Wednesday, 15 April 2015

How to spend one trillion dollars

A photo from the Global Wave action for nuclear disarmament.
Read on for more information...

Imagine for a moment that you have been gifted one trillion dollars. Some generous benefactor decides to lend you a hand, having observed you rugged up in blankets and a beanie at home cursing the freezing start to autumn. How about one hundred dollars for the power bill? Actually, how about one trillion? Not to be spent solely on yourself mind, but to be distributed amongst others. How would you spend one trillion dollars?

I set myself this hypothetical earlier. As a law student, I am well-acquainted with hypotheticals; I'm quite comfortable for instance discussing whether or not I would be criminally liable if a swarm of bees surged through my car windscreen when I was driving, causing me to swerve off the road and run down an old man on a motor scooter. But I couldn't get my head around the concept of a trillion dollars. So I turned to google. I found this image, with its own corresponding YouTube video, to put the amount into perspective. This is what one trillion dollars of banknotes looks like, in double-stacked pallets no less!

Visual representation of one trillion dollars. Also see this video.

I'm not sure about you, but I'm thinking that's a significant amount of dosh! With one trillion, I could fight the autumn cold and turn my flat into a public sauna for the next thousand years. An estimated 30,000 people in New Zealand lack adequate accommodation. I could spend a fraction of the trillion giving each of these people a warm, dry home. I could give the United Nations a helping hand with eliminating extreme poverty, after all, the UN's 2014-15 budget was estimated at $5 billion. I could ensure all children in the world were schooled at a cost of just $26 billion.

Unfortunately, the one trillion dollars I'm talking about is of course money spent around the world each year on various contraptions designed to kill people. The thinktank Sipri, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, recently released data on global military expenditure, with expenditure for 2014 estimated at $1.8 trillion. (Far more than one trillion even!) The good news is that global expenditure has fallen overall, by 0.4%, but the bad news (apart from the fact that this is nowhere near enough of a decrease!) is that a number of regions have significantly increased their spending. The only regions to have actually decreased military spending are Northern American and Western Europe, mainly due to austerity measures.

Military expenditure in Saudi Arabia increased by 17% in 2014. Image source.

As you would expect, the crisis in Ukraine is in large part to blame. Ukraine's military expenditure shot up by 20% in 2014, and Russia and Eastern European states also bolstered their budgets. Saudi Arabia increased its expenditure by a staggering 17%, mainly because it is siphoning money into the Yemen campaign. China increased its budget by 9.7% with Vietnam's 9.6% increase close at its heels (think South China Sea disputes.) The United States has reduced its military expenditure for the fourth year running, something which is worthy of applause. However, expenditure is still sitting at a level 45% above that of 2001 prior to the September 11 bombings. Australia's budget has notably increased by 6.7%, which is unfortunate given that Abbott's government apparently can't find enough money to maintain government services to Aboriginal communities.

The upshot of this is that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference will take place against a backdrop of regional conflict and high military expenditure. Tensions between Russia and the United States - the two biggest weapons-possessing countries - are particularly fraught. Whilst these difficulties are appreciated by New Zealand parliamentarians, this has not stopped a large contingent of MPs from speaking out for nuclear disarmament. Lead by Phil Goff, Labour's spokesperson for disarmament, 60 Members of Parliament recently signed letters which were personally delivered to representatives from the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, urging these countries to honour their commitment to complete disarmament. (You can read Brent Edwards' report for Radio New Zealand on the move here.)

According to Goff, the message is the same to all of those states. 45 years ago the nuclear weapons states promised to disarm, we expect them to honour their promises. The promise that Phil Goff is referring to is the one found in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which compels nuclear weapons states (the same five states listed above) to reduce their arsenals and work towards complete disarmament. The text of the Treaty from 1970 simply reads: Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures related to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons states have not made significant steps towards disarmament and their progress in eliminating nuclear weapons has all but stalled.

From the Global Wave initiative.

It is this lack of progress, 45 years on, that gets under the skin of those committed to disarmament. At the moment, thinktank the Basel Peace Office has organised a global wave for disarmament. The idea is that people around the world will wave goodbye to nuclear weapons and upload photos to an online petition. Photographs of waves and personal testimonies are being collected already, and there will be a timed wave over the 24 hours before the start of the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York.

The letters from MPs and the photos for Global Wave are two of a huge number of initiatives around the world with the goal of building political will on complete disarmament and encouraging positive action. The topic of nuclear disarmament is a bleak one (who wants to spend their days contemplating nuclear annihilation?) - but what helps inspire peace advocates is the image of a world free of nuclear weapons. As I mentioned last time and as I will repeat, a world without nuclear weapons would be a safer and fairer world. It would be a world in which human error or evil intent would not risk causing hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths. It would be a world where money spent on weapons could be diverted into other more worthy causes. As the Basel Peace Office proclaims: Nuclear disarmament could free up much of the $100 billion (USD) global nuclear weapons budget for other areas of social need such as eliminating poverty, addressing climate change, and ensuring basic health care and education worldwide.

Just another reason to speak out for disarmament.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Let's Hear it for New York... I'm Going to the United Nations Headquarters!

