I always enjoy James Shaw’s speeches. He is often presented by the political commentariat as a centrist suit doing deals with business, letting farmer’s off the hook and dragging the Greens to the right. But when you hear him in his own words, the radical edge is always there. Not capital R, in your face radical, but a coherency with the outfield progressive nature of the party’s charter that runs through everything the Greens do.
In this year’s co-leader speech to the Green Party AGM in Dunedin, Shaw makes several important moves.
After outlining what the Greens have achieved since becoming part of the new government, he lays out what he sees as our most significant danger: the new climate deniers. Despite good work being done, the battle to address the climate crisis is proving difficult because of the next wave of this,
Today’s climate denial is far more dangerous.
And it’s dangerous because it doesn’t actually deny the basic existence of climate change or the science behind it.
It’s dangerous because it sounds reasonable.
The first stage of climate denial is – it’s not real.
The second stage is – if it is real, then it’s not us.
The third stage – if it is us, then it’s not that bad.
The fourth stage is – if it is that bad, then there’s nothing we can do about it.
Many of us have been observing and commenting on this, but it’s significant that Shaw is taking this into the mainstream. He’s directly naming Simon Bridges as leading this denial. On The Nation Shaw yet again rules out working with National, as well as saying that he could never work with someone with as little personal integrity as Bridges. That’s burning bridges time, putting a political stake in the ground and letting NZ know there is a clear choice to be made about the climate crisis and integrity.
So much has changed in the past handful of years, and comprehension of the climate crisis is increasing rapidly. Along with that comes shifts in public response and willingness to act. This is a good thing and I feel more hope now than I did a few years ago, despite the deepening crisis. However while we are approaching a social tipping point where New Zealand (and the rest of the world) might start to take real action, we are seeing two big blocks. The new climate denial, and the potential to tip into despair.
Shaw bluntly names the problem with the first:
And the truth is, the politicians and their allies who are the new climate deniers are driven by something even more dangerous: calculated, short-term self-interest.
This is the alleged centrist in the suit, who talks with business and farming leaders, standing up and saying selfishness will kill us and the planet and we need to face this politically head on. To me this looks like paving the way for the next social shift. That what we are doing is not enough, that what we need to do can serve society well, that there is a way forward but we will have to change. It’s time to pick a side.
The second major block to real change is the potential for the tipping point of public awareness to fall over into despair. The great thing about tipping points is they can effect change rapidly, but the risk is that they may not go the way we want. We do have some choices here and I agree with Shaw that this is an absolutely critical one. As more people wake up to the crisis, if they don’t have the skills to manage that cognitively and emotionally, and don’t have pathways that give them a sense of empowerment and ways to act, then it’s likely that we will see many people choose to go into denial again, or simply give up.
National and its allies are now intentionally engaging in Trumpian politics NZ style and that is going to include increasing fear mongering at a time when awareness of the climate crisis is scary enough. I see an urgent need for the left to be presenting truthful but hopeful stories about the climate situation and what we can do.
There are hints in Shaw’s speech of engaging with the aims of Extinction Rebellion. He talks about ‘truth-telling’, one of ER’s core demands, and goes on to list some alarming statistics on just how bad things are getting already with the climate, before talking about what is hopeful and what we can do.
There will be criticism from the left that Shaw isn’t telling enough truth, but that’s not his job. His job is to translate the crisis into solutions-based policy and law, while conveying to the awakening public, at a pace they can cope with, why this is so important. When NZ is ready, more people will vote Green and the Greens in parliament will be able to do more.
In the meantime it’s our job, those of us outside of parliament, to keep the pressure on across society so that at some point we elect a government that does declare a climate emergency, not in name but where it takes full responsibility for transitioning NZ to a long term, life affirming society.
Speech transcript and press release about the government’s Climate Action Plan are on the Green Party website.