There are at least two undeniable existential threats to human civilisation - climate change and nuclear weapons.

In the context of the first US military ship visit to NZ waters in 33 years happening right now, I want to reflect on the time in history at which we stand and put a challenge to the New Zealand Government about the role that we, as a proud nuclear-free nation, should be taking in the world.

The USS Texas is met by the Peace Squadron as it arrives in Waitemata harbour, Auckland on August 2, 1983. The growing anti-nuclear movement in New Zealand was hostile to visits from US ships because the Americans refused to confirm or deny whether their ships carried nuclear weapons. Public opinion was increasingly in favour of banning these visits. Between 1978 and 1983 opposition to nuclear-armed ship visits rose from 32% to 72%. In 1985 the Government effectively banned nuclear ship visits. New Zealand was the first country to declare itself nuclear free when it passed legislation in 1987. Greenpeace / Gil Hanly

Despite progress made in the past with nuclear disarmament, things are now clearly going backwards. Both the US and Russia are investing in their nuclear arsenals and a number of other countries are doing the same. The election of Trump to the US Presidency gives us all a sense of instability and uncertainty.

The doomsday clock - which measures humanity’s closeness to self-annihilation - is set to within three minutes of midnight. Perhaps the election of a climate denying president who has not ruled out the use of nuclear weapons will move it to within two minutes of midnight in January next year, the closest it will have been to midnight since the 1950s.

This week, over a dozen military vessels from around the world are visiting Waitamata Harbour. None of them are nuclear powered or carrying nuclear weapons - this fact alone is something we can be proud of. The world has accepted New Zealand’s nuclear-free status and has surrendered to it - including the US.

But in a war-ravaged world, we cannot be happy about this extravagant display of force. What is the justification for such an expensive glorification of militarism and war in New Zealand?

To coincide with the navy anniversary, there have been “war games” in the Hauraki Gulf and an arms conference held at the ANZ Viaduct Events Centre.

War is not a game. The military industrial complex is perhaps the most grotesque industry on Earth. They literally trade in misery. Auckland will host the corporations that manufacture the weapons that are killing children in Syria. Is this acceptable for the so-called “City of Peace”? Is this a trade that New Zealand wants any part of hosting?

It certainly should not be.

The USS Sampson, while not nuclear, has been deployed to the Gulf of Arabia in support of military operations. When we reflect on the horror of the Iraq situation and the rise of ISIS in Syria, we are seeing the consequences of war, and war is what these ships are for.

But what the Sampson and the Canterbury just took part in with the evacuation of Kaikoura is what the world’s navies should be turned towards doing. At this time in human history, defence forces need to be doing just that: Defending populations against natural and unnatural disasters like climate change. They need to be protecting climate refugees, they need to be providing aid to island and coastal nations suffering from sea level rise. Defending fisheries from the greed of corporations, seemingly hell-bent on catching the last fish. They need to turn their skills and technological expertise toward enhancing life, and not taking it.

And what about New Zealand’s role in the advocacy of peace?

It could be argued that the most significant “military act” that New Zealand undertook in the last 50 years was becoming nuclear free. It was a true act of peace. A stance against the madness of global annihilation. As our Prime Minister, David Lange, successfully argued at the Oxford Union Debate in March 1985, nuclear weapons are morally indefensible.

And the New Zealand Navy has been part of our nuclear history from the start. NZ frigates were witness to British atmospheric testing in the Pacific where servicemen and women were exposed to nuclear fallout in the 1950s. They and their families suffered the consequences. By the 1970s, the New Zealand Government was completely opposed to nuclear testing.

In 1973, New Zealand took France to the International Court of Justice, which agreed the tests were illegal, and sent navy frigates to peacefully protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa.

Once again, servicemen and their families were exposed to radiation and suffered. Within a year, the French committed to halting atmospheric testing in the Pacific. It was a victory for nuclear disarmament and for peace.

It was also a unique situation where a warship was sent to operate off a colony not as an act of war or provocation, but as a peaceful political protest.

The citizens of New Zealand protested nuclear ship and submarine visits in Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour over the late 70s and early 80s, and in 1984 the Government refused the visit of a US ship on the grounds that it could be nuclear powered or armed. Next year, we will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the passing of the 1987 legislation that made us nuclear free.

New Zealand is known around the world for its nuclear free stance and bravery, and it is part of the strong basis for our reputation as a clean and green nation - albeit a reputation that our present government cares little for maintaining in fact.

It is in this role as nuclear-free peace advocate that New Zealand belongs.

We learned the brutal lesson of the foolhardiness of standing beside allies no-matter-what in the trenches of the Somme and Gallipoli 100 years ago. Through subsequent wars and the nuclear free struggle, we matured into a nation capable of independent foreign policy and respected by our allies for our right to determine that. Out of that maturity we refused to send front line troops to the Iraq War when our old allies US and Britain and Australia blustered-in with catastrophic consequences that we still see today.

This week’s military display has all the signs of a willingness for New Zealand to move back to being subservient to our bigger brothers. A return to the kind of jump-off-the-cliff loyalty that betrays all that we achieved as a people in our struggle for independent foreign policy at the heart of our nuclear-free position.

Rather, we should uphold our self-respect and expand on our history of nuclear freedom and peace advocacy. We should again embark on that “honourable mission” as Prime Minister Norman Kirk said to the 242 crew of the Otago when they sailed for Moruroa in protest at French nuclear tests: That “honourable mission that has the power to bring alive the conscience of the world”.

Greenpeace will be joining the Peace Flotilla at 12.30pm this Saturday, November 19, in Auckland Harbour, and we invite all of you who love New Zealand’s commitment to peace and independence to join us by sail, motor or paddle.