Climate action is written in the stars

Comment: As business and civic leaders meet in California, they should look to the heavens for inspiration, writes New Zealand climate change minister James Shaw

In New Zealand culture, the constellation Pleiades or Matariki symbolises renewal (Pic: Flickr/Davide Simonetti)


At this time of year, stargazers in the southern hemisphere can see a constellation that marks a time of remembrance, celebration and renewal. It’s called Pleiades – known as the Seven Sisters, or Matariki to New Zealanders. It has a similar name (and significance) in other Pacific cultures, from the early Polynesian word mataliki, meaning minute, small.

New Zealand strongly identifies with our Pacific region. We are connected not just by our vast blue front yard – the Pacific Ocean – but by history, politics, cultures, shared interests and personal ties. New Zealand places regional cooperation and a linked destiny at the centre of its identity, national security and prosperity.

Soon, Matariki will be visible in US skies. The celebration and renewal it signifies is an apt symbol for the states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens who will soon gather in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. The summit will celebrate their extraordinary achievements, and reinvigorate the transformational change that is taking place in the US and around the world.

And we need ambitious climate action. Natural catastrophes, extreme weather events, water crises and a failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation pose serious risks to our region.

More than 30 years after New Zealand declared itself a nuclear-free zone, our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that a strong stand on tackling climate change is the ‘nuclear-free moment’ of this generation. As with nuclear weapons, climate change poses an existential threat that New Zealand is prepared to take leadership on internationally.

What happens in the next few months will impact future of the Paris Agreement and the global climate

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I am determined to see climate action as an opportunity rather than be paralysed by the enormity of the problem we all face. At home, the New Zealand Government is bringing climate change into the mainstream of economic development. We have initiated a nationwide public discussion on New Zealand’s transition to a low-carbon economy, to inform decisions about how fast and how far to go.

New Zealand’s economic transformation will be anchored in a legislated long-term emission reduction target that serves as the lode star to guide us in meeting our Paris Agreement commitments. We intend to establish a Climate Change Commission to provide independent advice to government on meeting the target, including regular emissions budgets to set milestones for the journey.  We are also taking steps to improve our emissions trading scheme (the world’s longest-standing, after the European Union’s).

Gaining support for climate action across the political spectrum has been critical.

As you can see in the United States, the private sector is already moving to seize the opportunities offered by the transition to a low emissions economy.

Here in New Zealand, 60 CEOs – their businesses making up nearly half of New Zealand’s emissions and 22% of our private sector GDP – have launched a new Climate Leaders Coalition. They have committed to measuring and reporting their greenhouse gas emissions and working with suppliers to reduce their emissions.  Those business leaders are committed to supporting the Paris Agreement.

Jacinda Ardern commits New Zealand to zero carbon by 2050

As a major agricultural exporter, New Zealand is building a system of safe, sustainable, low-emission food production through innovation and investment. It’s an area where we have particular expertise to share. Agriculture is New Zealand’s largest source of emissions but we are also one of the world’s most efficient producers of safe and healthy food. We are working with other countries and sub-national economies in a global research alliance to find ways to grow more food while reducing emissions.

Collaborations like these, within global frameworks like the Paris Agreement, amplify the voices of smaller countries. They offer a forum for leadership where size doesn’t matter and where good ideas can be explored and exchanged.

Small countries like New Zealand each account for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But together our emissions add up to almost 30% of the world total. New Zealand can be an advocate for our region while recognizing that this global problem requires every country to act. We’re all in this together, and none of us can do it alone.

At this time when Matariki shines like a beacon in our southern skies, we know that by working together, the future can be both productive and bright.

James Shaw is co-leader of the Green Party and climate change minister of New Zealand

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