Climate Change is this generation’s ‘Nuclear-free Moment’ – How can the law respond?

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In her campaign launch speech in 2017, Jacinda Ardern described climate change as “my generation’s nuclear-free moment.” Since then, the issue of climate change has continued to be brought to the forefront of social and political discourse, especially by young people such as Greta Thunberg voicing their concerns for the future of the planet. With movements like School Strike 4 Climate, otherwise known as #FridaysForFuture, it has been made clear that mitigating the effects of climate change is a priority for those who are more likely to experience the consequences. Along with making climate-conscious adjustments to our personal lives, the challenge now is how can leaders take action to address climate change issues?


Why are young people striking?

Climate change is not a conspiracy but a fact. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations provided policymakers with scientific knowledge on the implications and possible solutions for climate change. They have reported with confidence that ‘human-induced global warming has already caused multiple observed changes in the climate system’ such as rise in land and ocean temperatures. Furthermore, human-induced warming is increasing at 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade.

With the lack of political action to rectify these risks of climate change, youth locally and globally have begun to question whether the Earth is heading in a safe direction. One of the main concerns is the injustice in how the young people of today will be left to deal with the likely irreversible consequences caused by insufficient action from those in power today.


What has the law done?

There has been some action taken by the international community to address climate change, such as the execution of the Paris Agreement in November 2016. The Agreement encourages global response to climate change and deals with several issues such as mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and aiming to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

However, as in all cases of international law, obligations in these agreements have no effect on individual nations until incorporated in domestic law. Recently on 23 September 2019, Thunberg and sixteen others between the ages of eight to seventeen filed an official complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child against countries such as Brazil, India, Nigeria and France for their inaction and failure to implement commitments made in the Paris Agreement.

In New Zealand, we have aimed to incorporate the Paris Agreement into domestic policy through the proposal of the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill. The aim is to provide a framework for New Zealand to ‘develop and implement clear and stable climate change policies that contribute to the global effort.’ The bill has passed its first reading in May this year and has been referred to the Environment Committee where a report will be released on 21 October.

Jacinda Ardern has also recently announced that New Zealand would enter into negotiations with Norway, Fiji, Iceland and Costa Rica for the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability (ACCTS). The aim is to achieve an environmentally-friendly outcome through a trade agreement that benefits both the economy and the climate. The objectives include liberalising and removing tariffs on environmental goods and services, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and developing an eco-labelling programme.


What are some of the challenges?

One of the major challenges met in legislating to combat climate change is its link to the economy. For example, in the process of debating the Zero Carbon Bill, concerns have been voiced regarding the future of NZ Steel and its Glenbrook Mill. Steel mills produce a significant amount of carbon emissions, burning up to 80,000 tonnes of coal annually, and NZ Steel relies on the government to provide 90 percent of their carbon credit.

The implementation of the Zero Carbon Bill would result in a decrease of the carbon credit purchased by the government and may cause New Zealand’s steel industry to shut down due to a restriction on steel produced and, thus, less profit. Consequently, up to 3900 jobs may be affected. Furthermore, New Zealand losing its steel industry could also affect the efficiency of businesses requiring steel in terms of access to the material and exposure to ‘trade wars, shortages and price stocks.’

However, the effect on the economy must not be the reason policy makers refuse to legislate for climate change. Neither should the idea of protecting national interests, especially for developed countries in a world where the actions of states impact beyond borders. Capitalist interests must be balanced with the fact that the world does not have an infinite amount of resources to generate the maximum profit. In cases such as the ACCTS a potential win-win situation can be created for both the economy and the environment.


What are some new factors law makers must consider?

New considerations in the discourse of combating climate change have also emerged in the modern era, where the well-being of the planet has become a more prominent world issue than ever before. One of these issues includes the impact on mental health. Lack of action by nations to address the effects of climate change has induced a sense of anxiety among those who still have a long future ahead of them. Young people are experiencing a sense of ‘Climate Dread’ amongst the prospects of how the world is in a state of decline with the fate of the planet being uncertain. Therefore, policy makers must acknowledge that addressing the effects of climate change will simultaneously restore the hope of youth and improve their outlook on their futures.

Another aspect world leaders must be aware of is the global effect climate can have on international politics. Less developed countries, especially in the Pacific, are experiencing the brunt of climate change with rising sea levels and torrential weather. Atoll nations such as the Republic of Kiribati are gradually disappearing, meaning that the homeland and roots of civilians are being lost. The International Labour Organisation have estimated up to 35,000 people are at risk of displacement. The increasing number of climate refugees, as reported by the Environmental Justice Foundation, will likely become a cause of future wars and international conflicts. Through this lens, world leaders must understand combating climate change is not an issue that should cause division but an objective that unites.


Where can we go from here?  

As emphasised by recent protests and scientific backing, the issue of climate change has not been dealt with adequately. Although there have been initiatives such as the Paris Agreement, world leaders have not taken enough action. The way climate change is creating social, environmental and political consequences should serve as a starting point to create a sense of urgency towards saving the planet in both international and domestic communities.

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