You know those moments where something momentous happens to you and it takes a while for the enormity of the situation to sink in? I felt like that a few weeks back when I checked my inbox and discovered an email from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In February, the Ministry had called for applications from all interested Kiwis to attend the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference as a civil society representative with the government delegation. The Non-Proliferation Treaty conference takes place once every five years at the United Nations headquarters in New York and reviews the progress made by countries around the world towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Thinking there was nothing to lose from giving it a shot, I had applied, and the Ministry's email responding to my application ran along these lines:

Thank you very much for your application to the Public Advisory Committee for Disarmament and Arms Control (PACDAC) to attend the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. We regret to inform you that you have not been accepted onto the New Zealand delegation...
This all sounded pretty familiar from past experience applying for jobs. Oh well.
However, PACDAC was impressed with your application and has approved a grant from the peace and disarmament education trust to allow you to attend the conference as a civil society delegate for a non-governmental organisation.
Hold on. This meant that, so long as I became affiliated with an NGO, I could go to the conference!! I had to read the email a few times to process the news. There was one thought in my mind: this was an amazing opportunity and I had to make it happen!


Me in my Wellington surroundings getting prepared for my upcoming trip. Thanks to a grant from PADET, the peace and disarmament education trust, in two weeks' time I will be at the United Nations in New York for the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

As I write now, my plans are pretty sorted. In two weeks' time today, on the 27th April, I will be in New York for the first day of the four-week conference. I am attending as a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a global women's peace movement which steers a project on disarmament called Reaching Critical Will. (Check out this site!) In my own capacity, I will blog on the conference happenings, disarmament, and the United Nations process. Just to clarify, everything that I write on this blog is my own opinion and not the views of any group or organisation.

Although I have a base knowledge about nuclear disarmament (see my February 2013 archives for posts from the Mexico conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons), this is a vast and complex topic, and there is much for me to get my head around. I will be learning as I go, and I want to share some of what I learn on this site. I invite you to check back here for updates, including before the conference. Feel free to share this blog with your friends and flick me an email (politicspersonified@hotmail.com) if you would like to join my mailing list.


Scene from the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Source.

I feel extremely privileged to be able to attend this conference. This is right up my alley as a student of Law and International Relations already hooked on peace and security. It is also a fascinating time to get engaged with disarmament discussions. We've heard in the media about the deal between Iran and the United States, the Marshall Islands is not backing down from its "nuclear weapons lawsuit", nuclear warfare has become more present in our minds following the Ukraine crisis, and our MPs have recently reiterated their call for nuclear weapons states to disarm.

Recently I attended a talk at Victoria University by Ramesh Thakur, professor at the Australian National University. Ramesh has advised the New Zealand and Australian governments on security issues, has worked at the United Nations and co-authored the book which I am holding in the photo above, "Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015." Ramesh's view is that the risk of nuclear warfare is right up there with climate change as one of the two biggest existential threats to mankind today. And, Ramesh remarked dryly, nuclear weapons would kill us first!


As New Zealanders, we can be proud of our nuclear-free heritage. Source.

It is clear that the status quo is not acceptable. Nuclear weapons are capable of inflicting immense destruction on mankind and of destroying life as we know it. There are still thousands of nuclear weapons in existence (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that there were around 16,400 nuclear weapons globally at the end of 2014) and arsenals are being modernised despite not holding any security value. The situation must change.

A large number of fellow New Zealanders are dedicated to the cause of disarmament. I'm thinking about advocates for groups such as Aotearoa Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Peace Movement Aotearoa, and the United Nations Association of New Zealand. I'm thinking about church leaders, academics, mayors, MPs, writers, and members of the public.

We can be proud that our country has a firmly anti-nuclear stance, something that we have worked hard to achieve and maintain. But we must set our sights on not just a nuclear-free New Zealand or South Pacific. We must aim for complete and global disarmament: a safer, fairer world without nuclear weapons. Now that would be a world to be proud of.

This is something I believe we are called to work towards.
Please help me share the message.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Questioning the Role of Climate Change in the Wake of Vanuatu's Deadly Cyclone

Sometimes life just doesn't seem fair. When around 80% of your people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, when thousands live in homes made of corrugated iron and palm leaves, when you struggle with the after-effects of colonialism and the recent impacts of rising sea levels, the last thing you want is a category five cyclone to come bearing down upon your island nation. Which is exactly what happened in Vanuatu last Friday night.


Photo of the devastation in Vanuatu. Source: BBC.

Cyclone Pam made short work of Vanuatu's 83 low-lying islands. Wind gusts of up to 300kph devastated homes and vegetation, flinging roofs off houses and ripping trees into shreds. A state of emergency was declared. The southern island of Tanna was particularly badly affected, and the vast majority of homes in the capital Port Vila were severely damaged, along with key infrastructure such as the hospital and airport. The cyclone has taken at least 24 lives and displaced half of the entire population of 253,000. People have had to abandon their home villages and are taking shelter in church halls and school buildings. This is a humanitarian disaster of massive proportions. Even though Vanuatu is no stranger to tropical storms, Cyclone Pam is thought to be the biggest the island nation has seen, and one of the deadliest to have ever struck the Pacific region. According to Chloe Morrison of World Vision, speaking to New Zealand Herald reporters,

"Vanuatu is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world... and this still shocked them."


John Key in Vanuatu, 2010.

