Since his 2006 election as Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand co-leader, Russel Norman has steadily built the Party’s calibre on climate issues. Over and over again, he – along with Kennedy Graham, Julie Ann Genter and others – has hounded our Government MPs on their backwards climate policies.
A few key moments of his climate career stand out for me. In 2013, during the Warsaw talks, he quoted ‘Yeb’ Saño in Parliament, standing in solidarity with those hit by Supertyphoon Haiyan. In 2014, he launched the Party’s compelling Climate Protection Plan, including a lot of what New Zealand civil society has campaigned for, and – notably – launching the visionary carbon tax cut: levying a carbon tax on business but paying it back to ordinary Kiwis in tax cuts.
Even just this week, he has fronted the Party’s Climate Questions campaign, inviting New Zealanders to submit questions for the Greens’ 14 MPs to ask in Parliament.
But on 29 January this year, Russel announced that he will be resigning as co-leader. Later this month, Green Party branches across the country will vote on who will join Metiria Turei in leading the Party.
Question is: Will the new co-leader have what it takes to carry on Russel’s climate legacy, or even to take it up to the next level? I sat down with each of them to find out.
The Pacific has contributed the least to carbon emissions, but will suffer the most. – Kevin
Kevin gets the big picture. He’s been in Parliament since 2008. Before that, he had a very successful career in the health sector, as CEO of the West Coast District Health Board and, before that, the New Zealand AIDS Foundation – not to mention as an author and gay rights activist. He wants to take Russel’s part of the Greens’ climate portfolio. Though known for health work, Kevin quickly can do the math on climate change with the best of them.
For Kevin, health provides a powerful – and very human – frame for discussing climate change. The big injustices of climate change play out in the health sector, hitting marginalised populations’ health and wellbeing first and worst.
Climate change, to Kevin, is both a sustainability issue and social justice issue. To address it, we must change both the stance of the economy and our stance in relation to the economy. Climate action is not about opposing markets, but ‘retooling our economic engine‘ to be sustainable.
All governments must ‘move with urgency‘ to address climate change. In New Zealand, a real price on carbon is ‘absolutely necessary, but genuinely missing‘. We must use all our tools – including but not limited to markets – to achieve our goals.
So, then, does he support an emissions trading scheme, not the Greens’ policy of a carbon tax? No:
I think cap and trade could have worked. It hasn’t worked. We are achieving nothing at all with the system we have now.
The Greens carbon tax cut, he notes, is simpler and could be faster.
But we shouldn’t talk about what’s wrong with emissions trading, Kevin stresses. It’s alienating. Instead, ask what Auckland would look like in a 4ºC warmer world.
But has he read This Changes Everything? He’s got it, but hasn’t gotten around to it yet.
We’re already paying the price. – James
Elected to Parliament just last year, James comes from a green business and management consulting background. Because of this, he often receives praise from unlikely quarters, like arch libertarian Rodney Hide. But Hide is misguided. James is an out and out climate hawk.
James had called for the Party to campaign on climate change in last year’s election. When Russel convinced the team, James was delighted. But, he recognises, the Party hadn’t engaged New Zealanders with the issue enough before the election.
James says that the Greens can ‘change that‘. They’ve already 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.
Talking economics, he suggests, is an important tool. In 2013, we suffered our worst drought ever. It cost New Zealand NZ$11.6 billion dollars of export revenue. Storms recently left 30,000 houses across Wellington without electricity. Cleanup alone cost the Council NZ$4 million.
It’s already costing us money! … What’s it costing our farmers? What’s it costing our cities? – James
Within the Party, James has courted some controversy by quoting Margaret Thatcher in his maiden speech in Parliament. He did it, he says, to call out our Government. When even right wing leaders like Thatcher have recognised the importance of climate change, James says, National’s current inaction is simply hypocritical.
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
James thinks we can change that. He sees real potential for a radical economic shift to a more just economic system, away from monolithic structures, towards distributed ownership. We have a chance to separate economic growth from emissions growth. In 2014, our emissions flatlined, but economic growth continued. Perhaps a sustainable economy can grow from there.
Climate change is my passion. It’s the most important environmental issue facing our planet. – Gareth
Gareth lives and breathes climate campaigning. He’s a former Rainbow Warrior crew member and Greenpeace campaigner. In 2009, he coordinated Greenpeace New Zealand’s huge ‘Sign On‘ campaign, which mobilised over 230,000 New Zealanders (and the odd comedian). He’s been in Parliament since 2010.
