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SocietyMay 4, 2017

Climate refugees in our own country: why NZ needs to divest from fossil fuels


From an idea floated in Rolling Stone magazine just five years ago, divestment – the withdrawal of investments in immoral industries – has grown into a global campaign. Now New Zealand businesses, government organisations and community groups are being encouraged to join the movement, writes 350 Aotearoa’s Niamh O’Flynn.

A whole town evacuated, powerless in the face of a wall of water bearing down on them, sweeping through their homes and businesses, taking down trees and power lines, making their water undrinkable, their roads unusable.

All that is missing is the zombies. Or the aliens. Just insert your prefered apocalyptic scenario.

But this isn’t describing some post apocalyptic world. As we all know from the grim images, it was the Bay of Plenty town of Edgecumbe less than a month ago. While the soundbites and quotes indicate a population that is making the best of a bad situation, the realities of the devastation will play out over weeks and months as the extensive clean up gets underway.


The clean up won’t only be physical, it is likely to be political too, with Sir Michael Cullen leading an independent review into what caused the breach of the flood banks.

The lessons learned from the review will be important, because the scientific evidence is clear: New Zealanders face increasing risks from flood events due to climate change.

Climate change refugees in our own country

Climate change isn’t just a concern for some weirdos on the fringe anymore. It is the issue of our time, and we need to be talking about it.

The International Panel on Climate Change predicts with increasing certainty that extreme rainfall events will become more severe globally – including in New Zealand – and extreme rainfall is the most common trigger for flooding in this country. As Edgecumbe has so painfully shown us, flood events can almost instantaneously wipe out key infrastructure. There are also the ongoing financial and emotional costs associated with insurance claims and the rebuilding of houses and businesses.

Sea level rise is also a threat to the homes and livelihoods of New Zealanders. The most optimistic climate change models predict a sea level rise of between 44 and 55 centimetres by 2100. Should emissions continue at the status quo, the predictions are closer to one metre. Even the smallest amount of sea level rise would see over 8000 coastal homes in New Zealand threatened. If the worst case scenario occurs, that figure jumps up to over 40,000.

When excess rainfall and rising sea levels combine, the impact on many communities in low-lying coastal areas could be catastrophic and irreversible. It only takes a quick glance at a map to know that there are a whole lot of New Zealanders are at risk.

If the worst happens, where do these people go?

What happens if climate impacts lead to mass internal displacement?

What is the plan if we become refugees in our own country?

Who is taking responsibility for the future safety of our citizens?

Our leaders have so far shown little strategic action on limiting the impacts of climate change.

A fossil free future?

At 350 Aotearoa we believe that the apparent lack of political will doesn’t mean that New Zealanders can’t take action. We are part of a global movement working to achieve climate safety. A big part of our work is leading the movement to divest from fossil fuels.

What is divestment, and why should you care?

In 2012, divestment – the breaking of ties with an immoral industry – was just an idea; an article in Rolling Stone by founder Bill McKibben the catalyst. It has rapidly scaled up to become a global movement, with support from the UN and the World Bank.


What is the aim? We want to show that the fossil-fuel industry does not have long-term viability in a climate-constrained world. We want to show that it just no longer makes sense to invest in heavily polluting industries. As Bill McKibben put it: “The logic of divestment couldn’t be simpler: if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.

We have already had some resounding successes.

Just last week, Westpac announced a new climate change policy that includes a ban on funding for any new coal basin projects. The policy follows months of sustained campaigning from 350 and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and is a win for trans-Tasman people power.

It is also an enormous blow to mining corporate giant Adani and their plan to build the world’s largest coal mine in Carmichael, Queensland as Westpac bank was the only bank still considering funding the mine. The mine would be a climate catastrophe for native species, wetlands and the Great Barrier Reef. With all major Australian banks now refusing to fund it, it may never get in the ground.

Here in New Zealand, Auckland Council, the City of Dunedin, the University of Otago, Victoria University of Wellington, the NZ Tertiary Education Union and the Anglican Diocese of Aotearoa have all taken a stand and pledged full divestment from fossil fuels.

But there is still work to be done, and it is urgent.

While the Adani mine may be one significant project, we know that it is the sum output of industries like coal that are increasing the intensity and severity of climate change.

While it may not seem like divestment impacts you as an individual, ask yourself how you would feel if it was your university, bank or church that directly contributed to the irreversible destruction of an icon like the Great Barrier Reef?

Between May 7-11 we will join an international community of over 300 groups in a Global Divestment Mobilisation, calling on institutions around the world to move their money out of the ground and into the future.

We are taking action because don’t want to see New Zealanders becoming climate refugees in their own country. We are taking action because climate change is here and now, and it impacts us all.

350 Aotearoa is the New Zealand arm of the international climate movement, which aims to unite the world around climate change solutions. Our mission is to inspire climate action in communities across New Zealand.

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