Making a submission to the Government requires an effort of time, energy and courage. Yet just over 10,000 people did this for the Zero Carbon Bill, officially the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill. Of those, 1500 took the next step of endorsing their submission by appearing before the Environment Select Committee – the group of nine MPs tasked with evaluating the evidence.

These oral submissions continue until September 9 with the last one in Nelson. The hearings are open to the public and live-streamed. Four members of the select committee attend the sessions which run from 8.30am to 5.30pm. Each slot of five minutes for an individual or ten for an organisation is strictly adhered to. A full day can mean more than 30 individuals have been heard and responded to.

That’s an impressive load. Yet my experience of submitting and of observing this hugely democratic process gave me hope. The welcome is warm, the questions relevant, each submitter is thanked for their time. I felt a surge of appreciation for the work the panel are committed to.

This issue is no ordinary one. The global reach and potentially dire future global heating heralds mean that no one does not have a response. The range of people, the range of views expressed and the evidence presented reflect the inescapable nature of this emergency – even in reverse. I heard more than one farmer, while doubting the scientific consensus, express fear of the effects of mitigation on their livelihoods.

Many in industry claim to be doing their best. Refinery New Zealand’s representative proudly stated their aim to be the world’s lowest emissions refinery. They’re on the way, he said, having already made cuts of 20 percent. But they fear international competition from less environmentally conscious rivals. They’re building a solar energy farm and are working on the production of hydrogen fuel.

Likewise Metals New Zealand, who claims to have begun the transition to a circular, low emissions economy. Steel and aluminium are, its representative said, “the ultimate recycling materials”. And they’re essential to almost every aspect of our lives. “Think of the coffee you begin your day with,” he told the panel. “You wouldn’t have it without metals.”

But his fear mirrored that of the refinery.

“This rapid transition we have to make needs a fair playing field and this is a risk especially with imported goods coming in.”

It’s no wonder, then, that so many submitters are anxious. This bill is all we’ve got, really, and it needs to be made fit-for-purpose.

This pitch from two major players has a ring of defensiveness, or maybe desperation. They present as if they’re already doing their best. But we all know New Zealand’s net emissions have done nothing but rise since our first engagement with this issue at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many submitters are anxious. This Bill is all we’ve got, really, and it needs to be made fit-for-purpose.

Here’s a sample of the views I heard.

A homely-looking woman sat with her eight-year-old daughter beside her. You have to be 18 to vote but merely articulate to submit. Adele read a speech of her love for animals and her fears for them. Her mother explained she was there for this daughter and her other children.

“We are a stubborn country,” she said. “We told the US they couldn’t bring their nukes here, and we can change the way we live. Doing the right thing is not the same as doing the popular thing.” The panel thanked mother and daughter for their bravery in coming in.

Joshua, a mild, tidy young man of year 12 or 13, was adamant that the Bill’s targets are too weak and that New Zealand has to show responsibility for our Pacific Island neighbours. He was asked by one of the panel whether he had taken part in the school climate marches – and was congratulated when he said he had.

Climate anxiety motivated a South Auckland science teacher. “I could not sit back and say nothing,” he said. “I don’t understand why this Bill isn’t fast-tracked. What do I tell my Pacific Island students about the effects of the melting of the glaciers?” All the previous issues New Zealand has acted on – banning nuclear ships, supporting the anti-apartheid movement, the recent recalling of assault rifles – are trivial, he claimed, compared with this one.

He was complimented on a powerful presentation.

A scientist spoke of her initial hope that the world would respond with an urgency and consensus similar to that which fixed the hole in the ozone when the effects of CFCs were understood. We have to do the same now, she urged.

“I’ve brought my son,” she said. “I’m answerable to him.”

The panel’s response was to thank her for bringing him.

She was one of several speakers who warned the Bill would fail unless two specific clauses, 5ZJ and 5ZK, were removed or reworded – the so-called “get-out-of-jail-free” clauses.

Clause 5ZJ states “emissions budgets are not enforceable by law”. Clause 5ZK says “a person or body may, if they think fit, take the 2050 target or emissions budget into account….”

We’ve got 10 years, insisted a 30-something man of Tongan-European parents. In 10 years, he warned, the world will be different, so we should forget about 2050. Did the panel think he should take out a mortgage?

Deniers, too, had their five minutes. A farmer described the Bill as “a nonsense”. Carbon, he said, is all around us. The grass animals eat is part of the carbon cycle. The climate has always been changing….

More important was the question of how much we should be allowed to trade our way out of this mess, which the Emissions Trading Scheme is designed, in part, to do. But should we be able to buy the right to prolong our present lifestyles by supporting carbon sequestering schemes overseas?

(Never mind that many of us do this by offsetting our air travel.)

No, insisted a former politician, overseas credits should not be allowed and no more than 30 percent of an emitter’s emissions should be able to be offset with projects here.

The detail of the Bill will ultimately be spelled out by the members of the yet-to-be selected Climate Commission – and here was yet another topic for intense debate. Should it consist purely of experts or should it be representational? How to keep it apolitical?

I feel we’ve had an opportunity to be heard. The select committee is due to report back to Parliament on October 21. Let’s hope the political process can go into overdrive and get the Bill through this term. Then the real work can begin.

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