Time to act for the health of the planet

The Government has walked away from its treaty obligations on climate change, writes Barry Coates, executive director of Oxfam New Zealand.

As we queue up to see The Hobbit in cinemas, we in Middle Earth can identify ourselves with the forces of good marshalling against the evil that threatens the planet. It's clear which side we are on.

Back in the real world, there has just been another battle for the health of our planet, this time in the Middle East rather than Middle Earth. We haven't seen it on our TV or movie screens - it has been fought at the United Nations climate change conference in Doha. Tragically, when it finished on Sunday, it became apparent that we had again lost the battle - another failure to take urgent collective action on climate change.

This inaction contrasts with widening concern that the window for avoiding massive, irreparable damage to vulnerable people and the environment is closing.

New commentators, including the likes of the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Swiss RE Insurance, and the International Energy Agency, are warning of the devastation that will result from continuing on our reckless path of greenhouse gas emissions.

The results are already becoming apparent. Even though average temperatures have risen by less than one degree Celsius, last week's unprecedented heat wave in Australia and a massive cyclone in the Philippines have capped off yet another year of record-breaking droughts, floods and fierce storms. Extreme weather is rapidly becoming the new normal.

If this is less than one degree of warming, fear for the future. Scientists tell us we are headed for between four and six degrees of temperature increase by 2100. And predictions so far have underestimated the speed and degree of impacts such as the melting of Arctic ice.

The World Bank recently said that four degrees would cause "cataclysmic changes". And to make it worse, our Government has switched sides and joined Middle Earth's forces of darkness, a move that Christiana Figueres - the diplomat leading the UN conference - criticised, joining a chorus of condemnation from vulnerable countries, scientists and campaigners. This not only undermines global efforts to tackle climate change, but it damages our international reputation.

It is easy to be complacent sitting here in New Zealand while the worst effects are being experienced in the tropics and polar regions. But we need to remember that those suffering are overwhelmingly people living in poverty, dependent on the environment for their food and livelihoods, and without any safety nets.

Most have no savings or social welfare to help them when a cyclone strikes or their crops fail. They didn't cause the problem of climate change that is wrecking their lives - we and other developed countries did, pumping emissions from fossil fuels into the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate. We cannot pretend that we have no responsibility towards those who are suffering.

As Middle Earthers, we have an image of ourselves as good global citizens. We support those who are disadvantaged, we are passionate about fairness, and we value our environment. Our international reputation and our exports benefit from these values. But in climate change negotiations, we are rapidly moving from the progressive to the pariah.

Consider the evidence. The Government has refused to live up to its obligations to provide new climate funding to support poor countries that are already suffering the impacts of climate change. It has merely re-labelled a small amount of aid money and called it funding for climate change.

The Government has also walked away from our treaty obligations under the only binding climate agreement we have been able to achieve internationally.

The Kyoto Protocol includes two commitment periods for emissions reductions, but the Government has said that New Zealand will not join the second commitment period.

Climate Change Minister Tim Groser then claimed that we are "ahead of the curve" in doing this. This attempted political spin has angered many, including our Pacific neighbours, and it helped earn New Zealand the "Fossil of the Year Award", given to the country that has been the world's worst blocker of progress at climate change negotiations.

At home, the Government's record is no better. Climate change demands visionary leadership and transformational policy change. Yet successive weakening of policies affecting our carbon emissions, including the Emissions Trading Scheme, has meant there is little incentive for action and we face the likely conversion of forested land.

It is time for a change of approach. Instead of fighting over the oars in the lifeboat, as we have been doing in international negotiations, we must recognise if the lifeboat sinks, we all drown.

Preventing climate chaos is becoming more difficult but it is not too late. The target for a binding international treaty is 2015, still time for New Zealand to reclaim the mantle of a good global citizen instead of a blocker.

We can front up to our responsibilities towards our Pacific neighbours and other developing countries by helping them protect vulnerable communities, farmers and families from the impacts of climate change that they have done little to cause. And we can seize the opportunity for moving towards the low- carbon, clean-technology, high- value, knowledge-based economy that is our future.

As we watch the battle for Middle Earth on our movie screens, we need to reflect on which side we are on in the battle being waged on this Earth.

We can emulate Gollum and clutch "our precious" - our car- intensive, lignite mining, deep sea oil drilling, old polluting economy - or we can join the coalition for a planet that is safer, more equitable, greener and with a better quality of life.

This is a crucial moment. Those in favour of a better future need to speak out.

The Press