2015 Matters. The Greens should chase big policy wins not chase their own tail.

2015 is a crucial year for determining the course of the 21st century. It is not – as we said around 2009’s Copenhagen summit – our last chance to save the planet from runaway climate change. That language just isn’t helpful. But it is our chance to define or redefine our global and national response to climate change and sustainable development.

Over the coming months, New Zealanders have a once is a decade chance to craft our path to a safe climate future.

The Green Party should be – and indeed is trying to – seize that opportunity.

But we risk being derailed into having a perennial internal discussion about political positioning instead – and, worse, risk conducting that internal discussion in a very public forum.

This is the second of three posts. Yesterday, I explained where I agreed and disagreed with co-leadership candidate Vernon Tava’s position. Now, I’m going to say a few words about how he has presented that position – or, more, about what else we could and should be talking about instead. Next, I will talk about how I think the Party should frame itself.

Empty chairs

2015 is a once in a decade opportunity

Internationally, this year marks the end of two huge diplomatic processes, which have everything to do with crafting a Green or green future:

  1. In September, the United Nations General Assembly will finalise a new set of Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals. The goals the world sets in New York will shape global development and help to define how the world’s poorest communities can determine their own economic and other development. Importantly, to the Green Party, the connections between sustainability and development underpin the entire diplomatic process.
  2. In December, the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (that is, every country with a functioning government and a few sub-national and supra-national actors) will adopt in Paris a new, universal deal on climate change to kick into force from 2020. Quite simply, we are replacing the Kyoto Protocol – and the battle lines are drawn, the trenches dug, and the troops marshalled. It’s going to get nasty, and our Government is elbow-deep. The 90-page draft treaty finalised in Geneva last month is all up for debate. It contains some really amazing stuff, like global carbon budgets, long term carbon neutrality goals, and meaningful commitments to help the world’s poorest peoples to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It might even actually kick the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage into action, and so help people when adaptation fails and climate disaster strikes. But it also contains some really, really terrible stuff, locking in a voluntarist regime that will push the world to something like four to six degrees average warming this century, with little provision to help climate vulnerable peoples – like our Pacific neighbours.

But it’s easy to dismiss big, lumbering international processes. They’re distant, slow and far away.

So let’s look at New Zealand.

I’m a climate policy guy, so I’ll focus on that – and I think that matters, because I can’t see a bigger crisis for sustainability. Others can share a lot more wisdom about the deep social justice and social responsibility challenges we face, but I’ll focus on climate. Here, like globally, there are two big things happening:

  1. Sometime between March and the middle of the year, New Zealand will be fronting up to the rest of the world with its climate targets from 2020 on. Right now, the Green Party is campaigning for our Government to even just talk to New Zealanders about it. Even Treasury has recommended that the Government consult us, the public, but we still simply don’t even know whether they will. With these targets, we’re already under intense pressure internationally, because our current target (cutting 5% off 1990 levels) is way behind the curve. Plus, we’ve backed totally away from the more ambitious 10-20% target we took on five years ago in Copenhagen. Worse still, our whole plan for hitting that 2020 target is based on international emissions trading instead of actually cutting emissions – even though we’re getting shut out of international carbon markets. So in the next six months, we’ve got a chance to define our path for the decade starting in 2020: do we steer a course to deep cuts now and a safe climate future, or blunder on through business as usual (into more international embarrassment)?
  2. The next New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZETS) review is set down for this year. This matters. I know the Greens don’t think the NZETS is good enough, but it’s the only national climate policy tool we have – and it could be so much better. I wrote my Honours dissertation on the NZETS just before National began its first review on election in 2009, but I didn’t predict how bad it’d get. They looked at David Parker’s cap and trade scheme and decided that the problem was the cap. We now have a cap and trade scheme with no cap, which has actually subsidised pollution for most of its life. The 2012 review wasn’t much better. But now, with our emissions ballooning 37% over our 2020 target, international diplomatic pressure mounting, and a very real risk that we won’t be able to use international carbon markets as an escape valve, our Government is feeling the heat. They might even put some teeth back into our NZETS.

