The climate crisis is a problem for all of us. Without action by individuals, the world will not cut its carbon emissions quickly enough.
But, let’s be honest, some people have more power (and responsibility) than others.
As part of the ‘Covering Climate Now‘ week of intensive coverage on the climate story, Stuff has identified a group of New Zealanders with the greatest influence over climate change issues in this country.
Unlike the science that’s long-since proven human-created climate change, our list isn’t based on anything especially empirical. But three of our journalists steeped in climate change issues have drawn on their knowledge and networks to assemble the following climate change power list.
JAMES SHAW, Climate Change Minister
The position of “climate change minister” has only existed since 2005, and has mostly lived as a minor add-on portfolio, with no dedicated ministry to back it. Yet the role is clearly James Shaw’s dream job, and he is doing more with it than anyone has since the first ever minister, David Parker, who designed the Emissions Trading Scheme.
He needs to. As the first Green Party climate change minister (and one of the first Green ministers ever) the 46-year-old former consultant has a huge weight of expectation upon him, from his wider party and its extremely-involved base, many of whom suspect Shaw is a bit too business-friendly. While Shaw is able to speak in a way that doesn’t alienate the business sector, he’s far from sanguine, and will talk to reporters about basically any aspect of climate policy under the sun, even when that conversation gets very dark.
Shaw has faced plenty of pushback. He originally planned to have the Zero Carbon Bill – an overarching framework to force future governments to drastically lower emissions – in force by April this year. Thanks to negotiations with NZ First running very long, he didn’t even get the bill introduced until May, and has struggled to keep National on-board for the bipartisan consensus he desires. The process has probably aged him about a decade.
But Shaw does not appear demoralised and has pushed on with serious changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme and several other climate-related moves. Jacinda Ardern said climate change was her generation’s nuclear-free moment but Shaw is treating it as much more than that, something more akin to a global financial crash or world war.
WINSTON PETERS, Deputy Prime Minister, NZ First leader
Winston Peters is the hinge on which much of the Government’s controversial policy turns, including climate change. While Peters is no denialist, he is about as far away from being a Green MP as you possibly can be. He went into the last election pledging to support a Zero Carbon-style act but also to shut down the Emissions Trading Scheme, our only real tool for making emitters pay for the damage they do.
Peters, 74, is a keen observer of Aussie politics and will have watched closely as emissions policy ripped the Liberal Party apart over the last decade. He’s always on the look-out for any hypocrisy, beginning his speech in Parliament supporting the Zero Carbon Act by saying the legislation was only required because National had signed New Zealand up to the Paris targets while in Government.
Peters’ influence on the Zero Carbon Act negotiations became obvious as the expected dates for the bill’s release and first, second, and third readings went by without even a whisper of an announcement. The fact that methane is being given a comparatively easy ride when compared to other emissions is not entirely thanks to Peters, but he certainly had a large part to play in that. His other fear – that the Climate Change Commission would gain true independence and Reserve-Bank-like powers – was well and truly put to bed. Even since the bill has been introduced, Peters has been happy to brag about these achievements in radio interviews and editorials.
Any further climate action intended by Shaw will need to be put through the Winston-test first.
TIM GRAFTON, Insurance Council chief executive
There’s a term you often hear in discussions about climate change: the Tipping point. It’s a threshold which, when breached, causes a large, mostly irreversible change to something we have long seen as unchangeable.
One of the most important – and near-certain – climate change tipping points in New Zealand will be insurance retreat. When living on the coast becomes too risk-prone, insurers simply withdraw coverage, which has a cascade of effects, including the inability to get a mortgage.
This gives insurers an extraordinary amount of power. Where, and when, they decide to withdraw coverage will influence the future of some communities and the viability of living on parts of the coast.
These decisions will be made at an industry level – every insurer has detailed modelling available that tells it when certain events become too likely to cover against – but the public face of those decisions, has been, and will continue to be, Tim Grafton.
Grafton has been warning of this problem for the better part of a decade, ever since he became head of the Insurance Council late in 2012. As the public face of the insurers, he has been urging the Government to take a stronger stand on climate change adaptation and to not leave the response to the insurance industry.
This includes lobbying on behalf of the industry on matters like the Zero Carbon Bill, and proposing specific policies around adaptation. It’s notable that Shaw has said what first opened his eyes to the threat of climate change was a report on the impact of extreme weather on the insurance industry.
The insurance industry will have to make tough, and what may appear to be harsh, decisions about its coverage, sooner rather than later. Grafton, and the insurers as a whole, have gone to great lengths to get ahead of the storm on the horizon.