Fortunately, governments and NGOs have been quick to respond. When disaster struck, President of Vanuatu Baldwin Lonsdale happened to be in Sendai, Japan, attending a UN conference on disaster preparation. He gave what has been described as an emotional plea for support, and before long, funds were amassing for the relief effort. The EU pledged 1 million Euro, the Australian government $5m (Aus), and our government recently bumped up its contribution by $1.5m, taking us to $2.5m in total assistance. Most of this money will be spent in Vanuatu, with the rest going to other Pacific nations affected. Prime Minister John Key has listed New Zealand's priorities:

  1. Check the safety of people including New Zealanders
  2. Restore basic services
  3. Look towards long-term development

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has detailed more of the government's plans for the rebuild. $1m of the additional $1.5m will be given to NGOs providing humanitarian relief, whilst the other $500,000 will be spent on technical assistance and supplies. Mere hours after the cyclone had passed, a New Zealand Defence Force flight travelled to Vanuatu from its base in Tonga to begin investigations of the damage. Two more flights set off yesterday, carrying defence force personnel, Red Cross staff and humanitarian supplies.


Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale (left) in Japan.
Source: Herald Online.

Civil Defence Minister Nikki Kaye has also been quick off the mark. Kaye warned New Zealand communities, especially those in the Chatham Islands, to stay alert and to make emergency preparations. Although New Zealand was not in the direct path of the cyclone, some areas still experienced severe weather. On Monday night, winds of more than 100kph battered the Chatham Islands and locals have been staying away from work and hunkering down in their homes in the expectation of more bad weather.

Back in Vanuatu, organisations such as Red Cross, World Vision, CARE International and UNICEF have deployed health, logistics and communications staff to help with disaster relief. The current aim for the agencies is to assess the extent of the damage, work out how best to respond, and get started distributing emergency supplies.


Kiwis being flown back from Vanuatu by the New Zealand Defence Force.
Source: New Zealand Defence Force via Newstalk ZB.

It is a difficult environment to operate in logistically. Vanuatu is made up of a large number of islands, and the challenge of providing assistance across the nation is complicated by the fact that communication lines are down. Some areas are experiencing blackouts and others have limited reception. Whilst all aid agencies are trying to achieve similar tasks, there are differences in focus for each organisation. World Vision reports that its first concern is the children of Vanuatu. UNICEF New Zealand highlights the importance of providing measles vaccines to stop the spread of infection at this vulnerable time. CARE International stresses the importance of providing medical supplies, especially given that the central hospital is damaged and out of power.


Some of the devastation that aid workers have been confronted with.
Source: CNN.

New Zealand Red Cross relief supplies including tarpaulins, water containers and first aid kits have been sent from the Auckland warehouse to the islands, where they will be distributed by the Vanuatu Red Cross. Red Cross teams have also been deployed in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tuvalu and Kiribati. If you are interested in seeing what's happening on the ground, I would recommend checking out the twitter page of Hanna Butler, @hannarosebutler, Communications Manager for New Zealand Red Cross.

The situation is dire, but the people of Vanuatu are doing their best to pull through. According to Tom Perry of CARE International, (as reported by Radio NZ), the mood is "still very calm," and even though they are worried about friends and family, the people of Vanuatu are focused on piecing the island back together. But will the people of Vanuatu stoically overcome the disaster and rebuild their lives, only to have another freak cyclone come ripping across the nation a few years later? Is Cyclone Pam, terrible as it is, only the harbinger of what is to come - all thanks to climate change?


Does our imagination run wild when we think about climate change?
Image source: The Telegraph.

It is the opinion of Baldwin Lonsdale that climate change is partly to blame for the latest  cyclone. In his Japan speech, the President of Vanuatu said: "We see the level of sea rise: the cyclone seasons, the warm, the rain, all this is affected... this year we have more than in any year. Yes, climate change is contributing to this." The President of Kiribati agreed, "for leaders of low-lying islands atolls, the hazards of global warming affect our people in different ways, and it is a catastrophe that impinges on our rights..."

But is it correct to suggest that climate change contributed to Cyclone Pam? I'm not a science student, but I am a law student, and if you ask me the answer would depend on how exactly you define the word "contributes"... But such semantics are beside the point. What is important to note is that the reality is not as straightforward as we might like. There is simply not enough evidence currently to figure out whether or not climate change brought about, or exacerbated, this particular cyclone. Scientists are naturally very cautious about drawing such conclusions, because results would have ripple effects throughout the scientific and public policy world.

The New Zealand Science Media Centre is an organisation which seeks to contribute to well-informed public discussions on matters related to science. I would highly recommend having a look at its website. The Centre puts out media releases, digs up pseudoscience and suggests experts for journalists. It was through this Centre that I was put in touch with Dr James Renwick of Victoria University of Wellington's School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences. Dr Renwick was happy to talk to me and answer my questions. I asked if Cyclone Pam could be caused by climate change.


Dr James Renwick - climate expert at Victoria University.
Image source: Victoria University.

"The thing to understand is that we can't yet link one isolated event to climate change," Renwick explained. "It isn't certain whether or not we are experiencing more tropical cyclones; you'll find arguments for and against this. What is certain is that our atmosphere and oceans are getting increasingly warm in most locations.

"But many factors - more than just sea and atmospheric temperatures - control tropical cyclone strength. The composition of the atmosphere is one, the structure of winds is another. And of course it depends which statistics you look at as to whether or not you see a trend...

"So it's not clear at the moment if climate change will result in more cyclones, or even in more intense cyclones. We might get the same number and intensity of cyclones, but the one thing we can be sure of is that climate change will help these cyclones cause more damage. They would carry more rain with them since a warmer atmosphere contains more moisture, leading to more flooding, and higher seas would bring about stronger sea swells and a greater risk of coastal inundation."

