Russel Norman: Our generation's nuclear free moment?

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 05:  New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attends a press conference at Kirribilli House on November 5, 2017 in Sydney, Australia. The new New Zealand Prime Minister is on a one-day visit to Australia.  (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty.

OPINION: Catchphrases are tricky things, the thickly-spread peanut butter on the populist slice of bread.

You never know which utterance, which phrase from which speech, which off the cuff remark will make history.

And when they drop there is no way of knowing which way they're going to hit the floor.  
Face up or face down.

Only time will tell, and we are talking weeks and months rather than decades, which way up Jacinda Ardern's peanut buttered piece of bread will land.

I refer of course to that emotively charged and passionate entreaty about climate change, the Prime Minister's "generational, nuclear free moment."

Catchphrases can define you, propel you to greatness or foot-hack you into the muddy puddle of historical ignominy.

Compare Winston Churchill's "we shall fight them on the beaches" with Neville Chamberlain's  "Peace for our time". A year later Germany invaded Poland and World War Two began.

Lisa Owen on Newshub Nation was one of the first journos to actively question Jacinda Ardern on her climate change catchphrase. She won’t be the last.

"...your generation's nuclear-free moment, you said - but the Climate Change Commission that's being set up, it’s not binding. So isn't that a contradiction to your commitment to this issue?"

The Prime Minister replied that the Government was intending to legislate on carbon neutral goals and be "guided" by the Climate Commission particularly when it comes to the farming sector. Agriculture is our Achilles heel. Around half of our greenhouse gas emissions come from farming.

We can't even start down the road towards seriously reducing our impact on climate change without including the farming sector in the Emissions Trading Scheme. So far the taxpayer has paid for their emissions - a cool half billion dollar a year subsidy.

As the latest Greenpeace report points out, Industrial Agriculture accounts for more global emissions than all the planes, trains and automobiles combined.

The world is getting wise to that fact. People are starting to adjust their eating habits around meat and dairy because of climate change.

The New York Times reports that French scientists have just produced a paper on the practicality of a carbon tax on beef to meet European climate change targets.

You can be sure our world markets will soon be judging us on our farming emissions and adjusting the prices accordingly. Low emissions will garner higher prices for our primary products.

For farming and all of our sakes we need to bring agriculture into the ETS urgently. We need to deal with our biggest emitters and start developing a just transition for those communities and workers affected.

"Bringing in agriculture (into the ETS) would be a world first," says Ardern.

Wouldn't that be a good thing spars Owen.

"Absolutely. Absolutely."

So how would it happen?

Ardern tells Owen that the Climate Commission would "phase that in for us".

So would the Government commit to the Climate Commission's recommendations asks Owen.

Ardern says the Climate commission would be "making sure that they give us external advice so that we know."

Apparently their recommendations "will be taken seriously." That is not the same thing as making them binding.

As I said earlier this month, to have any significant impact on emissions, the Climate Commission must have teeth. It must apply them with the same ferocity as the Reserve Bank does around monetary policy.

The last thing we need is for this independent Climate Commission to become a talking shop from which the Government picks and chooses its policies depending on political pragmatism.

If you are going to hang your hat on a catchphrase that impels an entire generation towards tackling the biggest threat to humanity - there is no room for half measures.

That goes for agriculture. It also applies to oil exploration.

This week Greenpeace presented a 45,000 signature petition aimed at ending oil and gas exploration. We can't even burn existing fossil fuel reserves if want to avoid climate catastrophe so it is sheer lunacy to be looking for more.

Jacinda Ardern surprised commentators, rearranged her schedule and delayed meeting the Indonesian President to personally accept the petition.

The optimists among us believe that she wanted to send a message to the public that her much quoted catchphrase isn't an empty slogan, it's a passionately held belief.

Ending the oil exploration ships would indeed be a 'nuclear free moment', comparable to ending nuclear ship visits. It would be an unequivocal line in the sand. New Zealand and the world desperately needs this kind of bold climate leadership.

Looking on were her predecessors. Posters of previous NZ leaders who had made principled stands, David Lange refusing nuclear ships, Helen Clark stopping native logging, Norman Kirk saving Lake Manapouri. No pressure.

Staring down also was the statue of Richard Seddon. One of our most popular Prime Minister's ever.

A century ago "King Dick" was returning from Australia on a steamer when he sent that famous telegram saying he was heading back to "God's own." He died on board before he could get home. But the catchphrase lived on.

Let's hope the grandchildren of Godzone will be around in another century to stand beneath the statue of a young pregnant Jacinda Ardern emblazoned with her own catchphrase and seizing her generation's nuclear free moment - just in time.

Russel Norman is the Executive Director of Greenpeace New Zealand.

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