Talking climate with James Shaw

This is post number two of four. Yesterday, I posted a summary of my talk with Kevin. Tomorrow, Gareth’s will go up (Update: Up now). On Saturday, Vernon’s (up now) – and the Adopt a Negotiator piece summarising all four that I did these interviews for.


We’re already paying the price. – James

James jokes at candidates’ meetings about being a mole planted in the Greens by the right thirty years ago, then quickly dissuades the audience of any possibility of that idea. With his management consulting background, James often falls victim to caricature – even from political foes, like Rodney Hide, who seem eager to claim him as their own. But they – Hide especially – are deeply misguided. His business background is primarily in smart, green entrepreneurship and sustainable business.

But with this reputation, you’d expect our conversation to have started with the economy. Instead, we started by talking about the 2014 election.

I was one of the people who fought to get climate change into our election campaign. – James

With the Party’s caucus divided about whether to include climate change in the election campaign or sideline it as the Party did in the 2011 election, Russel was ultimately the one who swung it. But James, after pushing for it, was ‘delighted it was one of the foci‘. Should the Party, I ask, have pushed it harder?

James pauses, reflects. There were good reasons on the other side. The Party hadn’t done enough groundwork before the election to really make it an election issue. There’s still not enough public concern about climate change.

But we can change that. – James

Now, it’s time to front foot the issue. After all, James says, the Greens pushed clean rivers and child poverty to the top of New Zealanders’ agendas. In 2011, when he talked about those issues, people gave him blank looks. In 2014, after three years of hard work from the Party, people heard what he said – and backed it. It’s time for the Party to take the same leadership on climate, now, in 2015 and 2016, not just in the 2017 election.

But how? We need to use different messages for different people, James answers.

Talking economics, he suggests, is a trick for outreach. Talk economics. In 2013, we suffered our worst drought ever. It cost New Zealand NZ$1.6 billion dollars of export revenue. It’s not just heat, though: storms recently left 30,000 houses across Wellington without electricity. Cleanup alone cost the Council NZ$4 million. In Island Bay, a seawall collapsed. Residents and the Council are now debating whether to build a new wall or accept a managed retreat from the encroaching sea.

It’s already costing us money! … What’s it costing our farmers? What’s it costing our cities? – James

Within the Party, James copped flak for quoting Margaret Thatcher in his maiden speech in Parliament. Was that a trick for outreach? No, it was more than that:

I was actually having a go at the Nats for being hypocritical. – James

When even reviled right wing leaders like Thatcher have recognised the importance of climate change, James says, National’s current inaction smacks of deep internal inconsistencies within New Zealand’s right.

James highlights Pasifika communities as another key audience, and one that the Greens prioritise. He stresses our responsibility to protect our Pacific neighbours. For them – climate justice is a about ‘saving their homelands’. Especially because that’s so important, we need Pasifika people high on the Party’s list. He’s frank: for that to happen, the Party needs to recognise that its very strong organisational culture – itself a great thing – can make new people feel excluded. In campaigning, instead of big ideas like equity and finance, we need to talk cut holes in National’s ‘fair share’ messaging. We aren’t doing our fair share – especially for our Pacific neighbours.

As it’s one of the Party’s top priorities, James thinks it’s important that a C0-Leader should have the climate portfolio – and he wants it. It’s not black and white, and both he and the whole caucus would look at what was best for the Party overall, but taking charge of the portfolio is his preference.

We get talking about climate campaign strategies. ‘I really like divestment‘, James says. Though perhaps symbolic, it sends a ‘strong message‘. He’s supported Russel on pushing for New Zealand’s super fund to divest. Russel has a member’s bill in the ballot.


But has he read This Changes Everything? It’s in his bag. He meant to read it last weekend.

He has sympathy for Klein’s narrative of capitalism versus the climate, though.

This form of capitalism that we have now is incompatible with climate action. – James

That’s not something fixed, though. It’s something we can change. Had I read Jeremy Rifkin’s Zero Marginal Cost SocietyJames asks? My turn to confess that I hadn’t. It drives a ‘stake through the heart of traditional capitalist models‘ says James. He sees real potential for a radical economic shift to a more just economic system, away from monolithic structures, towards distributed ownership.

With that, we gain the chance of separating economic growth from emissions growth. We have to be careful, James explains, about what we mean by a steady state economy. An economy can only be sustainable if it has steady (or, for a time now, perhaps decreasing) resource use and emissions or waste production. Steady state energy use (a good thing) doesn’t mean quality of life not improving (a bad thing). It’s energy and materials that must be steady state, not throughput.

Jeanette Fitzsimons, James notes, pointed out that a steady state economy is a very different thing from a failed growth economy.

In 2014, our global emissions flatlined, but economic growth continued. James is hopeful, pointing at the example of new smart green businesses emerging from the ruins of Detroit’s motor industry, with things like aquaculture farms in disused carparks.

Perhaps a new, steady state economy can grow from the ruins of a failed growth economy.

(I couldn’t resist reusing the cover image.)