Dr Renwick's comments were consistent with observations by UK academics recorded on the Science Media Centre's website. According to Dr Nick Klingaman of the University of Reading, (my italics) "The latest projections suggest that climate change will reduce the total number of tropical cyclones in the South Pacific, though the average intensity of those that do form may be stronger than at present. In a warmer world, rising sea levels and more intense tropical cyclones may increase the damage caused by an individual cyclone, even if the overall number of tropical cyclones decreases."

The Greens reckon we must address the root cause of disasters.
Source: Stuff.co.nz

According to Myles Allen of Oxford University, "basic thermodynamics means that a warmer atmosphere... makes more intense cyclones possible... But this does not mean cyclones have necessarily become more likely. The latest assessment of the IPCC stated explicitly that there is no clear evidence at present for any human induced increase in tropic-wide cyclone frequency. Other factors such as sea-level rise will exacerbate any storm's impacts. Some of the observed sea level rise in this region, but probably not all, can be attributed to human-induced global warming...The science isn't there yet, but we are getting there."

Whether or not the science is there or not hasn't stopped the Green Party from getting their penny's worth on the issue. Dr Russell Norman has stressed that the New Zealand government must do more than just providing aid, it must also address the underlying causes behind the problem. On Monday Norman argued, "while solidarity and post-disaster assistance are normal, we must remember that it only goes so far if governments are not willing to proactively work on climate change... The Green Party would also like to see the government use this opportunity to develop a strategy around climate change refugees and help the people of Vanuatu."

The issue of climate change refugees is a terrible and fascinating one which will have to be the topic of a future blog post. For now it is interesting to note the international response to this question on the link between climate change and 'natural' disasters. The situation seems clear enough in the mind of Ban Ki-Moon, with the Secretary General of the United Nations making this telling comment at the summit in Japan:
"Climate change is intensifying the risks for hundreds of millions of people, particularly in small island developing states and coastal areas... What we are discussing here is very real for millions."


How long will it take for Vanuatu to rebuild?
Source: Island Escapes.

It remains to be seen how these important discussions will play out in the public forum. I notice that bloggers in New Zealand and abroad are already writing opinion pieces on the topic, some of which quickly become very emotive. In the interests of time I won't refer to these articles today, but you can google them yourself if interested.

What I do want to finish with today is a reflection on how society is so interlinked. I found this comment by Dr Ilan Kelman of University College London on the Science Media Centre's website: "A cyclone itself does not create a disaster. There must be vulnerability also." If you ever look at Helen Clark's twitter account (the former PM produces a steady stream of thought-provoking tweets and selfies at international conferences), you'll see the link between development and resilience come up time and time again. To reduce the impact of disaster, we need people to be educated and financially secure, and to have flexibility to responding to crises. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and a lack of access to quality infrastructure and support services are literally a recipe for disaster. 

Climate change also must be factored into the mix. Although the science is inconclusive on exactly how climate change will impact us, the great bulk of evidence suggests that it is happening and that people already vulnerable to disasters will (continue to?) be hit hard unless we take action. We don't want climate change to undo the progress we are making in many areas of development and poverty-alleviation around the world.

Sources for this post:
  • Radio New Zealand
  • New Zealand Herald
  • Stuff.co.nz
  • Beehive.govt.nz
  • Twitter
  • The Guardian
  • The Independent
  • Deutsche Welle
  • New Zealand Red Cross
  • CARE International
  • UNICEF New Zealand
  • World Vision New Zealand
  • Science Media Centre

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Tree Hugging Taken to a New Level in Titirangi

It's a pretty iconic suburb nestled in the Auckland hills. It's artsy and the people take community seriously. They take the bush seriously too. If you stand in Titirangi village and do a 360 degree turn, you'll see native forest all around.

This was the response from my uni friend when I rang her out of the blue this morning wanting to know more about Titirangi, the place where she grew up. The suburb of native forest and community-minded Aucklanders is currently the scene for an ongoing protest as hundreds of residents gather at Paturoa Road in the hope of saving an ancient kauri tree slated for destruction. The 500-year-old kauri, along with a 200-year-old rimu, is standing on a site where two houses are to be built by Parnell-based property developers John Linehan and Jane Greensmith. The next step after securing resource consent from the Auckland City Council was to clear the land, and accordingly a team of contractors had set out on Monday morning with chainsaws in hand. Their task was complicated when they were met by a wall of protesters who had got wind of the plans. Locals associated with Save Our Kauri, led by organiser Aprilanne Bonar, are determined to do whatever it takes to prevent the kauri from being felled. One of the group, activist Michael Tavares, donned his climbing gear, scooted up the tree and refused to come down.


Protester Michael Tavares on his perch in the kauri tree.

As I write, Tavares must still be camped up in the tree, possibly reading from the book on Australian History he apparently brought along to keep him occupied, or perhaps snatching a nap in his hammock strung between the branches. Tavares spent last night and Monday night up the tree and has said to the media that he is willing to stay there for as long as is necessary - though he hopes the issue is quickly resolved. "This tree's been up for 500 years, it's got the time on its hands, and I've got the time to make sure that it doesn't fell," he said to One News. Tavares might be waiting a while, but he can rest assured that he has plenty of support. As of 3pm yesterday, Save Our Kauri had collected 15,000 signatures from New Zealanders around the country in support of the famous tree.

The kauri in question seems something of an unlikely hero. Its age is unclear - Save Our Kauri claims that it is around 500 years of age, whereas Environment Minister Nick Smith says he was advised it is closer to 200 years. The tree has been described as "majestic" in media reports. Perhaps you need to be there. Shots on Getty Images show Tavares peeping out from a unruly-looking specimen mostly obscured down a back section.

