National | Climate Change

The progress this climate activist hopes for from this month’s big UN summit

Iwi Leaders Group climate change representative Mike Smith.

Polluting lobbyists and wars will hamper the upcoming major climate summit, warns Māori rights and climate campaigner Mike Smith.

From November 30, negotiators from 198 countries will meet in Dubai for COP28 – this year’s conference on the international effort to stop global warming. The United Arab Emirates, a major fossil fuel producer, will host the discussions.

It has always been difficult to get 198 governments on the same page, Smith said. Some exhibit “almost climate denialism” while others fight to take the strongest action possible.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and warfare between Israel and Hamas make talks even tougher. “These conflicts exacerbate the problem”, Smith said.

Smith (Ngā Puhi and Ngāti Kuri) spoke on Friday about the COP process during this week’s International Indigenous Climate Change Researchers Summit.

However, the Iwi Leaders Group climate change representative said international negotiations had not been fruitless: global emissions rose steadily for decades, but now appear to be tapering off. “It’s really good news.”

But flat emissions are not enough to achieve the promises that world leaders made at the COP21 summit in Paris: to limit the Earth’s temperature rise ideally to 1.5C or “well below” 2C.

“What we need to see is a drop,” Smith said. “That drop needs to be really abrupt.”

He said government leaders attending the Dubai talks, who are regularly informed about the best available science, know this.

But few are prepared to introduce the type of policies required to push emissions down that fast, Smith said. He puts the New Zealand Government in that group.

Companies – “particularly fossil fuel” extractors – can exert a lot of pressure, worrying politicians about the economic impacts of climate action.

Here, the agriculture sector – which contributes nearly half of the country’s greenhouse gases – has a lot of political sway and has employed a “really effective delay strategy”, he said.

Leaders are also “fearful of the backlash” they could get from the public from introducing a policy that requires large-scale behaviour change.

For that reason, Smith thinks the climate fight is about messaging.

“These are story wars. Whoever’s got the best story is going to win,” he said.

“The oil companies’ story is: we need fossil fuels and it’s good for the shareholders and those that have invested.”

But environmentalists have an even more compelling one, he said: ending emissions will stop the destruction of the planet, benefitting everyone rather than an elite few.

Smith said tension and war in the Middle East are driven in part by the massive fossil fuel wealth of the region. Making oil redundant – by shifting our vehicles to green fuels – could help bring peace, he said.

For several summits, countries such as Pacific nations and the EU have pushed for all countries to commit to phasing out fossil fuels. Unless there is an urgent intervention from the incoming Government, Kiwi negotiators will from this year also advocate for that goal at the November event.

Smith can be cynical about these types of pledges. Governments “are just going to slide out of that responsibility”.

But he is keen to see progress on financial aid for those hit hardest by climate change, a topic often described as “loss and damage”. It is on the November meeting’s agenda.

Communities already experiencing the impacts of the warmer world often contributed the least to global emissions.

“The First Nations people of Australia… are living in Tennant Creek and Alice Springs and places like that where the temperatures are hitting the high 40s and up into the 50s. They don’t have electricity and live in corrugated iron buildings and when it gets that hot – over 50C is life-threatening – they have to sit in their cars and turn their air conditioning on… They’re saying they don’t have the money to pay for the fuel.”

A loss and damage fund to collect and distribute contributions from high-emitting countries has been established. Officials are now ironing out how it’ll be run.

Alongside government negotiators, indigenous representatives should be given permanent seats at the discussion tables, Smith said – to represent their communities and to guard against lobbying from high-emitting industries that they deserve the compensation.

Smith would like to see developed nations make significant contributions to the fund during the talks. “That’s one thing of value that can come out of these discussions.”