Jacinda Ardern described climate change as our "nuclear-free moment", drawing parallels with David Lange's famous comments. Photos: Getty/Lynn Grieveson

Pete McKenzie compares Ardern’s underperformance on climate change to Lange’s celebrated but ineffectual anti-nuclear stand, and sets out how New Zealand could genuinely solve the whole climate change problem – not just our own

New Zealand’s reputation for independent, forward-thinking foreign policy began with laughter. Under the keen eyes of Oxford University’s undergraduates, Prime Minister David Lange was being interrogated by the American evangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell about the morality of nuclear weapons. As Falwell finished a particularly long-winded question, Lange pounced. “I’m going to give [an answer] to you if you hold your breath just for a moment. I can smell the uranium on it as you lean towards me!”

The undergraduates roared in delight, Falwell’s pomposity was punctured, and Lange’s celebrity on the world stage as a fierce opponent of nuclear weapons was secured.

The world’s nuclear powers today hold an estimated 13,500 nuclear warheads – lower than at any point since the 1950s, but enough to bring the world to an abrupt end many times over. We have come closer to such an end – whether through war between America and North Korea, or India and Pakistan – in 2020 than at any other time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lange’s nuclear opposition guaranteed his place in New Zealand history; in global terms, it was trite symbolism which did nothing to end the existential nuclear threat.

At the Labour Party’s 2017 campaign launch, bathed in red light and facing a gruelling electoral struggle, Jacinda Ardern wanted some of Lange’s magic. “This is my generation’s nuclear-free moment, and I am determined that we will tackle it head on.”

We haven’t, of course. By the end of 2020, New Zealand will have emitted a net 66.6 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent gases – the most ever. The Ministry for the Environment doesn’t expect our net emissions to peak until 2025, when we will emit 72 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. They project we will emit 707 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent between 2021 and 2030 – more than 100 million tonnes over our target under the Paris Agreement. Apart from a miniscule strengthening of the Emissions Trading Scheme, Ardern’s Government has done practically nothing to address that gross overshoot; when compared to Lange, Ardern hasn’t even matched his introduction of a “nuclear-free” New Zealand.

Lange knew New Zealand didn’t have the luxury of leaving the rest of the world to their nuclear toys; the tragedy of his premiership is that he did anyway. We have to learn from his mistake.

But to be honest, even if New Zealand did substantially reduce our CO2-equivalent emissions the global impact would be minimal. We contribute approximately 0.1 percent of the world’s emissions. It is essential that New Zealand reduce its emissions in order to forge a viable path for the rest of the developed world, but if they don’t follow we’re stuffed.

This was the same problem Lange faced. New Zealand refused to admit American ships, declared itself a nuclear-free zone and passed non-binding resolutions in the United Nations. None of it had any impact on the nuclear machinations of the world’s superpowers. So how does a small Pacific country at the bottom of the world make a difference?

Until now, New Zealand has tried to do it through international treaties. In the nuclear sphere this includes agreements like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, neither of which have actually stopped nuclear proliferation or are particularly comprehensive. In the environmental sphere, New Zealand has supported the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, which sought to bring every country together to agree on binding (Kyoto) or aspirational (Paris) emissions targets. Kyoto collapsed because developed states saw no advantage for themselves, and Paris is a nicety which has done little to restrain countries’ emissions. These international treaties failed because there is no tangible incentive for countries to follow them; we rely on countries acting in their own long-term interests, when their leaders almost always want to pursue their short-term advantage.

The conventional approach has failed. For Ardern to truly tackle her “nuclear-free moment”, and for New Zealand to actually make the world a safer place, we have to change our strategy.

If international treaties keep failing because there’s no short-term advantage in respecting them, we need to create treaties that provide immediate positive incentives. This is the approach taken by the ‘Climate Clubs’ of William Nordhaus, Nobel laureate in economics. Instead of trying to get every country to agree to strict emissions reductions, Nordhaus recommends that a smaller number of ambitious countries agree to jointly reduce their emissions by setting a shared price on carbon. This ‘Club’ would then impose tariffs on countries outside the group.

With a Climate Club, ambitious countries could act because they wouldn’t be the only ones taking on the challenge. Previously reticent countries would have an incentive to take climate action in order to gain entry to markets otherwise obstructed by Club tariffs. Over time, this incentive would grow the Climate Club until every country participated.

New Zealand is uniquely positioned to pursue such an approach. First, our Prime Minister is hailed as a global hero whom presidents and parliamentarians would follow for a chance of stardust-by-association. We saw that in Ardern’s pursuit of the Christchurch Call. Second, we’re already part of a similar coalition of like-minded states. During the negotiation of the Paris Agreement, approximately 35 developed and developing countries – from New Zealand to Jamaica, the European Union to Mexico – formed the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ to push for more aggressive climate action. Together, this High Ambition Coalition represents 21 percent of global emissions and 23 percent of global GDP. If the Coalition formed a Climate Club, it represents more than enough of the world’s carbon and cash to make a genuine dent in climate change and encourage other countries to sign on.

We all remember the first line of Lange’s response to Falwell at that Oxford Union debate. Far fewer know the rest of his answer. “We in New Zealand, you know, used to be able to relax a bit, to be able to think that we would sit comfortably while the rest of the world seared, singed, withered.” Lange paused. “[W]e used to have the vision of our being some kind of an antipodean Noah’s Ark, which would, from within its quite isolated preserve, spawn a whole new world of realistic humankind. Now, the fact is that we know that that is not achievable. We know that if the nuclear winter comes, we freeze; we join the rest of you.” The impact of climate change will be just the same.

Lange knew New Zealand didn’t have the luxury of leaving the rest of the world to their nuclear toys; the tragedy of his premiership is that he did anyway. We have to learn from his mistake. With a different strategy and a bit more ambition, Ardern can secure her place in history by solving not only our climate challenge, but the world’s.

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