Majestic or not, the tree's appearance belies its symbolic importance. To the people of Titirangi, and to thousands of others around New Zealand, the tree symbolises the need to not only protect kauri and other endangered plants, but also to acknowledge and uphold environmental values in society. Save Our Kauri protesters are angry that the public was not consulted over proposals to fell the kauri. They are concerned at the effect of the Auckland City amalgamation on council decision-making, and at the apparent loosening of environmental protections through changes to the Resource Management Act.

Protesters gathering at Paturoa Road.

To start with the gripe about consultation, it appears that Save Our Kauri has objected to the Paturoa development for some time but that its submissions have been ignored by the council. Bonar claims that the group has been, "exhausting every possible legal avenue" over the last two years, presumably in the fight to save the tree. The actions on Monday, when contractors came onto the property to begin clearing, were the last straw.

The transformation of the Resource Management Act is a topic which has been bandied about the public sphere for a while and which will only increase in relevance this year. Changes to the RMA were introduced under the previous National government and appear to have had a role to play in bringing about the situation today. The legislation was amended to make it easier for trees to be felled; whereas once certain groups of trees were automatically protected under the Act unless special circumstances warranted their removal, now all trees are able to be destroyed with the exception of those which are first identified by district councils. It is up to councils to exercise their delegated powers in making decisions about resource consent for their regions. Save Our Kauri's complaint about the Auckland City amalgamation may stem from a fear that a larger council has less scope to properly investigate environmental issues in the course of its decision-making.


Does the Resource Management Act hinder development?

The protesters are also aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a priority of the current government to make sweeping changes to the Resource Management Act. According to Environment Minister Nick Smith, we are facing possibly "the most significant overhaul of the Act" since its inception. The thinking behind the changes is that it is high time that the RMA was updated, for our environmental regulations are inefficient and burdensome, and the Act hinders positive development. Minister Smith wants to see the process of gaining consents simplified and 10-day time limits for processing simple consents established. He cites Motu research which shows that over the last decade, the RMA has added $30 billion to the cost of building and reduced national housing stock by 40,000 homes. From the government's perspective, it is in the interests of addressing housing affordability and maintaining economic growth that the changes are passed. The aim is to have the bill before Parliament and through one select committee by the end of the year.

What worries environmental advocates is that the proposed changes, if adopted, may undermine national environmental protections. It is clear that the Act is being refocused to make it more development-friendly. Changes in the pipeline include combining the principles and purposes section of the Act and taking out key principles including: the ethic of stewardship, the intrinsic values of ecosystems and any finite characteristics of natural and physical resources. This would mean that Aprilanne Bonar's comment to media about the kauri, that there is "significant ecological value in (these) trees" would be a nice thought, but one of no relevance to legislation. Additional changes include that significant natural areas and landscapes to be protected under the Act would need to be individually specified. According to Cath Wallace of the Environment and Conservation Organisations of New Zealand, changes made between 2009 and 2013 have "undermined urban tree protection... and it will get worse." Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, argues that the Act should not give equal weight to environmental and economic concerns. The RMA, "is not and should not become an economic development Act."

Provocative Forest and Bird poster on changes to the RMA.

But enough legal talk - time to look at the science. What's so important about an old kauri tree anyway? Endemic to New Zealand, the kauri tree is already endangered, and the recent spread of dieback disease to the mainland means that its numbers continue to deplete. According to Forset and Bird, dieback disease has made it from Great Barrier Island to Auckland and Coromandel, wiping out a large number of kauri trees, along with the species that can only exist in the micro environment creating around kauri roots. The disease is spread through the soil, so the government has invested in boot-cleaning stations and education schemes to try and combat the disease. Save Our Kauri point out the futility in spending money to save kauris whilst also making it easier to cut them down.

They're not the only ones making use of a sharp tongue. The protest has caused a stir in the political world and a number of politicians are keen to get a slice of the action. Search #saveourkauri on Twitter and, as you would expect, you'll see that the Greens have been frantically tweeting away on the subject throughout the week. Labour's David Cunliffe vowed that he would offer his support by climbing the tree - or at least hugging it. He received a stern cautioning from party leader Andrew Little for this comment. (Little clearly doesn't want to be thought of as getting too cosy with people of the tree-hugging variety.)

Environment Minister Nick Smith was questioned about the RMA by Eugenie Sage of the Greens at question time yesterday. When asked whether the proposed changes to the RMA would include increased protection for native trees, the Minister answered in the negative. He argued that ample opportunities already exist for environmental protection, and that the RMA gives individual councils discretion to make decisions about trees in their regions. Smith reiterated that the fault for this incident lies with the Auckland City Council and not with the government. The law as it stands, according to Smith, is not a cause for concern.


Environment Minister Nick Smith and Auckland Mayor Len Brown.

Despite his apparent satisfaction with the current law, Minister Smith did concede that he was a bit baffled that the council did give consent to fell the kauri. This surprise was echoed by Former Prime Minister Helen Clark who shared her dismay to thousands of followers on Twitter. One might be forgiven for thinking that the council decision-makers were rushed - that they somehow overlooked the importance of the kauri - but it seems that there was nothing haphazard about it, for the decision is backed up by an extensive report. Prime Minister John Key was apparently daunted by the length of this document, for his only comment on the issue so far has been to say that, "it's obviously an old tree, but I don't have any other details. I haven't read the report - it's over 70 pages long."

