As the world’s great and good descend on Glasgow for the COP26 Conference there has been criticism of Climate Change Minister James Shaw’s decision to attend on behalf of New Zealand. Some have highlighted what they see as the hypocrisy of calling for the need to reduce individual carbon footprints on the one hand while travelling halfway round the world to do so on the other. Others have argued that it is insensitive to be leaving New Zealand at this time to attend an international conference, when Covid19 restrictions are making it near impossible for so many others with pressing family matters to come and go from the country.
Both streams of criticism miss the point, in my view. My concern is not of the Minister’s attendance, rather that he will not be arriving until after all the other political leaders have left. The whole value of such conferences is the opportunity to interact directly with political counterparts from other countries, to share experiences, and learn directly from them.
For many years when I was a Minister I attended the annual meeting of the United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. While the meeting proceedings were formulaic (despite my attempt when chairing one of the plenary sessions to make the discussion more focused and purposeful, rather than just the customary statement of national positions), the opportunities outside of those more formal situations to establish links with Ministers and senior officials from other countries, or international non-government agencies was extremely valuable.
I was able to establish close personal connections with not only many of my counterparts of the time, but also agencies like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and its agencies, and the Obama White House. Over time, these contacts became extremely valuable, both as sources of information on developing trends from their perspectives, and new policy initiatives that may or may not have been applicable to New Zealand. There were similar opportunities to share New Zealand’s experiences with others facing similar situations.
One example was learning from UN Drug Testing Laboratory officials of the then comparatively new Swedish approach of testing wastewater for narcotic drug residues to ascertain the prevalence of drugs like methamphetamine in local communities. That technique has now become commonplace today, including using wastewater testing to determine the presence of Covid19 in a community.
The COP26 meeting has a much greater significance and overall importance to the world than the Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but the experiences I am reporting will be just as relevant in a different context. For the future of both New Zealand’s international positioning and our domestic response, it is important that New Zealand have a Minister visible at the table for these discussions.
Other countries rate the significance countries place on an issue by whether they are represented at these international gatherings by politicians, or just leave their participation to officials, or diplomats. The presence of a Minister heading a country’s national delegation is generally interpreted as meaning a country is taking the issue seriously and has a point to make, and moreover, is worth listening to. In a very hierarchical international order, this is important for a small, isolated country like New Zealand. It opens doors that might otherwise have remained closed.
The decisions reached at COP26 will have an important impact on new Zealand’s future. While we are still finessing our own policy response, consistent with our national interest, and the work to date of bodies like the Climate Commission, we will be very influenced by what happens over the next week in Glasgow. Having a Minister present to set out New Zealand’s position and potential concerns will have an impact beyond just having officials putting forward our view, no matter how well-intentioned and competent they might be.
For these reasons, I do not criticise James Shaw for deciding to go to Glasgow. As I say, it is a great pity he will not be arriving there until after most of the political heavyweights have left, which will diminish his attendance somewhat. But hopefully he will still have sufficient opportunity to make good connections, that both reinforce New Zealand’s concerns from a national and wider Pacific perspective and press home to others the urgent political as well as environmental consequences rising sea levels will have in our part of the world.
Climate change should not be a partisan political issue, no matter how tempting it might be from time to time to play politics over some of the positions being advocated. Therefore, the overwhelming thrust of the government’s approach needs to be on securing a durable national consensus on which to base New Zealand’s own ongoing policy approach.
The Minister’s attendance at COP26 is not an opportunity for political sniping, but rather a further step in building up the sound policy base we will need to secure our national climate change policy response. To that end, he should have the full support of Parliament and should be required to report back fully to Parliament as a whole, not just the government, when he returns.
After all, climate change is simply too important an issue to be capriciously up for change whenever there is a change of government.