Unsurprisingly, then, he thinks the Party could have pushed climate change harder in the 2013 election. ‘We should have‘, he says, ‘campaigned stronger climate change’, not just in 2013, but in the preceding three years. By ‘building a national constituency’ around it, the Party could make it an election winning issue.
He continues to give climate issues maximum focus and attention, playing a key role in the Party’s current climate campaigning. This year, he wants New Zealand to commit to cutting at least 30-40% off our emissions in the period just after 2020.
Our mission is to make it an issue of national concern and support the Government into taking on our real fair share. – Gareth
But has he read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything?
I’ve flicked through it. Haven’t started reading it properly. – Gareth
Gareth says we can’t gloss over the real impacts; we need to be ‘honest, upfront about the dangers’, but we also cannot lapse into ‘doom and gloom‘. Gareth suggests comparing climate change to World War Two. It needs a national movement, where we all collectively pull our weight building a better world. And New Zealand came out of World War Two richer. Mobilising to face climate change and lead the transition to a renewable, sustainable economy will benefit New Zealand too.
We beed to pull all the levers at our disposal. – Gareth
He rattles off a range of policies and campaign tactics. We need ‘more choices on transport‘, ‘greater energy independence‘ and, ultimately, a zero carbon economy. A genuine carbon price will help us get there. But to get there we need leadership in Parliament, community leadership, and individual leadership.
His proudest achievement in life is not being elected to Parliament, but leading the biggest climate march up Auckland’s Queen St to date. This December, when the world’s governments meet in Paris to replace the Kyoto Protocol, he’d like to lead an even bigger one.
This is an existential threat. – Gareth
This is where we live, we’re poisoning it, and we can stop it. – Vernon
Vernon is a Local Board member and community lawyer. By a quirk of the Greens’ rules, a person doesn’t have to be a Member of Parliament to run for co-leadership – and, notably, Russel himself was not an MP until elected co-leader.
Vernon sees climate change as part of a broader picture: the need for sustainability and ecocentric ethics. He supports the Party’s decision to focus campaigning this year on climate change and inequality this year. Both, he argues, ‘transcend the conventional political binary.‘ Neither, he argues, are left or right issues.
The key, Vernon argues, is to ‘make it local‘. He attributes the Party’s success on child poverty and clean rivers to its ability to contextualise the issue. To connect on climate with most New Zealanders now, the Party needs to put a lot of work in.
He points to his experience on the Local Board. Though it’s an ‘obvious and sensible approach‘ to use key international moments to campaign, the way most people can make a difference on climate change, he suggests, is at the personal and community level. He sees success on climate not in grand international agreements, but smart cities.
Nation states are almost constitutionally incapable of giving away their competitive advantage. Countries treat climate negotiations as trade negotiations.* Countries can’t deal with it. – Vernon
Cities, Vernon argues, can. They have a ‘positive vision of adaptation’. Though focusing on the level of (smart) cities, Vernon doesn’t stop there. Our existing, very 20th century political system is ‘still in its death throes‘. We urgently need a transition to a new model, beyond socialism or capitalism.
We need to get to a low to zero carbon economy – steady state, whatever that might mean. – Vernon
But has he read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything? He’s ‘read the key sections‘. He’s ‘skimmed the rest’. He’s ‘got the skeleton of it‘ – and disagrees with its central thrust.
I disagree with the fundamental thesis of the book. – Vernon
Klein, Vernon argues, is a great journalist, strong on her core competency – but doesn’t see the bigger problem. She has, he says, ‘misdiagnosed the problem‘. She blames the economic system, which Vernon sees as no more than a symbol or symptom. It’s not capitalism versus the climate, he says, but that:
We, as a species, have not learned to live sustainably. … There is so much work that can be done within the existing system. – Vernon
We need to move from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric conception of justice, to ‘frame the rights of people in an ecocentric context‘. The Party, he argues, must take the best from the left, but not be of the left.
It is very, very hard to pick a winner here – and I don’t plan to. Each of the candidates has big strengths, but quite different strengths. Whichever one takes the co-leadership, though, we can be confident that Russel’s climate legacy is in safe hands.
(Full disclosure: I am a member of the Party and former Auckland Province executive member, and I know all four candidates personally. Vernon is a friend from law school, and the others I have met through climate and sustainability work.)