If it sounds like Key is trying to play down the incident and waiting for the fuss to die away, he's certainly not the only one. Auckland City councillors have been pressed on their views and released a statement insisting that the council "has no mandate to revoke the consent." From the Council's perspective, the protesters can shout and wave signs about as much as they like, but the Council is not going to and cannot budge. The public must instead pick its fight with the property developers. The protesters are taking the council's statement with a grain of salt, with Michael Tavares opining that the council is simply washing its hands of the responsibility. Save the Kauri continues to petition the council to change its stance.

Property developer John Linehan has found himself in a tricky position. He insists that he is doing nothing wrong and is only following the law. It is of course the protesters who are breaking the law by trespassing on private property, and Tavares has been issued with a verbal trespass order. Yet although Linehan's actions may be legal, he is certainly not the most popular kid on the block at the moment. It is inevitable that the protesters will turn their attention toward him if they haven't done so already. Worryingly, Lineham says he has received threats of violence and that he is fearing for his safety.


A poster designed for the Save Our Kauri group.

What does this all mean in terms of New Zealand's favourite kauri? The reality remains that it looks unlikely that the council is going to (even if it could) revoke resource consent. The situation rests on the good will of developers John and Jane, who must be brassed off about the whole affair. Everybody else in this saga is glad to apparently not have the fate of the centuries-old kauri on their hands. It is an inconvenience they would rather not have to worry about. But it is an inconvenience with a powerful symbolic allure. The fate of other trees about the country, and of natural areas in general, is hanging in the balance.

If this kauri is cut down despite all attempts to save it, what does that mean when it comes to other trees - has a precedent been set that it is okay for councils to destroy significant trees? Or on the contrary, does the public outrage at the intent to fell this tree serve as a warning to rethink the ease at which councils grant consents? Furthermore, given that any sensible government wants to keep on the good side of its voters, is it necessary to re-evaluate proposed changes to the RMA to avoid further protests? Or will people soon forget about the whole kerfuffle and pay scant attention to all the jargon and technicalities inherent in any discussion relating to the RMA?

So what do you think about the whole situation? I asked my Titirangi-raised university friend near the end of our phone conversation, should the kauri be saved? My friend paused a moment before replying. Well it's definitely a shame. I think public consultation would have been best. And if there was any way of saving the tree, I guess we should take that option. She laughed. But I guess saying that's not useful - it's a pretty common opinion.

I thought of her remark later in the day. On the contrary, I believe my friend's comment is all the more powerful by virtue of it being widely-held. It is a thought shared by hundreds of Titirangi residents and thousands of New Zealanders. Time will tell how this viewpoint shapes public discussions into the future.


Resources Consulted:


New Zealand Herald
Radio New Zealand
One News
Stuff.co.nz
Twitter and Facebook
New Zealand City
Ministry for the Environment
Beehive.govt.nz
Forest and Bird
Environment and Conservation Organisation of New Zealand

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Listen Up! Today the Government Announces Plans for Iraq

The afternoon of my flight from Wellington to Christchurch is clear and cloudless, and I’m disappointed to find that my window seat has been taken. A guy about my age, with thick tattooed biceps protruding from under a black singlet, smiles innocently at me.
“You hadn’t come so I figured I’d just sit here. Hope you don’t mind. I’m Justin by the way.” Justin’s cleanshaven face seems at odds with his rough, working man’s body. By the time the safety demo has finished, I’ve learnt that Justin grew up in my hometown and is headed south to visit his girlfriend of two years for the weekend."
“I haven’t seen my Missus since Christmas y’know.”
“That’s tough, how come?”
“Oh just army stuff man. I’m training at the base in Palmy.”
“Is it hard doing long distance?”
“Yeah it's hard. But I call her every day. And we text all the time. She’s going to varsity soon.”
“Up north?”
“Nah. Dunedin.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yeah, but if she came up…”
“What?”
“Well, we’re waiting to hear about Iraq at the moment, right? If John Key’s gonna send troops to fight ISIL.”
“Would you go?”
“It depends.” Justin fingers a tattoo and the design crinkles under his nail. “I’d have to talk to Mum and Dad. And my Missus, she don’t want me to go. She keeps telling me scary stuff about ISIL she hears on the news. The beheadings and that.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Me?” Justin looks thoughtfully out over Cook Strait, across the speckled white caps of the waves towards the South Island. When he turns back, his eyes are sparkling. "You gotta think about your country too," he replies cheerfully. "I'll know when the time comes." That was two weekends ago.

The government will release details of involvement in Iraq in Parliament today.

Justin (not his real name) is one of a number of Kiwi soldiers who will now be giving serious consideration to the life-changing decision of whether or not to travel to Iraq with a New Zealand deployment. It is all but confirmed that the government will send troops to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL; the decision was given the green light by Cabinet yesterday and will be debated in Parliament from 2pm today. Foreign policy decisions of this nature are a matter for the Executive government, so it is not necessary for National to amass support for a deployment through a vote in Parliament. Today's ministerial statement to Parliament will be an opportunity for John Key to set out the action plan in Iraq after months of difficult negotiations.

Although the finer details of the deployment - for example, the legal status of New Zealand troops and the structure of the army - are yet to be made public, many facts are already well-known. About 100 New Zealand soldiers will be sent to Iraq, most likely to the US training base Camp Taji north of Baghdad, in a training capacity only. This distinction is important, for the government insists that New Zealand is not getting involved in fighting and is not sending combat troops. Our men and women would be tasked with training soldiers in the Iraq army so the Iraqis can master new tactics to help defeat ISIL. In addition, New Zealand may help in intelligence gathering. New Zealanders won't go on military exercises and would only take up arms for self-defence purposes. They will likely be accompanied by Australian troops (possibly 300 Australians) in an alliance reminiscent of ANZAC, and there is no exit strategy in place at this point in time.

