Kennedy Graham

A proud grandfather, Kennedy Graham is also a current member of parliament and Green Party spokesperson on Climate Change.

Growing up, Ken was dedicated to rugby. When he went to university his dedication turned to education, and from there his attention shifted to the world stage. He spent the eighties and nineties standing up for peace and human rights, whether he was working at the UN, with a non-governmental organization (NGO), or as an academic. In 2005, he took the decision to turn a decades-long diplomatic career into a political career, and joined the Green Party of Aotearoa. “I was prepared to climb the building from the outside” he says of his desire to make a difference.


Succeeding as prototype Anthropocenes; A tribute to the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust

Posted on 29 June 2014

by Kennedy Graham

I am flying home, back from Geneva where I have attended the 130th meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I do not know whether this disqualifies me from accepting the invitation to contribute. Assuming it does not, I wish to pay a tribute to your Trust. It is people like you who will make the difference if we are to turn the climate thing around in time.

I have spent my life involved, one way or another, with the United Nations. I did graduate study on the UN in Boston and interned at the Secretariat in New York immediately after. I have been a UN official, working in the Middle East during 9/11. I was involved with two UN special sessions on disarmament – in 1978 and ’88. I was at the Earth Summit in Rio in ’92 and many of the UN climate conferences of more recent years. Nuclear weapons and climate change – the two global problems of the Anthropocene. What are the lessons?

Back in ’78 the world declared nuclear weapons to be ‘more a threat than a protection for humankind’. Since then the number of nuclear-weapon states has increased – from six to nine.

In Geneva this week I chaired the IPU drafting committee on a resolution aimed at promoting a treaty for a global ban on all nuclear weapons. The committee included Cuba and Venezuela, Iran and Pakistan, France and Russia. It was a fast and open game. Yet the parliamentarians ultimately agreed to work together for such a ban. In our lifetime? The US president thinks not. Well, at least the numbers are down, from 60,000 to 17,000, and they are on track to being reduced further – Crimea permitting. So the rubble will bounce only twice.

In ’92 we adopted the Framework Convention on Climate Change. We promised to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate through stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases within a time-frame that would allow ecosystems to adapt. That year, global emissions were about 34 billion tonnes. Today they are 50 billion.

After 10,000 years of the Holocene, the world is on the cusp of change. We have entered the Anthropocene, where the climate, indeed the fate of the planet, is for the first time ever in the hands of one species – a newly-acquired custodianship.

 And we are not doing very well at it. Humanity’s ecological footprint exceeded Earth’s bio-productive capacity in 1981. It now records a 50% overshoot.  The Stockholm Resilience Centre identifies nine planetary boundaries within which we must remain for a ‘safe operating space for humanity’. We are exceeding four.

Nuclear weapons and climate change are the first global problems humanity has confronted – created. They were spawned by an excessively zealous application of a particular mentality.

Their solutions require a revolution in political thought. Green thought is not simply an adjunct to the 20th–century political spectrum; it is a qualitatively different world-view for the 21st century – for the Anthropocene. A global problem cannot be solved by the competitive pursuit of the national interest, as it is traditionally perceived – each country ‘punching above its weight’. The competitive pursuit of 194 national interests, by definition, cannot solve a global problem. It is a logical impossibility.

That is why, 22 years after Rio and the Framework Convention, the UN climate machinery is labouring like a dinosaur in a swamp. At the current pace of progress, we shall not commence a reduction in global emissions before 2017. That is the year scientists say when for global warming must remain under the 2°C threshold to prevent dangerous climate change. Current global emission trends foretell global warming of between 2.6°C and 4.0°C. That will not be ‘dangerous’ climate change; it will, in the view of the World Bank, be ‘catastrophic’.

So, what of New Zealand’s national policies? Whereas we have a proud record in nuclear disarmament, we are perhaps the worst country on climate policy. When we signed the Framework Convention in ‘’92 and promised to reduce our emissions, our level then was 32 million tonnes net (gross emissions minus forestry sequestration). Today, the figure is 59 million. The projection for 2028 is 98 million – a three-fold increase, rather than a reduction. If the world does what we are doing (1990 – 2028), global warming will be about 6°C – truly ‘catastrophic’.

Why is our policy so bad? Because no sooner had New Zealand put in place a legislative apparatus for reducing emissions that had the potential to be effective, than it commenced weakening the policy settings to a point where there is now an incentive to emit.

