When James Shaw’s zero-carbon bill passed with bipartisan support in parliament on Thursday, New Zealand became one of the first countries in the world to enshrine its climate change targets in law. But for someone at the centre of a landmark piece of legislation, Shaw is a reluctant politician.
Although the Green’s co-leader has been a party member since his teenage years, inspired by the French bombing of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985, he responds to a question about whether he is a career MP with, “No. I can’t. I couldn’t,” and then adds “no” a few more times for emphasis.
The former management consultant – now climate change minister – sits at the centre of government, but he doesn’t like parliament much, and has to let the “weird stuff” wash over him, he says.
Shaw doesn’t have an office. He works, surrounded by staff, in his open-plan ministerial suite, where he has “taken out a bunch of walls.”
It took him four months to convince parliament’s building services that he should be allowed to do it.
“I actually had to go to the Speaker and say, look, where is the rule that says the ministers can’t sit with staff?” Shaw says. “And he said there actually isn’t a rule. It’s just a tradition. So I said, can I change it?”
It improves coordination and “speeds things up,” he says. If he needs to concentrate, he puts on headphones.
When he left the world of management consultancy and became an MP in 2014, politics was a means to an end, he says: “Even some of the largest, most powerful, most moneyed-up companies in the world still operate within system constraints.”
“And the place where those constraints occur are actually things to do with regulatory and pricing and tax and that kind of stuff. In other words, it’s political.”
Now he’s at the centre of New Zealand’s zero-carbon push as a key coalition partner in Jacinda Ardern’s government.
It’s no coincidence that Ardern’s opening speech at the United Nations climate summit in September, closely echoed his views. The world faces a “stark” situation she said, urging those listening that with the necessary changes, progress was “within our grasp.”
“I wrote a lot of it,” Shaw says.
‘All the more reason to try’
Shaw, 46, is – unlike Ardern – an unknown on the world stage, but he is he is the architect behind some of the most ambitious climate policies that anyone in the world is trying to enact.
“I think sometimes a domestic audience undervalues or underestimates the impact on global action of action by other countries,” he says, of the oft-cited fact that New Zealand is responsible for just 0.17% of global emissions. “Part of what we’re doing is we’re role modelling for other countries. And actually, countries do look at each other and go, where are we relative to the pack?”
On whether global heating can be curbed, he says: “I think the chances are slim.” But there’s no reason for not trying, he adds. “In fact, that’s all the more reason to try.”
It is an optimistic view for a man who is reluctant to use the word “optimism.”
As well as being New Zealand’s climate tsar, statistics minister and associate finance minister, Shaw, has co-led the Green party since 2015. The party’s eight MPs support Ardern’s governing Labour party, giving her the majority she needs to stay in power, along New Zealand First.
Together their climate agenda is ambitious: the zero carbon act — passed Thursday and loosely modelled on Britain’s 2008 Climate Change Act – legally enshrines a framework for New Zealand to keep global heating within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels. A plan to tax farmers for their emissions from 2025, or earlier if they are not making progress on reductions, was announced earlier this month. A proposed law that would force businesses to declare climate change risks to their shareholders is also on the cards.
But at each turn – due to the three-party deal the Greens are a part of in government, and Shaw’s efforts to get cross-parliament support for his bills where possible – there were concessions and compromises made.
On the day he announced New Zealand’s farmers would – in a world first – begin to pay for carbon emissions from 2025, Shaw sparked a furore inside his own movement. Farmers were broadly supportive of the move, because it gave them a grace period to work on the problem themselves, although some did not want to be taxed on emissions at all.
But environmental groups, the Green party’s traditional allies, accused him of caving to agricultural interests. Analysts speculated on whether Shaw had gambled with his party’s fate at next year’s election.
‘A Punch and Judy show’
Does the climate change portfolio feel like everyone is perpetually slightly unhappy with him?
“It feels like that every day. That’s exactly it,” he says. But with all eyes on New Zealand – particularly those of other agricultural countries – the government had to do something.
“For 30 years, we’ve been involved in this Punch and Judy show, and it’s resulted in nothing,” Shaw says. “And so one side simply winning over the other, which has been the record of the last three decades, just isn’t going to cut it. We’ve got to get started.”
Shaw walks to work when he can; he passed his full driver’s license test this year and still does not like to drive. A violent episode in March, when he was punched in the face on his way to work by a man who had targeted him for his political views, did not deter him from going out alone, a luxury New Zealand’s politicians are rare in being permitted.
The assault generated a day of frenzied debate in New Zealand about the safety of its lawmakers. The hours later, the nation’s attention was diverted by the deadly terrorist attack in Christchurch, in which 51 people were killed.
Shaw, sporting a black eye, arrived in the city the day after the shootings.
He was “emotionally pretty thrown” by the attacks, he said, but New Zealand’s response had been “brilliant, not perfect.”
“Those kinds of things can tip you into a very dark place, and we didn’t go there,” he says.
The political, for now, leaves no time for much else. He draws a blank when asked to name books or music he enjoys; weekends will, if he’s lucky, involve a walk with his wife, Annabel and a craft beer – “one of my greatest pleasures of modern Wellington” – when the work he brings home allows it.
The table-top role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, always a big part of his life, is on the back-burner. He only keeps up with new episodes of Star Trek: Discovery because he is not allowed to read ministerial papers on aeroplanes.
“There’s a thing particularly about sci fi where you’re imagining possible futures,” he says. “And so interestingly, there’s a coherence there between what we do here and that.”
But he says his move to politics and all has come with it will be worthwhile if “that was the moment when we got on top of our emissions and started to bring them down.”