Gerry Brownlee (Defence Minister) and John Key.

New Zealanders around the country will no doubt be keenly following the updates from Parliament today. Opposition politicians, political commentators and academics in particular will be quick to subject the government's plans to scrutiny. There is already a great deal of debate taking place as to whether or not the government is making the right decision... would New Zealand's contribution even be effective? are we putting our soldiers and potentially our civilians in danger pointlessly? what other options exist that may have less adverse effects for all concerned?

According to the government, New Zealand cannot sit back and stay out of Iraq. ISIL is abhorrent and brutal and must be stopped. New Zealanders in the region are at risk, as well as New Zealanders in locations around the world which could be subject to terror attacks. For instance, New Zealanders have lost their lives in the past in 9/11 and the Bali bombings, and we cannot let this happen again. It is necessary to fight ISIL before they become too strong. Furthermore, around 60 other countries are supporting the Iraqi government, so it would be callous of New Zealand to refuse. John Key famously told the BBC that this is the price to pay for being part of the club.

The implication of this statement is that sending troops to Iraq is a gesture of solidarity with countries like the US, UK, and Australia who New Zealand would rely on in the event of a security lapse. In the wake of ISIL's rise, the government has committed more humanitarian aid to the region and beefed up security measures at home (for instance, New Zealand citizens suspected of being linked to ISIL are being observed), but the government has now decided it is to take action in the international arena. Key has noted that polls are showing that New Zealanders generally support involvement in Iraq. For instance, the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll showed that a majority of 48% of Kiwis would support sending troops abroad. (42% would not support this move and 10% were undecided.)

Murray McCully and Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Foreign Ministers of New Zealand and Iraq.

Professor Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies is one of the sceptics. He argues that past experience should tell us that foreign involvement in the Middle East is only going to make the situation worse. Decisions taken by Western countries to bomb or arm IS will fail to bring peace and security to the region and will only lead to more terrorism and violence. Research tells us, he says, that terror attacks undertaken by al-Qaeda and ISIL have been arisen from a desire to take revenge on Westerners who have intervened in the region. Jackson views Western policies towards the Middle East harshly, as short-sighted and ill-informed.

Commentator Bryce Edwards echoes the sentiment sending troops to Iraq would be ineffective. 100 New Zealanders, however skillful they may be, are little more than a drop in the bucket, and it is the symbolism of the move that is most important: the extra flag being hoisted in the war effort. Our government is focused on the symbolic importance of providing greater political legitimacy to the actions of Western allies. However, Edwards believes we would be better to investigate other options of contributing to Iraq, such as increasing diplomatic efforts in the region, upping humanitarian aid and condemning Saudi funding of ISIL. He warns us to make no mistake about it, this move is political and we are being fooled if we think it is based on humanitarian reasons.

Is sending troops to Iraq the best way to fight ISIL?

It is clear that the government has faced international pressure to commit troops to the Middle East from a number of fronts. Barack Obama called for a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern forces, Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari came to the country recently to meet with officials and request assistance, and the British have made a similar plea. The government will engage in negotiations with Australia's Tony Abbott when he arrives in New Zealand this Friday. Yet should New Zealand make a stand and refuse to bow to international pressure?

Journalist Jon Stephenson argues that committing troops to Iraq would succeed only in heightening the risk to New Zealand: by placing our soldiers in harm's way and by increasing the likelihood of ISIL wanting to attack New Zealanders in retaliation. Other critics have noted that the risk of Iraqi troops defecting and turning their arms against New Zealanders cannot be ignored. Stephenson views the Iraqi army as woefully ineffective and believes it will take a long time for Iraq to find much-needed political solutions to the sectarian violence which is tearing its country apart.

Kennedy Graham of the Greens.

Journalist Jon Stephenson.

Another major bone of contention is the government's insistence that it does not need the support of Parliament in order to make this decision. Whilst this is factually correct, some individuals are arguing that the government would be better to seek parliamentary support, or even that it is undemocratic not to have a majority in the House. Victoria University lecturer Robert Ayson believes that the government should only proceed when it has the support of the House, especially given that the situation in Iraq may change rapidly. Kennedy Graham, the Greens spokesperson for Defence, labelled the government's actions as politically improper. Labour, the Greens, United Future, the Maori Party and New Zealand First do not support military involvement in Iraq, the only party siding with National - albeit reluctantly - is ACT. According to political commentator Gordon Campbell, the government's mandate is weak as it, appears to lack authority and support (a) among the Parliament of Iraq that we are supposed to be helping and (b) among the public here at home.

The government's response to these criticisms so far has been that polls show it does have widespread public support for this move, that troops are only travelling overseas in a supporting role, and that it is necessary to make the hard decisions sometimes. John Key has insisted that New Zealand is not bowing to international pressure and is making an independent decision. Finally, Key has stated that other opposition parties are speaking out against deployment because they see it will give them a political edge, when in reality, in their heart of hearts they know the right thing to do is to send troops.

Whatever the case, it is clear that the government's decision will have enormous repercussions on life in New Zealand (not to mention in Iraq): on our foreign relations, on National's popularity, and most importantly, on the lives of individuals like Justin, who may find themselves hoping on a plane, this time bound for the Middle East, in only a matter of months.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Soaking up the Sun... and Powering the Country. Renewable Energy Revolution in Germany.