Why is New Zealand doing this?

It does it because it subordinates climate policy to the goal of economic growth as traditionally perceived. It believes that effective reduction measures will hurt households and business – oblivious to the possibilities of a managed transition to a carbon-neutral economy in which costs and revenue can be channelled for the common good without harm to anyone who is genuine about participating in the project.

The current government does this because it deludes itself and the voting public into thinking that our emissions are so small (0.2% of global emissions) that it does not matter. The argument dishonours the memory of Gallipoli.

We say we are doing our ‘fair share’. The IPCC says all Annex I (developed) countries emissions in 2020 must be reducedby 25% to 40% of their 1990 values if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. New Zealand’s announced target is 5%. The European Commission has adopted 40% by 2030. New Zealand refuses to specify a figure for that year.

The IPCC says our target is so modest because of our ‘special profile’, with agriculture (emitting methane and nitrous oxide rather than carbon) accounting for half of our emissions. But it was precisely the differences in national profile that prompted the IPCC to specify a range – the low end being 25%. The Government says that it does not follow that ‘all countries must be within the range’. It does not identify which other countries it expects to make up for the shortfall, between 5% and 25%.

It is possible to determine the global carbon budget required to remain below the 2°C threshold. Global emissions, according to the IPCC, will need to fall from the current 50 Gt to 44 Gt by 2020, and 21 Gt by 2050. It is possible to achieve fairness among countries in the global abatement curve through an Equity Reference Framework – researchers have done it. The principle of ‘contraction and convergence’ in per capita (p.c) annual emissions will need to be observed – from the current obscene range of about 25-30 t for some (USA, Australia) to 1.9 t for others (India). A mid-point target of 2.4 t p.c. by 2050 is, for example, adopted by the UK in its climate policy planning. At present, its level is some 7 t p.c. New Zealand’s is about 17 t. 

Rational planning could reduce global emissions through global carbon budgeting. But that is not the way the UN negotiations are heading. As recently as a few years ago, we spoke of targets and binding national obligations, but today the phrases are ‘bounded flexibility’ and ‘voluntary contributions’. ‘Top-down’ is out; ‘bottom-up’ is in. It’s popular with business; easy for governments – and ultimately self-deceiving. As UNEP has pointed out, there is a 50% ‘ambition gap’ in the collective promises.

At Rio in ’92, the concept of sustainable development was designed to restore moderate lifestyles – through ‘sustainable production and consumption’. Over-developed Western economies would embrace the ‘politics of enough’, to use Jeanette Fitzsimons’ phrase. It would allow global production within sustainable limits that reflected a contraction and convergence in GDP. But the idea failed to catch on. It required us to look in the mirror. The phrase withered away. It was, after all, the 1990s.

In Geneva I was stunned to find that the IPU does not focus on climate change. The IPU is the nearest thing to the world’s parliament. It has 163 national parliaments as members. It meets twice a year. Its job is to channel the interests – the aspirations and fears – of the peoples of the world into a deliberative exchange, and to convey that to the United Nations. Its committee structure has it focusing thematically on peace and security; on democracy and human rights; on sustainable development and trade and finance; and on gender equality. Climate protection gets no committee and rates scarcely a mention. I bothered the meeting several times to point out that the world’s parliamentarians would do well to have regard for the future of the planet.

It is the same at the UN itself. Climate policy is tucked into UNEP – the UN Environment Programme, in Nairobi. As an operational programme, UNEP is effective but it is not geared to major policy debate. The IPCC is governed by UNEP and the WMO (World Meteorological Organization). WMO is, in the jargon, a specialised agency. Neither UNEP nor WMO is at the epicentre of global policy-making. Climate policy is [at that epicentre], almost literally; yet institutionally, it is virtually orphaned.

That may be undergoing change. In 2007, the UN Security Council debated climate change for the first time. Nothing was decided. But Germany put it back on the agenda 2010, and again in 2012. The Council is now agreed that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’. It could not bring itself to declare climate change to be a threat to peace and security, which would trigger binding powers to the Council under the UN Charter, but the Secretary-General went on record that already it is such a threat. There will be more to come.

