When disaster strikes, we react. We mobilise to ensure everyone gets to safety. We painstakingly work to make sure no one is left behind. After all, we recognise no one chose to have a disaster befall them. Our heroes are those who make sacrifices and risks to protect others; our values of compassion and service are forefront of mind.
Last week, one case of the highly transmissible Covid-19 Delta variant saw us pull out our strongest defence and lockdown the country at alert level 4. In the next few days, we would see cases, contacts and locations of interest ripple across Aotearoa, identified under the microscope of our collective response. We have acted to isolate the virus, flush it out, and stop it dead in its tracks. If we stick with the plan together, apart, we’re on track to win.
But when a disaster is playing out in slow motion, with less bang, more data and trends, out-of-sight-out-of-mind, impacting particularly those without platform or power, things tend to get a whole lot more complicated. They get political. With climate change, we’re talking denial, then delay. With the housing crisis, we’re talking denial, then arbitrary limitations of what is politically possible. With growing inequality, we’re talking denial, then an attempt to shift focus to a notion of the “economy” at the expense of who’s paying the price.
When these crises are happening simultaneously, conventional wisdom tells us we should only deal with one of those problems at once. Orthodox politics tells us we must prioritise the fires, and take a water bucket to each in order. We’re not invited to think about why the heat is rising, that may be all of this seemingly spontaneous combustion has to do with the amount of proverbial (and literal) oil we’ve been indiscriminately extracting. That maybe we didn’t have to leave so much convenient kindling (cheap debt only meaningfully accessible to those with pre-existing equity) lying around. That these fires aren’t inevitable and we can change the rules to ensure they don’t happen again.
As foreign as the idea of standing in a crowd of 80,000 feels now, it was only in 2019 when that mass protest – 10 times the highest estimate authorities had predicted – took to Auckland’s Queen St, led by school children. They were demanding a liveable climate for a safe future. Hand-painted signs reminded us we had 12 more years to take bold, decisive action. That was two years ago.
Thanks to the tireless and challenging work of Climate Change Minister and Green Co-Leader, James Shaw, we now have a Zero Carbon Act. We have an Independent Climate Commission, offering public advice and requiring a government response. We’ll be the first country in the world to put a price on agricultural emissions.
This plan will be a framework, a blueprint, a playbook for how we can all do our bit to avoid catastrophic global warming, and the worst of ocean acidification, food supply threat, mass human migration and species extinction that comes with it.
For this plan to work, every part of government needs to do its bit. We couldn’t have built a Sky Tower if we ignored the civil engineering, electrical, workplace safety and architectural advice. Auckland’s skyline would look radically different if those specialists hadn’t worked together, trusted each other depth of expertise and deployed the resources necessary to create something that had never before been done.
This is why every minister this term is a climate change minister. A plan is only as good as its execution. A plan can only be executed if everyone required to take action is looked after and secure in their ability to do their job. In the same way, such colossal infrastructural development requires thorough health and safety protocols, climate action requires a just transition; everybody across this country must be provided the security of income and housing for us to do our part.
Our challenge is particularly stark, because if every country in the world produced the same amount of climate-changing emissions as Aotearoa, we would hit 4C of global warming by the year 2050. International efforts, and our pledge to the Paris Agreement, is to keep that below 1.5C.
One small, fundamental piece of this puzzle is our soon-to-be-updated Nationally Determined Contribution target under the Paris Agreement. In less than three months’ time, countries from all over the world will gather at the next global climate talks to take stock of progress. Aotearoa will be expected to arrive at these talks in November with a more ambitious target. That target will be a litmus test of its commitment to action; think of it as setting the height and shape of our figurative Sky Tower plans.
We can and must deal with the crisis at hand while recognising the design of our systems and rules is driving us into a future crisis, without seatbelts. We cannot fix the problems of today with the tools that created them. We know our government can act when confronted with crisis – let’s make sure it does with the ones today’s young people will otherwise inherit.
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