Futurelearning
Climate change: what about public agency?

“If we think of our ecological footprint as the impact we make on the environment, what’s our social handprint – what difference are we making to our democracy and the community around us?” University of Canterbury Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations Bronwyn Hayward asked at the second Pacific Climate Change Conference, hosted by Victoria University of Wellington and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme. 

Hayward, Director of the University of Canterbury’s Sustainable Citizenship and Civic Imagination: Hei Puāwaitanga research group, was talking to the themes of her recent book Sea Change: Climate Politics and New Zealand

Her motivation for the book, she said, was the question of fairness. 

“Not only fairness that the inaction New Zealand has had on mitigating and adaptation to climate change is exacerbating suffering and will exacerbate suffering from here to throughout the Pacific, but also concern from a democratic point of view that people are largely missing from our climate change discussion and it has become an increasingly technocratic discussion which risks missing the point of [the] Paris [climate change agreement]. 

“Yes we desperately need good science and yes we desperately need decisive leadership. But Paris wasn’t aimed at only reducing climate change to well below two degrees, heroic effort as that is. The rest of the sentence continues: ‘to address this in the context of addressing sustainable development and eradicating poverty.’ 

“In effect, Paris has put climate policy back into the context of our everyday lives. How [do] we reach that climate target, how do we separate it from how we tackle sustainable development, poverty, inequality, the advance of human rights and indigenous peoples?

“In effect, Paris has put climate policy back into the context of our everyday lives. How [do] we reach that climate target, how do we separate it from how we tackle sustainable development, poverty, inequality, the advance of human rights and indigenous peoples? 

“But my concern is that these wider goals which are allied and supported through climate objectives are often missed in our very narrow focus, particularly in New Zealand discussions around action on climate.  

“So in the book I make a case for widening the debate for bringing citizens back into policy, which seems unlikely, because everywhere democracies are failing us, influenced unduly by significant funding, by populism, by slow pace and timidity.  

“It seems perhaps optimistic to argue that it is only through democratic public debate that we can achieve and sustain the transformative types of policy that we need. And yet already when we see the slowing of pace of change in a government that mandated to effect change on climate, with no timetable available for that, we see now why we need that continued public debate and pressure to lead.  

“And Paris itself is based on that premise. It’s based on the idea that our national contributions will be pressured up. It’s not illegitimate pressure; it’s a requirement and in fact it’s outsourced to us in some ways, the accountability for maintaining realistic and ambitious goals, to communities to ensure that happens.” 

Many people’s experience of citizenship is one of frustrated agency, said Hayward – “agency being our ability to imagine and effect change”. 

Causes include poverty and a lack of access to education, she said. 

“But also experience of environmental exclusion, which has become particularly marked under the Trump policies. So it’s not just the building of walls and keeping people in and out; it’s the way we monitor access to areas, the displacement of people with no ability to control their relocations.

"Initially it’s quite a seductive model: you want to have somebody who can make fast decisions, but very quickly part of recovery is to be able to guide those decisions and one of the key problems for democracy is how do we maintain democracies through the constant periods of change which we will experience into the future?” 

"Authoritarian decision making as we experienced the FEMA model in Christchurch [after the 2011 earthquake], which rolled out as command and control. Initially it’s quite a seductive model: you want to have somebody who can make fast decisions, but very quickly part of recovery is to be able to guide those decisions and one of the key problems for democracy is how do we maintain democracies through the constant periods of change which we will experience into the future?” 

There is still a strong sense of ‘communitarianism’ in New Zealand, said Hayward. 

“I’ve used ecological citizenship. But the values of whanaungatanga, the values of kaitiakitanga, the things that kids learn in sports clubs, on school camps – they are a very significant base for thinking about effecting change as social agency. How I make a difference with others.”  

The student volunteer army after the Christchurch earthquake didn’t just happen, she said. 

“It happened because we still have young people socialised into collective action. It is a norm that’s there. It’s been latent but it’s an important resource.” 

Environmental education is also critical, said Hayward. 

“The turangawaewae, the sense of ‘I have a place to stand. I have communities that I identify with and that I will defend’.“ 

The ‘Politics of climate change’ strand of which Hayward’s presentation was a part also looked at taking climate change legal action, with presentations by Sarah Thompson, the Waikato University law student who took the New Zealand government to court, and lawyers Nicole Smith and Michael Sharp. 

Smith said she had “worked for a lot of the multinationals that did the terrible things we are talking about. I know how they work. I’ve worked for them and I’ve worked against them. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of taking them on”. 

A mosaic of climate change rulings is developing around the world, said Smith. 

“They’re building up a system of precedents that courts are beginning to listen to, and human rights commissions and other forums.” 

Thompson’s and other cases have seen courts rejecting the argument that climate change policy is a no-go area for them. 

“A number of the cases all said it’s not a good argument [for country’s governments] to say, ‘We’re only small, we’re not going to do much. Even if we reduced our emissions to zero it wouldn’t really make that much difference in the world.’ 

"Courts have consistently said, ‘No, we’re all responsible actors, we’re all global citizens, we all must do our bit, the question is where that line is drawn.’“ 

Smith said she has been working with James Thornton, founder and chief executive of international public interest environmental law organisation ClientEarth on an International Bar Association initiative “where we’re trying to establish effectively a model statute which different governments around the world can take pieces of to help citizen activists take climate change litigation cases against their government.  

"Some of the initiative is things like making sure that costs lie where they fall. Bringing in a court rule or statute within that country that says, ‘If you take a citizen environmental case in our country and it gets over certain thresholds you will not have to face costs against you."

“You may think no government will do that. But we’ll aim for the low hanging fruit. Hopefully some of the Scandinavian countries might just take a few of those. Some of the initiative is things like making sure that costs lie where they fall. Bringing in a court rule or statute within that country that says, ‘If you take a citizen environmental case in our country and it gets over certain thresholds you will not have to face costs against you.’ 

"[Another thing] that we’re trying to bring in in that model statute is a prohibition on what we call ‘slap suits’, which is when you get these particularly private actors, multinationals, somebody tries to bring a case against them and they do what is called a strategic litigation action and they slap it down and they sue the suers.”                   

Smith said there is potential for indigenous peoples in climate change legal action. 

Michael Sharp has been working with her on the Wai 2607 Waitangi Tribunal claim brought by the Mātaatua District Māori Council.  

Filed In 2016, the claim is based on the Crown’s article two Treaty obligations to protect Māori and their environment, said Sharp. 

“It claimed the New Zealand government breached those obligations and weren’t doing their fair share to reduce global greenhouse emissions in a number of respects – the ETS [emission trading scheme] being ineffective, inadequate targets, lack of practical policies to reduce emissions, etc. 

“The claim went on to say there are a whole lot of prejudicial effects Māori are suffering as a result, including effects to eco systems, to water, fisheries, forestry, communities and health. It sought various remedies, including improved government policies in consultation with Māori.” 

However, said Sharp, the claim isn’t scheduled to be heard until the early 2020s, with an application for an urgent hearing before that rejected last year, the Tribunal saying “the government was still formulating climate change responses and Māori can participate in that process”. 

The claimants had filed evidence from scientists in the Māori climate change sector “saying there’s been ineffective consultation by the government with them and evidence of ongoing harm”. 

They are now waiting to see the new government’s policies, particularly around emission targets, before deciding how to proceed.