There's a joke in Germany that you need upwards of five different rubbish bins just to recycle a teabag. (You imagine having to separate out the tea leaves, bag, string, paper label, even the little staple connecting it all together...) The Germans are certainly very fussy - or should we say efficient? - when it comes to their recycling. Like us Kiwis, the German people have built up an impressive culture of sustainability and environmental stewardship over the years. The German recycling system is highly specialised, the countryside is criss-crossed by woodlands, and the locals have a great appreciation of the outdoors. You can understand why New Zealand is a popular travel destination for this nation of hikers and skiers. Moreover, it seems that Germany is well on-track to becoming a renewable energy economy.


Green energy - the way of the future and here for good?

In 2000, the German federal government instigated the much-touted Energiewende (Energy Transition) policy which set the strategic direction of the energy sector for decades to come. The strategy aims to oversee a transition to renewable energy, with 50% of Germany's electricity predicted to come from renewables in 2050. I travelled through parts of southern Germany a few weeks back and was impressed to see the great number of wind turbines dotting the fields, as well as the solar panels gracing the roofs of farmhouses. We would drive past whole fields of solar panels, with the big black squares angling optimistically upward to the stormy winter skies.



Solar panels in the fields and on house roofs.
Germany, December 2014.

Germany's Green Party has been a powerful political force, and Merkel's current Christian Democratic Union & Social Democratic Party coalition is also determined to pave the way to a sustainable future. The government is phasing-out coal and nuclear energy and heavily subsidising solar, wind and biogas production. After the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, in response to widespread public disenchantment with nuclear power, the decision was made to close eight nuclear reactors and to phase out all nuclear power generation by 2022. Germany didn't want to risk a disaster like that experienced by Japan, even if this meant getting rid of one of its back-up power supplies in a difficult era of transition.

Germany has made remarkable progress in its energy transition. Between 1990 and 2010, renewables grew 10 times faster in Germany than the OECD average. At the North and Baltic sea, offshore wind turbines preside over vast hectares of ocean. Solar panels are a regular feature on the roofs of country homes and even inner city apartments. Germany is one of only a few OECD countries to have reduced its CO2 emissions whilst still growing its GDP. Thousands of jobs have been created in energy production; for scientists, engineers and construction workers amongst others.


Source: The Economist.

I made a timeline of some key dates and milestones for the energy transition.

  • 2000: The Renewable Energies Act comes into force. This kick starts the Energy Transition, with 100+ targets set for sustainable electricity, heat and transport. The blueprint for this transition had existed since the 1980s.
  • 2002: The National Strategy for Sustainable Development is adopted.
  • 2007: The Integrated Energy and Climate Programme is launched.
  • 2009: The environmental goods and services sector of Germany's economy accounts for a not insignificant 2% of total GDP.
  • 2011: At least 370,000 Germans are employed in the expanding renewable energy sector. The decision is made to close eight nuclear power plants.
  • 2012: The German government invests 8% of GDP in renewable energy, despite the fact that the country is also battling the effects of the Global Financial Crisis.
  • 2018: The date by which it is intended that all hard coal mines are decommissioned. Coal subsidies are already being phased out.
  • 2020: 35% of Germany's power should derive from renewable energy.
  • 2022: All nuclear power plants in Germany should be decommissioned.
  • 2030: 50% of Germany's power should come from renewable energy.
  • 2050: 80% of Germany's power should be renewable.

The government's policies have not escaped criticism. Electricity prices have spiked and Germany's poor have been hit particularly hard. Thousands of people are struggling to pay their power bills with the result that their power is switched off by electricity companies. This happened to 300,000 households in a single year. According to Der Spiegel, "(electricity) costs have reached levels comparable only to the euro-zone bailouts."


"Luxury Power: Why energy will keep getting more expensive and what politics must do to stop this." Source: Der Spiegel.

Critics are also quick to point out that the policies are not always having the desired impact of reducing the country's contribution to climate change. For instance, renewable energy production increased by 10% across Germany in 2012. The same year, more C02 was released into the atmosphere than in 2011. How was this possible? The answer seems to lie in the fact that renewable energy sources are not always reliable - their outputs vary depending on the weather conditions. At crucial times in the year, coal production had to be called upon to fill in the energy shortfalls, with the result that coal production actually increased by the same percentage, 10%. Although hard coal production is decreasing, and coal subsidies are dwindling, there are still more coal power plants under construction to help meet Germany's energy needs up to 2050. Perhaps - critics pipe up helpfully - Germany has got it all wrong and the country instead needs to follow the way of the Swedes? (We Kiwis are constantly being told that we should follow the example of the Nordic countries, for instance in tackling inequality, and apparently Germany gets the same.)


Wind power station in Sweden. Source.

In any case, Germany's Energy Transition is no mean feat. It is ambitious. It is controversial. Most importantly, it will be influential. Germany is located smack bang in the middle of Europe, it's well-connected, and it's proved itself a strong and resilient economy. Other states, in Europe and beyond, will be observing with keen interest the successes and failures of this green revolution. If you're anything like me, it will give you hope that renewable energies are being touted as the way of the future. That jobs are being created and industries are being developed. That renewable energies will be better for the environment, and for us. This is a very interesting and exciting time.

Key Sources for this Post:

IEA document.
OECD documents.
Spiegel Article.
Economist Article.
RenewableEnergy.com article.
Deutschland.de YouTube clip.