We should seize that decadal opportunity, not chase our tail on semantics and positioning

So 2015 matters. If we want a Green future, this year we have a once in a decade chance to make it happen. And it’s up to us as a powerful Green opposition to work with the NGO community and social movements to turn the pressure our Government is under into action to help get there.

Walking away from false solutions.
Walking away from false solutions.

Again, this isn’t Copenhagen. You won’t find hollow rhetoric about last chances here. But we mustn’t ignore the fact that we have a crucial campaigning moment, where we can win real gains for a Green future.

Internationally, civil society is mobilising too. Two years ago, we pledged under the rallying cry of “Volveremos” (“We’ll be back”) to build our movements, and, damn, we have. The People’s Climate March brought together 400,000 people in one city, New York, and the biggest simultaneous day of protest the world’s ever seen around the rest of the globe. The climate justice movement is the biggest social movement in human history. The day after a disappointing election night, after singing karaoke into the small hours of the morning, hundreds of us marched up Queen St. The Divestment movement is winning ground. I know some of the plans building around the Paris Summit this year, and, man, this is big. Like, I can’t think of anything more important or exciting (or difficult!) I could be doing with my life right now type of big.

The Auckland People’s Climate March.

I was there in Durban when the current round of climate negotiations began. I was there when security dragged New Zealanders out while African activists sung anti-Apartheid protest songs. And, as the UN’s so-called Friday dragged into it’s 50th hour on a Sunday morning, I watched, bleary eyed. After Copenhagen’s last chance, we forged another tiny sliver of a chance.

Right here, right now, this year, in New Zealand, we have our own chance to make all this mean something. 62,0939 New Zealanders signed onto Climate Voter last year. Climate change is really everything change, and, yes, to change everything, we need everyone.

But we especially need a Green voice. If the Green Party won’t seize key moments like this to campaign for a safe climate future built on sustainability, who will?

Kiwis standing against oil exploration.

But we run a very real risk of being distracted

We’ve got great Co-Leadership candidates on climate policy – and two have already agreed to speak to me about climate for Adopt a Negotiator. Gareth ran Greenpeace’s outstanding 2009 “Sign On” campaign. Kevin knows the intersection of climate and population health like no one (except maybe Sudhvir Singh of Generation Zero). And Vernon’s environmental law background will serve him well.

Trouble is, we’re already losing control of the narrative around the co-leadership contest. It’s being spun into deep divisions within the Party, and Party members – including me – are splitting hairs over where our political position should be. Left, centre, out front, sideways, whatever. Should we be the Judean People’s Front, or the People’s Front of Judea?

Positioning is a perennial debate for the Party. It recurs every few years. Last time it really heated up, the Party moved from only considering left coalitions to considering any coalition with policy synergies – but noted that a deal with National was highly unlikely (which it still is!). We can chase our tail about these distinctions for ever, spinning away into a navel-gazing re-assessment just when we could be fighting for real policy wins on our core values.

The ‘Light for Lima’ vigil. Even faith movements are joining the call for a safe climate future, and in a big way.

By launching his candidacy both on a clear, single positioning platform – and by doing so in the most public way possible – Vernon has driven this debate out of branch meetings and discussions between friends into the public eye. I think that’s a strategic misstep. There is merit in having this debate in the first year after an election, to give any changes time to bed in before the next election – but I see no good reason for conducting a positioning debate via the mainstream media. It’s just not suited to it. Mass media doesn’t do well with fine distinctions. Already, people within the Party are spinning Vernon into a blue green that he isn’t.

Right now, we don’t need to launch a fresh assault on the centre. We need to deliver powerful campaigns for powerful policies. We stand in a key moment to shape a decade or more of New Zealand’s climate future. Will we take it, or will we argue with ourselves?