James Shaw - Climate Safe Communities Speech

A family whose home was flooded to the ceiling of the ground floor. The kitchen, dining and living rooms filled as completely as a fish-tank.

The water, so unrelenting the parents were forced to break open an upstairs window with a steel bar.

So that Mum could pass their children to Dad, who had swum out to retrieve the family kayak. 

A pregnant mother, and her five kids. 

Lucky enough to escape the torrents flooding into their home at such terrifying speed that it created a whirlpool on their driveway. 

A river that breached and roared through the home of an elderly couple. 

A couple who had poured their hearts and souls into that home over decades. 

Their ‘forever home’. 

These stories are not from a science fiction novel. 

They are from right here in Auckland, just seven months ago. 

Each providing a terrifying glimpse of the personal impact of the climate emergency. 

And I would like to acknowledge that many of you here will have your own stories to tell. 

Just as those in Te Tai Tokerau, Coromandel, Tairāwhiti, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson, the West Coast, and others, will have their own stories.

Of the loss they suffered, of a community coming together, and of months and months of gruelling recovery. 

***

We think of climate change as a slow-moving, scientific and technical issue that, on a day-to-day basis, people don’t experience and don’t really see. 

Until, of course, they do.

I had been the Minister of Climate Change for five and half years when the flooding of 27 January hit this city.  

In those five and a half years, there have been plenty of setbacks, frustrations, and roadblocks. 

But every single day, I fought and the Greens fought, as hard as we could to cut pollution at the scale and speed needed to slow global warming.

I like to think that we have done a pretty good job with the governments we have been given. 

Only six months before the flooding, I ushered in the country’s first ever, comprehensive, all-of-government Emissions Reduction Plan.

A blueprint for a zero-carbon Aotearoa.

Aotearoa has been experiencing more frequent and more severe droughts, floods and storms for a while now.

But it wasn’t really until the Anniversary Weekend floods, followed by Cyclone Gabrielle a fortnight later, that I truly saw - for myself - what we have been fighting for.

I couldn’t grasp from the pictures I’d seen in the newspapers or on the six o-clock news, the sheer scale of the climate crisis until I’d seen it for myself, in person. 

Nothing prepared me for the sight of children’s toys and clothing heaped in brown puddles, or cherished items stacked in ruins.  

Broken walls, sagging houses, wrecked cars buried in silt.

Precious family photos, sodden, barely recognisable. 

Old school books, letters, the kids’ drawings, in pieces. 

I met the people who had spent weeks in a gruelling blur of endless clean up. 

And what I saw at work, was community. 

Neighbours helping neighbours. 

Volunteers who sprung into action to help clean up streets, rip out carpets, and sort through belongings. 

A community knitted together by caring for one another. 

Even for those who hardly knew each other.

Global temperatures are today 1.1 degrees warmer than they were 150 years ago. 

Warmer air holds more water vapour.

More water vapour creates more rain. Lots more rain. 

One degree of warming translates to about a 20 per cent increase in rainfall per hour during an extreme weather event. 

So while we have not been able to stop the climate crisis, fractions of a degree do matter. 

There have been a slew of right-wing opportunists lined up to use the Auckland and Hawke’s Bay disasters to argue that the government should give up on cutting pollution and put all its efforts into adaptation. 

This is as unscientific as it is dangerous. 

It is also utterly out of touch with the needs of the people they purport to represent. 

It is a disingenuous, harmful and bad faith argument that is designed to pull our attention away from the work we need to be doing.

It’s like saying we’re going to stop repairing the hole in the roof and focus on just bailing the water out of the house with a bucket. The more it rains, the more water you’ll have to bail. 

Yes, of course we have to adapt to the effects of climate change that we are already experiencing. 

But no adaptation measure we take will survive a two or three degree warmer world. 

To be resilient, we need both immediate and urgent action to limit warming, and action to adapt to what we know cannot be avoided.

Every fraction of a degree matters.

Every tonne of climate pollution that is stopped matters.

A 1.6 degree world is less bad than a 1.7 degree world. 

We simply must not find out what 2 degrees of warming looks like.

We are in a climate emergency.

It is time for everyone to act like it.

***

The people I met here in February and in Hawke’s Bay a few weeks later - and thousands of others - will have spent the last seven months building back what they lost to a climate crisis that was not of their making. 

But one that was perpetrated by a fossil fuel industry and a small number of like-minded politicians who hijacked our political and economic system for decades. 

As much as these vested interests like to over-complicate it, these so-called systems are really just the sum of their parts. 

