Not only one Wright track

Not only one Wright track

A while ago, Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright was in town, and without really knowing exactly what her job entailed, I seized upon the opportunity to interview someone from the real world, outside of OUSA.

It emerged that Jan Wright was appointed as Commissioner for the Environment in 2007, an apolitical role that sees Wright undertake investigations to produce reports, which are then tabled in parliament. The role lasts for a five year period, after which “Parliament may or may not decide to offer me reappointment”.

Wright is diminutive and considered, and speaks in a quiet, measured tone. When one thinks of successful women, one often thinks of the Helen Clark/ Hilary Clinton model - the confident, assertive, the powerful. Wright is certainly incredibly intelligent, but she doesn’t fit the typical “women in power” blueprint.

Wright comes from an interdisciplinary background, first studying physics, then energy at Berkeley, then public policy at Harvard. She’s a firm believer that rather than meticulously planning one’s career, one should consider different options as they present themselves. “I think that life can lead you in really interesting directions if you’re open to taking opportunities. You don’t have to be locked in to where you started”. While fairly disparate, each of her interests relate to and complement each other. “All of these things just add up. In a way, I’m a generalist now.”

Unsurprisingly, Wright believes that the biggest environmental issue currently facing New Zealand is climate change. “To me, this is about the future of humanity really. I would much rather not believe in climate change, but I don’t believe I have a choice.” Wright insists that while New Zealand is a very small contributor, we still need to take strong action for a number of reasons. “Climate change is an ‘I will if you will’ thing, it’s called a problem of collective action. Another thing people say is ‘it’s mostly China and India’. Well, if I was in China or India, I’d look at New Zealand and think ‘those people are so rich compared to me, why would I bother doing anything?’. And then as well as that, we brand ourselves as clean and green so it’s not a good look not to be looking after our environment.”
When, on the subject of branding, I made reference to Key’s comments on New Zealand’s 100% pure branding, Wright, who had previously been quite serious, laughed. “Certainly New Zealand can’t claim to be 100% pure literally. It’s a bit of an unfortunate slogan, really.”
But however we word it, Wright believes New Zealand needs to remain clean and green, and because of this, we shouldn’t get involved with the mining of lignite. As well as the fact that we will already need to buy a lot of carbon credits offshore, she insists that we should be playing to our strengths rather than mining something which a lot of other countries have. “It doesn’t seem right to me that we would be doing something which was so carbon intensive. It is a poor quality fossil fuel. Someone described it to me as having the energy content of cow dung.”

Wright is a strong advocate of 1080, a notorious pest killer which incidentally, as Wright gleefully tells me, is found in tea. Interestingly, our pest problem could be not such a problem at all, had the possums in New Zealand come from East Australia. “Two thirds of West Australia’s plants actually make 1080, and they make it as an anti-browsing agent. So what happened was an evolutionary race between the native plants and animals, which the animals actually won because they became immune [to it]. Had our possums come from Eastern Australia, rather than Western Australia, 1080 wouldn’t actually kill them”.

Despite advocating the use of 1080, Wright believes that the anti-1080 people have done a great service over the years. “The controls have been put on over the years, and it is extremely well controlled now. But these other ones [other more dangerous poisons] have not perhaps received the attention they should have”.

Economic aims and environmental aims are often seen to be in conflict with one another. However, Wright doesn’t believe this necessarily has to be the case. In the instance of using DOC estate for commercial purposes, Wright is supportive in principal. “It is 30% of New Zealand, it’s a very big asset. There is no reason why we shouldn’t earn money off that asset, provided we don’t damage the conservation values”. She adds, “more commercial use is inevitable, so whether or not you’re for or against it, it’s going to happen”.

Indeed, Wright says she always considers the economic side of environmental policy. “I think with lignite mining, there’s a real fiscal risk there, because the tax payer could end up funding a really carbon intensive industry. Economic arguments for the environment are often a bit longer term than standard economic arguments. But the environment is very much a part of our economy”.

I ask Wright what environmental changes New Zealand needs to make, and Wright barely knows where to start. “With environmental issues, like anything else, things do go a little bit in and out of fashion, so we do have an environmental issue of the day.” Along with climate change, apparently the new big thing is “water quality”. But it’s always hard deciding what’s most important, so Wright has to prioritise, starting with the things that are “irreversible”. It’s comforting to know our environment, or at least, our research into the environment, is in good hands.

Posted 12:11am Tuesday 9th August 2011 by Anonymous.