Getting back on the right side of history

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    Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is blazing something of a tour de force across Europe at this moment, clearly a member of the world’s young gun leaders and belying the rather carping news coverage she and her ministers get at home.

    Warmly welcoming Ardern at the Élysées Palace, French president Emmanuel Macron voiced support for the EU-New Zealand trade negotiations that could set the standard for a “new generation” of trade agreements which include social responsibility and the rights of governments to regulate for public policy objectives.

    Canada’s Justin Trudeau was also in Paris and all three leaders prioritise climate change action.

    It was an issue Ardern also took to a packed auditorium of students at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, saluting the moment when the city lit up the Eiffel Tower after the successful 196-nation Paris Climate Accord last year.

    It was a speech that begs comparison with David Lange’s televised Oxford Union debate in 1985 when he successfully argued the proposition that ‘nuclear weapons are morally indefensible’. 

    For the Pacific, climate change is not a hypothetical, Ardern said, in the narrative style that is very much her own. 

    Fresh from visiting Samoa, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands and experiencing the raw effects of recent cyclones, she underlined the fundamental desire of people to stay, “to remain on their land and in their homes, nurturing their culture. 

    “We know and understand this. New Zealand does not simply sit in the Pacific. We are the Pacific too, and we are doing our best to stand with our family as they face these threats. 

    She talked of aid and research projects, disaster relief and building resilience through successful renewable energy supplies in Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and Niue. “These help not only in reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions but they free up much needed money that would otherwise be spent on expensive diesel stocks to run generators.”

    At this moment, 500 students in the heart of Europe have a glimpse of Pacific initiatives and important research to better understand the long-term impacts of ocean acidification on small island nations’ fishing resources. They also have a taste of the uniquely New Zealand but internationally rather sought after concept of kaitiakitanga.

    “On the environment, our approach is probably best summed up by one Maori word that means guardianship and I would like to think it underpins the motivation for taking the decisions we need to for the next generation,” she said, emphasizing that both moral and economic motivations for decisive climate action stack up. 

    “Around the world we see oil companies investing billions of dollars in clean energy. Companies are investing in charging stations for electric vehicles. Oil companies themselves are looking to the future and that includes renewables. 

    “We all know we are going to have to do things differently. 

    “Norwegian-based Energy Company Statoil has developed its own climate road map in support of the Paris Climate Agreement. It includes by 2020 putting 25 percent of its research funding into developing new and energy efficient solutions for a low carbon future. 

    “Oil giant Shell back in 1988 was writing reports predicting the impacts of climate change. They followed that up just this week, some 30 years later, saying they strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future, while also extending the economic and social benefits of energy to everyone.” 

    Along the way, Ardern put in New Zealand’s own proud record of independence and world-leading reforms. “In 1893, our women became the first in the world to win the right to vote. In the decades that followed, we were among the world’s first countries to introduce the key foundations of a modern welfare state – universal pensions, healthcare and education. 

    “We were at the table when the United Nations was born, and we have always stood up for rules-based, multilateral action, whether in the battle against commercial whaling, ensuring fair and consistent trade rules, or standing up against nuclear weapons and testing.

    “Collectively we must call to action not only other governments, but civic society, business, and the public. This is the chance to transform our respective economies, to face our collective future with knowledge, to grow the job opportunities and the health and well-being of our communities as we go, she said. “To put people and the need to preserve our environment for the next generation right at the centre.”

    “Wherever we are, whatever our motivations or our roles, I hope each of us can look back on this period of time and say that we were on the right side of history,” she told the students. • Liz Waters

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