And those parts are people. 

What the climate crisis means for our future, what we can do about it, and what kind of a world we can create, is all about people. 

And people can change the systems we live in - especially in an election year. 

A crisis will always draw into sharp focus what we value most of all. 

The devastation wrought by the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle showed that what we value above all else is each other. 

***

We are 48 days out from one of the most significant elections we have ever had in Aotearoa.

At the last possible moment when there is still time to steer away from climate disaster.

The world woke up to the scientists’ warnings about global warming a little over three decades ago.

Had this warning been heeded at any point in the last thirty years, the world would be a very different place. 

We’d be better off in numerous ways. 

But, as we saw earlier this year, that is not what happened.

And here’s the worst of it: 

In the three decades since the first global gathering to stave off the climate crisis, roughly as much pollution has been emitted into the atmosphere, as from the start of the Industrial Revolution up until that point. 

Let me put it another way. Half the pollution that has caused climate change has been emitted since the world’s governments first came together to stop climate change. 

They knew what was unfolding. 

They had a chance to stop it. 

They didn’t. 

We have now run out of elections to waste. 

***

Fifteen years ago, in the 2008 election, the Green Party’s election billboard featured a small child with the words, “Vote for Me.” 

In the 15 years since that campaign, that child has grown into an adult. 

For every year of her life, the Green Party has fought harder than any other political party to create the world she deserves. 

But for nine of those 15 years, our progress was stymied by a National-led Government who chose neglect over hope. 

Look back on that nine year period and you’ll see the familiar pattern of neglect that accompanies every National-led Government.

Families were left struggling to make ends meet.

Forced to make impossible choices between heating their home and putting food on the table.

Polluted rivers and the cataclysmic loss of native wilderness and wildlife.

And a complete lack of any meaningful action to tackle the climate crisis.

They squandered a decade of opportunity to create a better future. 

They gave us no reason to hope. 

They eroded any promise of change. 

They put at risk our shared future. 

We can not let them do it again. 

***

Over the last six years, with the Greens in government, we’ve taken more action on climate change than all previous governments before us. 

Pollution is tracking downwards for the first time ever. 

But the job is far from done.

The decisions that will be made in the next term of Parliament will have a profound impact on climate change policy and action for the next twenty years.

And, by extension, the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit from us.

The worst possible scenario I can imagine for the future of climate action in this country, would be a National-ACT coalition.

They would unwind much of what we’ve won. 

The momentum we’ve started to build up would fail.

And if National’s coalition partner, the ACT Party gets their way, everything we have achieved in the last six years… from putting climate targets into law, to ending the use of coal to heat our schools… will be dismantled…and we’ll be back where we started, thirty years ago.

If we are to fundamentally shift the direction and momentum of the country…

If we are to bed in the gains that we have made over our first two terms…

…it is critical that the Green Party has a much greater influence over the work programme of the next Government.

We know what we need to do. 

We have the solutions. 

The only obstacles we face are political.

It is a well-worn political cliché to describe an election as “the most important of our lifetimes.” 

Every election matters. 

But we are out of time. This election will matter forever.

***

Now, this may come as a surprise to you, but I turned 50 this year. 

It is quite different for me to say, as a 50 year old, that I’m worried about the future, than it is to hear a young person say “I’m worried about my future.” 

That they are scared to have kids of their own.

The younger you are, the higher the stakes. 

The net-zero climate targets we put into law are not designed for today’s 50 year olds. 

They are for today's five year olds. 

And that is what today’s announcement is about too. 

It’s about our plan to use the next three years turning the climate crisis into a future of possibility. 

***

The morning that we passed the Zero Carbon Act into law, I became an uncle to our family’s newest nephew. 

Six years in government can go by in the blink of an eye.

But for him, and for all those born since we got into Government, it has been their entire lifetime. 

And it’s their lifetimes that we need to be thinking of in every single political decision we make.

If we make the right decisions now, kids born today will be able to ride their bikes or scooters to school without worrying about noisy, fast-moving traffic. 

They will be able to see eels swimming in their natural habitat by the time they are old enough to say “tuna.”

If we leave our mature trees where they are, our grandkids will be able to climb the same branches our kids are climbing now. 

If we actually build light rail - instead of staying on the ridiculous consultancy merry-go-round forever - when those kids are teenagers, they will be able to get around their city independently without needing a car.

And, if at the same time, we build warm, dry, affordable, and accessible homes, close to the new rail lines, they will have a warm dry place to live and a quick commute when they’re ready to move out of home.  