It is the same with national parliaments. The NZ Parliament has virtually no mechanism for debating climate change. The committee that handles the subject is Local Government and Environment, and it springs into action only when there is government legislation to massage, often under urgency that restricts public, and for that matter parliamentary, scrutiny.

That is wrong. Climate change is ruining the environment but it is not a national environmental problem. It is a global economic problem, and as such it should be handled by Finance and Economics Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee. Ideally, there would be a separate Climate Protection Committee.

So, the structural and procedural mechanisms for handling the threat of climate change are dysfunctional, at both the global and national levels. It is no surprise that we are not making progress in solving the greatest threat, unprecedented in nature, humanity has yet faced.

Until we remedy that, we shall need innovative and effective action at the level of local communities – all around the world. That is what the Anthropocene requires – not only a revolution in political thought at stratospheric levels, but anticipatory behaviour and group resolve at ground level. People making change in local communities are the real exemplars of change; the rest of us are theorists, or policy-makers applying theory.

I observed before that the idea of sustainable consumption and production had withered. In fact the idea did not wither away entirely. After Rio ’92, Norway experimented with the concept of sustainable villages. In a sense, the Blueskin Resilience Community is a child of this.

Blueskin is perhaps the clearest example of forward thinking on climate change in New Zealand. There are many definitions of ‘resilience’ around, but it seems to embrace three characteristics: prevention, adaptation and recovery. I understand that the Blueskin Energy Project is the first of its kind to develop a community-owned wind cluster that will create a long-term revenue stream. It is an ambitious goal, but we cannot afford for communities to do anything less.

I do not know whether there is any interest within the Blueskin Trust to strike out on larger goals – influencing climate policy at the national level and perhaps even the global level. There are various communities throughout New Zealand that focus on sustainability, or resilience, or renewable energy goals. These are, of course, closely inter-related. I do not know whether there is much interest in linking up, not just in New Zealand but around the world – Australian, British and Nordic sustainable villages perhaps – or whether the human energy level needs to be confined to the immediate practical goals.

Nor do I know the extent to which such communities choose to focus on each of the three characteristics – prevention, adaptation or recovery – perhaps each has a different emphasis. Or for that matter the extent to which they should. How much of the work at Blueskin is prevention; how much adaption? There is a lot I do not know.

But to the extent that there might be such interest, I could envisage a network of resilient communities around the world – a Global Alliance of Resilient Communities – which could loosely relate their activities together and develop a coherent focus on a common strategy. The Transition Towns movement, commencing in 2006, has a loose international network with some 850 towns in 35 countries – from Totnes in the UK where it all began to Timaru in New Zealand.

I understand that Blueskin is not a formal political zone but rather a series of small settlements – Waitati, Long Beach, Purakaunui, Seacliff and others. But it no doubt could prove potent in developing an ethic that is amenable to global like-minded action – passive housing, food security through community gardens, energy security through wind and solar generation, retrofitted passenger vehicles, mini-scale forestry, planning for adaptation through local currencies in the event of a global economic-financial meltdown. Is there a cultural and spiritual dimension here?

There are, of course, other settlements in Aotearoa – in the Kaipara, Waitakere, Coromandel, Nelson, Takaka. Maybe Waiheke, where I now live – is a perfect place to explore the concept of carrying capacity – having regard to island-resilience in water, energy and waste, as well as smart and moderate tourism and transport in an area that is just 92 km2.

I am back home now. As I sign off, an email has just come in. It is Inspiring Communities Newsletter # 40, March 2014. It says, among other things:

“Our representational democracy selects people to lead and make decisions (by the people, for the people, of the people) and sits alongside the many forms of participatory democracy where people shape their lives in local communities.”

I do my best to promote sustainability in the context of national policy-making. If fate allowed, I would give it a shot through government at the level of global policy. At home on Waiheke, 20% of my time, my wife and I aspire to tread lightly – a passive solar house, a hybrid car, off-grid water and waste, and nearly-so for power. But it is a modest individual endeavour and the critical thing these days is for communities to show true resilience and creativity – participatory democracy at its best for the Anthropocene.

I would love to visit Blueskin next time I am down south. Please invite me in.

Dr Kennedy Graham has been a Member of Parliament since 2008. His previous work has been as a NZ diplomat, UN official, academic lecturer and civil society leader. He has the portfolios in the Green parliamentary caucus for, inter alia, global affairs and climate change.

Close Menu