MILES HURRELL, Fonterra chief executive
Saving the planet aside, Miles Hurrell currently has one of the biggest jobs in farming: turning around the fortunes of super-tanker Fonterra. In August, the dairy co-operative announced it would make an annual loss of between $590 million and $675m, delayed the release of its audited financial statements, and signalled job losses.
On the bright side, the company has made noises about a new strategy that involves focusing on sustainable, home-grown New Zealand milk and not intensification and converting sheep farms.
Chinese investors in rivals Synlait Milk and Westland Dairy have taken more of a lead on sustainability and climate change, recognising demand in the Chinese market. But Fonterra is by far the biggest player, with 10,000 shareholders, and that was reflected in the Government’s diligent efforts to get Fonterra on-side when it comes to climate change.
The problem is, dairy farming is largely not sustainable. Yet.
Fonterra’s suppliers are among the country’s largest source of greenhouse gases: from animals and fertiliser. And while the co-operative supports the Zero Carbon Bill, it is feet-dragging on committing to sizeable methane reductions. A reduction of 24 per cent below 2017 levels is acceptable, but the higher end of the target (47 per cent) is described by the co-operative as challenging.
During select committee hearings on the bill, Fonterra executives raised the spectre of gene-editing and GM crops, to help reduce the methane emitted by an animal. The GM status of the country is not a conversation the Government wants – but may have to have.
JAMES RENWICK, science communicator, academic
Calling James Renwick for an interview is a revelation. While other experts shy away from hypotheticals or keep their comments to the exact area of research they have recently completed, Renwick is able to really roam through the next hundred years of climate change with you, from the obvious environmental changes to the wider political and agricultural outcomes. He can then clearly and credibly sift these scenarios through various temperature points, all without departing from what the science itself tells us or making things too complicated to follow.
In other words: you’ve probably seen Renwick on TV, or read a quote from him in the paper. He’s the single best port-of-call on climate change for the media.
Renwick works as a professor and head of school at Victoria University’s School of Geography, Environment, and Earth Sciences. He is known to be extremely generous with his time – not just for students but also for journalists – and to attend the odd protest.
Perhaps his ease with media is due to his time working with MetService in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. It has won him a Prime Minister’s Award for science communication.
But Renwick is not just a commentator: he also worked as a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report, the gold standard of climate research, and as a member of many panels and organisations dealing with the issue.
JIM VAN DER POEL, DairyNZ chairman
DairyNZ represents the country’s 12,000 dairy farmers. Chairman’s Jim van der Poel is one of farming’s most influential figures. A Waikato farmer, with interests spread across the country, he served on the Fonterra board for more than a decade and has been involved with the industry body for nearly 20 years.
Dairy industry politics is brutal and farmers are vocal. But even through delicate negotiations over the Zero Carbon Bill were tense, his popularity has not curdled.
The Government prefers to deal with DairyNZ and the red meat industry organisation Beef + Lamb New Zealand, than the more reactionary (and smaller) Federated Farmers.
However, although they came to the table on climate change legislation, DairyNZ want the Government to revise methane targets. They have deployed a powerful economic argument: the proposed settings could hurt farm profits by as much as 42 per cent. And heading into an election year, if they make enough noise about the impact on the regional and national economies, the Government may have to soften its stance.
JUDY LAWRENCE and ROB BELL, academics
If you work in local government, particularly for a council with a coastline, you might have spotted Judy Lawrence and Rob Bell in your offices at some point.
Both are experts in climate change adaptation and have become messengers for the coastal hazard risks facing many councils within a country with a remarkably long coastline.
Lawrence, a researcher at Victoria University of Wellington, and Bell, a coastal engineer at Niwa, were two of the lead authors of the government’s ‘Coastal Hazards and Climate Change Guidance’ for local government, effectively the bible for how councils should be planning for the effects of climate change.
Following the belated release of that report, they toured the country, visiting various councils to discuss the issues they are likely to face under current projections of sea-level rise and associated coastal risks.
This advocacy has pushed councils to consider issues they have long been unable, or unwilling to address. Their work has strongly influenced a method increasingly being sought by councils to manage coastal hazard risks they expect to face long into the future.
This method, using the Dynamic Adaptive Pathways Planning approach, is being trialled in Hawke’s Bay, and has drawn considerable interest from other councils around the country.
Local government as a whole has long complained about the lack of support from its central counterpart in preparing for climate change. To fill that gap, the work of Lawrence and Bell has been invaluable.
