 2050. Join the thousands of Kiwis who have already taken action for a safe and stable climate.