National battered by both sides on climate change

The sincerity of National’s efforts to reach across the aisle on climate change has been questioned by some - but the party is also being buffeted internally by members who feel it is going too far, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

Climate change adaptation may be common practice nowadays, but the National Party was clearly unprepared for the flood of delegates into its conference session on primary industries.

MPs stood at the back as more chairs were rushed into the breakout room at the Christchurch Town Hall, with MC and agriculture spokesman Nathan Guy clearly taken aback by the level of interest.

Guy made a game effort to promote the party’s primary sector discussion document, but it was clear that most people were in the room to discuss one issue - the same issue that countries around the world are struggling to get to grips with.

Climate change is a conundrum for National, with the party’s rural base fearing the economic impact of the sharp reductions that some of its urban, more liberal supporters may want to see.

National’s climate change spokesman Todd Muller has taken the lead on the party’s collaboration with the Government over the Zero Carbon Bill establishing the Climate Change Commission, at times seeming more progressive than some of his colleagues may wish.

Addressing the party faithful, Muller caused some to grumble as he spoke about the need for an agricultural response to climate change, pointing to “market signals” from consumers and businesses that could not be ignored.

“This trend is not going to be able to be forced back, it is like a rising tide - it is coming. This is change we have to embrace, this is change we have to learn to adapt to on our farm and be able to push back in a way that keeps us profitable.”

The former Fonterra and Zespri executive admitted to taking a defensive crouch himself in the past, faced with “blame and constraint” from the centre, but said that had to change if primary industries were to remain a crucial part of New Zealand’s future.

“Rubbish,” interjected one audience member. “Are you saying the science is settled?,” shouted another.

The first question from the audience did little to suggest that message had got through.

“Methane is 0.000082 percent of the atmosphere, it comes from a cow, emanates from a cow at either end...could you please explain to me how it actually contributes to global warming?”

A patient explanation by Muller was followed by a defence of his position: “One of the decisions that I made early on, and I know there are people in this room that are probably disappointed that I made it, was that I was not going to spend my time as your spokesperson over the last year focused on trying to second-guess science.

“The previous National government was quite comfortable that the science expressed by the global scientists in the IPCC reports were valid.”

“Rubbish,” interjected one audience member. “Are you saying the science is settled?,” shouted another.

A less extreme critique came from someone noting New Zealand’s minimal contribution to greenhouse gases compared to larger nations.

“Given that we’re 0.17 percent, even if we achieve and aspire...to get to zero percent, what the hell are we going to achieve on a global basis from a global perspective and why do we need to lead the world?”

On this issue Muller appeared more in sync with the crowd.

“The decisions around how the globe deals with climate change is a function of the decisions made in Delhi, in Washington, in Brussels, in Beijing, and it is those countries that need to lead, and the idea that we need to run off to the UN and throw the agriculture sector under the bus to get a gold medal so James Shaw can feel first-class and famous…”

Even then, he pushed back against the idea that “somehow we pay a huge amount off to the UN to fund their nefarious activities”, noting that New Zealand’s climate finance commitment came largely through its aid to the Pacific Islands: “We don’t write out a big cheque every year and give it to the UN.”

National climate change spokesman Todd Muller faced a rough reception from some party members as he made the case for working with the Government on the topic. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Speaking to Newsroom after the session, Muller said the rough reception was in line with most public meetings on climate change which he spoke at.

“There’s always a spread of opinion in the public around the extent to which climate change is something that is man made or being contributed to by our actions, and of course anyone can go online and see a particular view that reinforces their own perspective.

“Some are well-read, some just skim over the surface, but it is quite typical and I’m quite relaxed about it.”

The climate change sceptics may have been the loudest voices in the room, but they “certainly weren’t the majority” among National’s membership - although the turnout, the largest Muller had seen for a primary sector side-event in 30 party conferences, could not be cast aside.

“I think that speaks to the front of mind of the issue: what makes sense for New Zealand in terms of its emissions reduction pathways over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years? What does it mean individually for me as a farmer, as a city person? How am I going to navigate myself, my family through this in a way that still makes me successful?”

“It is important that you get New Zealand’s response broadly calibrated with the rest of the world. If you go too hard and too fast on this, you just load up cost.”

The battle to convince National’s members of the value in reaching across the aisle had been made easier by the backing of Simon Bridges from the moment he replaced Bill English as leader, Muller said.

“He was very clear right at the start when he took over that he saw the opportunity to just refresh, perhaps pivot slightly to a more, an environmental perspective that in my view was always there but perhaps didn’t get the profile in terms of the various work programmes that were achieved over the last nine years.”

Muller offered praise for Climate Change Minister James Shaw’s professionalism in working with National on the Zero Carbon Bill, as well as his and Jacinda Ardern’s “genuine willingness” to set the commission up in a bipartisan manner.

But the devil is in the detail, and Muller made plain there was a number of areas where the Government would need to change its approach for National’s support to hold.

“It is important that you get New Zealand’s response broadly calibrated with the rest of the world. If you go too hard and too fast on this, you just load up cost.”

Going against the tide

But there are risks in being seen to struggle against the tide of public opinion, as was pointed out during a vote on a policy remit to reverse the Government’s ban on oil and gas exploration.

Rangitata member Robert Carter was the only delegate to speak and (seemingly) vote against the remit, arguing that it was a political danger on par with “irrigation for cows”.

“People are getting more worried around the world about climate change and global warming and the consequences. I think if we’re seen as the anti-climate change party, this may cost us a huge amount in  the next election.”

Speaking to Newsroom later in the day, Carter said his concern was not so much the substance of the policy but how it would be perceived by a public increasingly swayed by emotion over reason.

“Within National, there are a lot of people very concerned about climate change. We have a blue-greens movement within National, three-quarters of the MPs are members of it - it’s a fact of life.”

It was a message echoed, albeit less sympathetically, by a Sunday protest outside the conference venue from Extinction Rebellion Ōtautahi. About a dozen protesters chanted: “The house is on fire, take action”, complete with a less than subtle mascot: Tusker, the “elephant in the room”.

Group member Sara Campbell accused National of opposing the Government’s climate action without bringing any of its own ideas to the table.

“We’re all going to have to change our way of life, we all need to be willing to make that sacrifice for the sake of our children having a future and we need to do it now.”

“Scientists have told us we’ve got 10 years to reduce emissions by 50 percent to avoid climate catastrophe which means the next few months are crucial, and we need this policy now.”

Promises of bipartisanship were “all talk”, Campbell said, empty words contradicted by National’s attempts to frame the Government’s policies as an attack on low- and middle-income New Zealanders.

But what of the argument that we are going too far, too fast, for our farmers?

Julie, another Extinction Rebellion member, chipped in: with an IPCC report giving the world only 12 years to limit warming based on questionably optimistic assumptions, we had to speed up, rather than slow down, our efforts.

“Yes it’s going to be hard for the farming community - it’s going to be really hard for everybody because we all need to get out of our cars, we all need to give some things up that we've become used to living with.

“We’re all going to have to change our way of life, we all need to be willing to make that sacrifice for the sake of our children having a future and we need to do it now.”

National may have to make some sacrifices of its own when it comes to its rural support, or risk being swept out to sea.

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