We can absolutely make all of this happen. 

All we need is the political will. 

***

For decades, politicians have made excuses for why we cannot do things at the pace and scale we need to solve the connected crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and intergenerational poverty. 

They have repeatedly denied their own ability to fix major problems.

They tell us their hands are tied. 

They say only little steps are possible.

But the climate crisis will not wait for decades of incremental progress.

It is happening right now.

What gives me hope is that the very changes we need to fix this challenge are the ones that will make life better for people, and for nature, anyway. 

Imagine sending your kids off to school on their bikes, along with their friends, and together they’ll get to school along a protected path, instead of driving through traffic. 

Imagine jumping on fast light rail to get to work instead of crawling along gridlocked roads. 

Imagine streets lined with trees, new parks, clean rivers and birds soaring overhead instead of concrete and tarmac. 

We can have all this and more.

It is all possible with the right political decisions. 

***

Over the last two months, the Green Party has set out a plan that will guarantee everyone has enough to cover life’s essentials.

That will ensure that everyone has a warm, dry, affordable and accessible home, powered by cheap, clean solar energy.

That will ensure that everyone has at least the most fundamental dental care. 

But, alongside making sure everyone has what they need to meet life’s essentials, we must also rethink the communities where we live and work.

So that those communities provide for people and nature to thrive.  

The Climate-Safe Communities plan we are announcing today will build our cities around the needs of people, while also creating space for nature, like new green infrastructure that can soak up water and help prevent flooding.

Creating new routes for buses and light rail, walking and cycling, will get people where they need to go more quickly.

And with less pollution than building more roads.

Tree lined streets will shade us as we walk the kids to school. 

They will also provide an effective, efficient, and immediate form of urban climate action.

Harakeke-lined paths and park basins will absorb water when the next storm hits.

Keeping our homes safe from floods. 

There is no one big silver bullet to deliver this.

But many, many small and necessary changes that together add up to a better future.

Each part of the plan we are announcing today will make greater shifts possible in the future. 

But only if we embrace the possibilities right now. 

The Government has just set up a new framework for how we plan and build our communities, replacing the RMA.

It gives us the tools we need to prioritise the resilient, low emissions infrastructure that we need.

Our Climate-Safe Communities plan is a commitment to unlock the potential of the new National Planning Framework.

We will ensure that the new Regional Spatial Strategies and Natural and Built Environment Plans give councils the tools they need to consider stormwater flows in their planning.

Because no one should have to rely on Dad swimming out to find a kayak to get their kids to safety in a flood.

We will use development bonuses for new buildings that include rainwater storage or green roofs.

That means that we’ll allow an extra few storeys in new developments to make it economically worthwhile, to make sure our towns and cities have surfaces that soak up heavy rain, instead of vast expanses of concrete that make flooding worse. 

Green roofs. Rainwater tanks. Parks, streambanks, and wetlands that deliberately flood, and then drain away, protecting the homes and businesses around them.

And we are backing up this plan with a commitment to funding for communities and councils.

Our $750 million Urban Nature Fund will empower communities to create jobs restoring and protecting nature in our cities and towns.

It will support communities to work with nature to not only prevent climate breakdown but to create better parks, more trees, and cleaner urban streams.

And to tackle our fastest growing source of climate pollution in Aotearoa, we will take serious action to give you an alternative to sitting in traffic.

We will prioritise light rail in our major cities and better buses in our other communities.

Instead of building new motorways that will instantly become clogged with gridlock and pollution.

We will build light rail in Auckland from the city centre to Mount Roskill.

Then we’ll build it out to the airport - at street level - and we will get it done faster than the mind-bogglingly expensive tunnels that are currently proposed.

And that will free up funding to build light rail in Wellington and Christchurch too.

When it comes to how we plan, build, and adapt our towns and cities for climate change, cutting pollution and increasing resilience are two sides of the same coin.

We can and must do both. 

Because none of us can stand by, when we see a way to prevent future tragedies like the floods in Auckland and around the North Island earlier this year.

We owe it to each other, and especially to those who will inherit our towns and cities, to make different choices.

We owe it to those who can’t yet vote to put their best interests at the heart of political decision making. 

We owe it to every child in Aotearoa and every child throughout the world to keep up the momentum of the past six years. 

We owe them a world with a hopeful future.

We cannot fail them. 

We have everything we need right now to make it happen.

So, let’s get out there and do it.

The time is now.

Nō reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

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