On the eve of the 2017 general election in Aotearoa New Zealand, dramatic circumstances led Jacinda Ardern to assume the leadership of the Labour Party. In an outstanding media briefing she confidently asserted that a government led by her would be transformational and highlighted climate change as the most critical issue.
Ardern was right to give climate change the priority she did on that occasion. Subsequently there have been some steps in the right direction. However, just over five years later, and with the Cop27 conference being inappropriately held in Egypt last November, her government’s performance has fallen well short of a transformational threshold.
Cop27 was attended by over 100 world leaders. In the lead up to it, I discussed my concerns with this important international climate change event in my last Political Bytes blog (2 November): Cop27 – blood, blood, blood.
Despite these reservations, which I continue to have, there was a big upside at Cop27. This was the performance of the small Caribbean island of Barbados which I had the pleasure of visiting for a day in early 2020.
The island is arguably well known for the magnificent cricketers it has produced (sadly not this century) – batters like Garry Sobers (also a bowler) and the famous three Ws – Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes and Frank Worrell (also a bowler and skilled captain) and fiercely fast bowlers like Wes Hall, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall.
Barbados, along with the rest of the rest of the West Indies, is no longer the cricketing powerhouse it used to be. But Cop27 demonstrated that, especially when compared with New Zealand, its approach towards climate justice stands out as a powerhouse of transformation.
Barbados: a dot in the ocean outperforming most countries including Aotearoa on climate justice advocacy
This is from an island that has a population of over 250,000 and only became independent of the United Kingdom in 1966. On climate justice it is punching well above its weight; like a bantam weight besting heavy weights.
Enter Mia Mottley
Enter the stage Mia Mottley, an experienced Barbadian politician who was elected prime minister in 2018 with her Labour party winning all the parliamentary seats. Prior to Cop27 she had already succeeded in achieving republic status for Barbados; the monarchy went although Commonwealth membership remained.
Mia Mottley: blistering attack on wealthy countries over climate justice
In a blistering address on 7 November at a Cop27 gathering hosted by Scotland, Mottley ripped into wealthy countries whose prosperity and high carbon emissions had been achieved at the expense of the poor who were now “…being forced to pay again, as victims of climate breakdown that they did not cause.”: Barbados Prime Minister’s blistering attack on rich nations.
Her case for climate justice
In warning of a billion climate refugees around the world by the middle of the century, Mottley declared that:
We were the ones whose blood, sweat and tears financed the industrial revolution. Are we now to face double jeopardy by having to pay the cost as a result of those greenhouse gases from the industrial revolution? That is fundamentally unfair.
She convincingly articulated the case for climate justice. As a result of adverse weather poor people were bearing the brunt of the damage to the climate. In contrast, rich countries have failed to live up to their promises to cut emissions and to provide finance to help the poor with climate breakdown.
This meant there was a need for a different approach, to allow grant-funded reconstruction grants going forward, in those countries that suffer from disaster instead of loans. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon also spoke in support of Mottley. She was scathing about the World Bank which had failed to do enough to focus on climate change and on countries that offer loans instead of grants.
Pursuit of wealth accumulation
Climate change and injustice require transformational political leadership but the problem is that, more than anything else, they are the result of the economic system in which we all live and know as capitalism.
It is a system in which, over centuries, production for use values has migrated to production for exchange values in an inexhaustible number of inexhaustible ways. One of the consequences is remarkable innovation in so many technological and other areas that are far too numerous to discuss in this short blog.
But there is a huge destructive downside which is the overwhelming driver, rather than consequence, of capitalism; the unstoppable pursuit accumulation of wealth (the successful outcome of this pursuit and all its implications are consequences). Wealth accumulation incentivises the exploitation of workforces to a variety of degrees depending on circumstances, including relative power relationships.
This pursuit also incentivises economic destabilisation in the form of downturns, recessions and, worse still, depressions. So relentless is this pursuit that that the personal integrity and sense of commitment to the public good of those involved in the economic and political leadership of the system falls by the wayside.
But the drive for wealth accumulation also threatens nature with even more dire consequences for the whole planet. Deforestation of the Amazon in South America, especially Brazil which intensified under the former Bolsonaro government, is one of the greatest threats.
This threat is driven by the compulsion to maximise wealth accumulation through cattle ranches (beef) and crops along with mining. Emission protection is being replaced by emission growth. The seriousness of this threat, and the venality which underpins it, is fully discussed in an article by Jonathan Watts published in The Guardian on 16 December 2022: Amazon deforestation climate disaster.
Wealth accumulation and climate injustice in action
Deforestation of the Amazon is massive in driving climate change. On a smaller scale but still huge is a land grab in a pristine forest central India by the Adani mining giant which has razed trees and homes in order to dig for coal. India is the second largest producer of coal behind China..
The region of the forest with this accessible coal contains an estimated five billion tonnes. Located close to the surface makes it easy to mine. It is divided into 23 “coal blocks”, six of which have been approved for mining. The Adani group’s land grab has got four of these six. It is estimated that these mines will destroy at least 1,898 hectares of forest land. The coal under the main village (Kete) is about 450 tonnes worth about $5 billion.
This depressing situation is outlined well in an excellent article by Ankur Paliwal published by The Guardian on 20 December 2022: Corporate coal mining land grab devastates forest and villages.
The article discusses how Adani, the third richest person in the world, achieved this outcome – through bribery, corruption and a close political ally (Prime Minister Narendra Modi). The net result was that wealth accumulation helped facilitate further climate change leading to more climate injustice.
Guatam Adani: reportedly cleverly orchestrating increased climate change to benefit wealth accumulation
Time for New Zealand to punch above its weight on climate justice
In his keynote address to Cop27 United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on called on rich and poor governments to make a “historic pact” to help each other through the climate crisis, instead of being at loggerheads.
Further, as reported in The Guardian on 16 December:
We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing … And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.
António Guterres: foot on the accelerator on highway to climate hell
Barbados is punching well above its weight in its climate justice advocacy to first take the foot of the accelerator and then to ensure that the climate chaos that the planet is already experiencing is reversible.
Although also a small country, New Zealand is much bigger than this Caribbean island. We should become similarly transformational as part of a visible and persistence advocacy powerhouse for climate change. Barbados has shown the way. Aotearoa should follow and take it further.