JAN WRIGHT, Interim Climate Change Committee member, former commissioner for the environment
Jan Wright was parliamentary commissioner for the environment for a decade from 2007. She was known for the strong positions she took, often at odds with the National-led Government of the time. In 2012, she made a damning assessment of changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme in favour of big business and went on to write two reports on rising sea levels, and agricultural greenhouse gases.
Her final report as commissioner, ‘Stepping stones to Paris and beyond‘, in 2017, provided much of the backbone for the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill. It considered how New Zealand might chart a pathway to meeting its emissions targets and international obligations. And she recommended a bi-partisan approach to legislation, to ensure it endures. It was the approach the new government adopted.
Wright, who has a PhD from Harvard, is known to have the respect and the ear of Climate Change Minister James Shaw, and was appointed to the Interim Climate Change Commission last year.
DAVE CULL, Local Government NZ president, Dunedin mayor
When Dave Cull, the Mayor of Dunedin, was asked to address a conference happening in his city, he dispensed with the pleasantries and told them what he really thought.
His speech to the Minerals Forum drew attention for its tone. He told the miners in attendance that fossil fuel extraction was dangerous and immoral, and any such plans would not be welcome in the city. He pointed to the fact that parts of Dunedin, notably some of its southern suburbs, were threatened by climate change, and ended his speech with this line: “I think you will now be under no illusions about which side of the debate I and this city have landed on.”
Not only is Cull mayor of Dunedin, a city facing significant climate change risks, but he is the head of Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), the representative body for all councils.
In both roles, he has pushed climate change mitigation and adaptation to the forefront. He was the first local government leader to sign a climate change declaration, and his council pushed a net-zero target forward 20 years, from 2050 to 2030.
As head of LGNZ, he has pushed for central government to recognise the burden facing many local authorities, many of whom are acting blindly. The group has released regular reports, including a toolkit, to assist councils in making decisions that account for climate change and the related legal issues.
Cull is standing down as mayor, after nine years. During his time as mayor, his council had to manage the devastating 2015 floods in South Dunedin, and start engaging with one of the country’s most flood-prone urban communities, the results of which remain to be seen. Whatever the outcome, there are few people in the country with more hands-on experience with the challenges of climate change adaptation, experience that is desperately needed.
SCHOOL STRIKE 4 CLIMATE MOVEMENT
It started with a Swedish teen’s lonely protest, which suddenly spread around the world.
The School Strike 4 Climate movement is the most visible climate protest movement in recent memory, which is all the more extraordinary given the ages of the organisers responsible.
In New Zealand, the school strike movement has been particularly effective in mobilising students, not just in major cities but in the regions too.
The first strike, on March 15, drew tens of thousands of students, until news of the terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch overshadowed their efforts. A second protest, on May 24, again drew thousands of students. The third strike, on September 27, aims to expand the strike to the general population.
That the strikes have been so effective in drawing attention is itself a rebuke to those who tried to dismiss them. From politicians to principals to radio talkback hosts, there were concerted efforts to undermine the legitimate concerns of the younger generation, who have the most to lose if the climate crisis is not adequately addressed.
It is a decentralised movement, with students encouraged to organise their own strikes, which makes it difficult to single out any individuals to recognise, but the most prominent faces have been national coordinators Sophie Handford and Raven Maeder.
Through their efforts, they have enabled current and future activists around the country to get involved in organising at a young age, nurturing a willingness to speak out for a worthy cause, something that will live on long after the strikes are over.
ANDREW MORRISON, Beef + Lamb New Zealand
Beef + Lamb’s understated and respected chairman is a Southland farmer. Sources say Morrison’s collaborative and constructive approach was appreciated by all sides during wrangling over the zero carbon legislation. He walks the talk and is mapping out his own farms with a plan to go carbon-neutral.
Morrison has also sat on a number of important agri-business boards: Ballance Agri-Nutrients, Ovis Management Ltd, the New Zealand Meat Board and the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium.
The sector he represents is valuable, worth more than $10 billion and the second largest export earner. It claims to support 80,000 jobs. And it has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050.
However, Morrison argues sheep and beef farmers are being unfairly targeted, and being asked to make sacrifices where other parts of the economy are not.
His chief beef is that farmers won’t be allowed to use tree planting to offset biological methane emissions, as is allowed for fossil fuel polluters. Fairness is a powerful argument when it comes to winning over the public. His position has backing from the parliamentary commissioner for the environment and is winning traction.