Former Prime Minister Helen Clark oversaw the development of worldwide sustainability goals during her time at the United Nations. Despite the gloomy global picture, she insists there are still grounds for optimism.

When it comes to taking action on the environment and sustainability, Helen Clark knows full well why many feel pessimistic.

“There are headwinds, no question – you feel a headwind every time you open the newspaper or turn on the BBC…really the most ridiculous things [are] happening in the world.”

But in a conversation with former Volunteer Service Abroad chief executive Gill Greer during Victoria University of Wellington’s Sustainability Week, the former Prime Minister and ex-head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) opened up on why she felt the situation was salvageable, and how social media may actually help.

In 2015, Clark helped to lead the development of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs), a set of 17 goals and 169 targets for both developing and developed countries.

The SDGs were born out of what she described as an understanding that countries “shouldn’t be mortgaging the future of future generations with the way you trash the environment”.

“When we’re thinking about development we need it to be consistent with maintaining the ecosystem’s integrity, and of course the traditional model of development hasn’t been about that, it’s been about polluting first and if you get to be a rich country then clean up later.”

Clark said the UNDP attempted to improve on the lack of political enthusiasm for its earlier Millennium Development Goals by leading a worldwide consultation process on the SDGs, rather than relying on an agreement “negotiated by diplomats in New York” without broader buy-in.

“These agendas all stay as bits of paper getting dust on the shelf unless countries really care about them, grab them, take them home and say ‘this is important to us and we’re going to do something about it’.”

“Often we’re complacent, we think it’s alright here – well it’s not alright, and it really is a bit of a call to action to people to do what they can at whatever level.”

New Zealand presented its first voluntary performance review on the goals earlier this year, and Clark said there was room for improvement.

The country “hasn’t really picked up the SDGs” despite accepting them under the last government, although the current administration’s agenda – such as the Wellbeing Budget, the Zero Carbon Bill and freshwater quality proposals – were consistent with the UN agenda.

“In my opinion, it wouldn’t be a Herculean task to say let’s put it in this overall framework, and that would then make New Zealand’s reporting, what it had to say about its work on SDGs, far more meaningful.”

While New Zealand does not have the poverty of a country like Somalia, the high levels of children living in households below the poverty line or with food insecurity showed there was plenty of room for improvement, she said.

“Often we’re complacent, we think it’s alright here – well it’s not alright, and it really is a bit of a call to action to people to do what they can at whatever level.”

With a lack of planning capacity within central government, Clark supported the idea of an SDG secretariat within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, giving the Prime Minister oversight of the targets and providing the power to get ministries “out of their silos and start thinking about interactions of policy”.

Gill Greer (left) and Helen Clark traded their thoughts on how to best achieve greater sustainability in New Zealand and around the world. Photo: Victoria University of Wellington.

Greer pointed out one weakness with the SDGs – their lack of status as a convention or treaty, and the fact they are not legally binding on nations.

“But then you wouldn’t have got agreement on a treaty – it is very difficult to negotiate new treaties in the rather polarised world that we have,” Clark responded.

Instead, the idea was to exert a “kind of moral pressure”, with the hope that countries would start to panic about their lack of progress as the years went on. 

But that polarised world is of growing concern to many: Greer quoted UN human rights Michelle Bachelet’s observation that the threat posed by climate change was “not a situation where any country, any institution, any policymaker can stand on the sidelines,” before noting herself that the US under Donald Trump was firmly on the sidelines.

“It’s not if we are in a little bubble: we are in a world where one country’s emissions…become another’s pollution. Until the US joins agreements on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, what chance have we got?”

But Clark was more positive: while the US federal government was “missing in action”, the country was moving on without them, with large states within the US taking their own action and the country’s renewable energy output exceeding that from coal for the first time ever.

“My attitude is you’re a long time dead so you may as well make the most of the opportunities you’ve got.”

“If these major municipal areas act, you get impact alright.”

Asked about how she maintained that optimism despite the dire state of the world, Clark offered a simple answer: “My attitude is you’re a long time dead so you may as well make the most of the opportunities you’ve got.”

So how, asked one audience member, should they make the most of their opportunity to get the message out about the need for action?

In many ways it’s much easier now than when I was in politics here because that was really pre-social media…we live in an age when it is easy to connect with communities,” Clark said.

“Of course there is the point that people may live in their own bubble, but there are more ways of going out direct to public opinion than there ever used to be, when we were dependent on traditional media taking an interest.”

* Victoria University of Wellington is a sponsor and supporter of Newsroom.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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