Despite the ongoing challenge of Covid-19, it is climate change that should be at the forefront of New Zealanders’ minds when they go to vote, says Rod Oram

Our most consequential election in many generations past and future begins officially this Sunday when Parliament is dissolved.

Rightly, Covid-19 will be top of mind for many voters. Our economic and social well-being for many years to come hinges on how well we respond to the pandemic and recover from it.

Conquering this pandemic over a few years is very hard. But it will be harder to prevent irreversible climate change over the next decade, which is how little time we have left to do so. Failure will be hardest, forcing us to live with irreversible and accelerating climate change.

Thus in this election, the climate crisis is an even greater test than the virus pandemic of our political maturity and will, of our ability to understand, confront and resolve existential, yet avoidable, catastrophes of our own making.

Our short election campaigns – hyped by empty sound bites, meaningless optics, demeaning character assassination and political bickering – seem absolutely the wrong place to wrestle with anything complicated, let alone the climate crisis.

But our Climate Change Commission recommended last week a simple process for doing so: “The need for climate action to achieve our vision of a thriving, climate-resilient, low emissions future is widely understood. Ahead of the 2020 election, we expect to see all political parties propose ways to support this.”

Many people know broadly what we need to do to tackle the climate crisis; many of the ways we can do it; what are the benefits of doing so; and what are the cost and damage of not.

We aren’t asking politicians for multi-decade, fully fledged and costed policies. All we need from them are genuine commitments to goals, pathways and all-party co-operation. From those will flow all the actions and resources we need to decarbonise our economy and respond to the climate crisis.

This has been the UK’s experience since its House of Commons passed the Climate Change Act in 2008 by 645 votes to five. Over the 12 years since, the UK has sharply reduced emissions while enjoying stronger economic growth than many other developed countries.

Moreover, the united political will has rebuffed a few attempts to undo it. Just this week, for example, a private member’s bill backed by six parties (but not the Tories) was introduced to close some crucial gaps in the legislation.

Our over-arching Zero Carbon Act is closely based on the UK legislation. It was approved unanimously last December by all parties present. For the record, David Seymour, ACT’s lone MP, failed to turn up for the vote but said he would have voted against it.

Our Climate Change Commission and the interim Climate Change Committee, its precursor pending last year’s legislation, have already proved their worth. The quality of their reports and advice to government have helped to bring clarity and consensus on crucial issues.

One of the most notable works-in-progress is with the primary sector on devising a fair, practical system for measuring and reducing emissions on farm and the financial mechanisms for doing so. The initiative is called He Waka Eke Noa – Primary Sector Climate Action Partnership.

The Commission has also given the out-going Labour-led Government sound advice on how to ensure our investment in recovery from the Covid crisis works for, not against, our climate goals.

In its April 7 letter to Climate Change Minister James Shaw it enumerated six principles which would help deliver multiple outcomes: “clean energy and energy efficiency; improved transport systems; sustainable land use; resilient infrastructure; an empowered workforce; accelerated innovation; and improved well-being.”

Similarly, the Commission is responding to a request from Shaw in April to assess whether New Zealand needs to increase the commitment we made at the Paris climate negotiations in 2015 to reduce emissions if we are to play our role in keeping the rise in temperatures under 1.5 degrees centigrade.

Actually, the verdict is already in from international experts. For example, Climate Action Tracker’s report on New Zealand evaluates our progress to-date as consistent with a temperature rise of between 3 and 4C. “New Zealand lacks strong policies, despite its Zero Carbon Act.”

So, if any party fails to make substantial climate commitments in this election, it is telling us three things: it doesn’t believe we have a climate crisis; it doesn’t care a large majority of people want action on climate change, as polls consistently report, as the latest shows yet again; and it doesn’t take the Climate Change Commission seriously.

All three dismissals are deeply damaging to our future. But in many ways the last is the most important. Any party failing to engage with our Climate Change Commission breaks the political consensus absolutely vital to its effectiveness. Even if the party tries to patch that up later, it will take voters a very long time to trust it on climate issues. Breaking the consensus now will be a long-term electoral liability for the party.

Five parties could have major or minor roles to play in forming the next government, depending how our votes fall.

ACT and New Zealand First are very clear where they stand. They show they can’t or won’t grasp the complexity of the issues, the importance of tackling them, the benefits from doing so and the costs of not. Moreover, NZ First has been an utterly untrustworthy and negative partner on these issues, greatly hobbling policy progress by the out-going Government.

National has chosen in Judith Collins a leader who is utterly dismissive of the climate crisis and disparaging of efforts to tackle it.

National voted for the Zero Carbon Act. But it made it very clear at the time and since that it would overturn the legislation on seven issues when it next formed a government.

That was deeply hypocritical. It voted for legislation that is utterly crucial for building a long-term, durable legislative framework essential for climate progress. But it’s going to turn around and undo it. For details of National’s position please read this column.

It has a track record on such actions. It emasculated the Emissions Trading Scheme after it came to power in 2008, making the ETS useless for the next 12 years. This year it has voted for ETS reforms but has made it very clear this is not the right time to charge a meaningful price on carbon. Therefore, it is highly likely to render the ETS ineffectual a second time, should it return to power.

To make matters far worse, National has chosen in Judith Collins a leader who is utterly dismissive of the climate crisis and disparaging of efforts to tackle it. She has often made her views clear, including her denial of climate science. Her lengthy Facebook post last October is a good example of her opinions, as this column examined.

If Labour led the next government it might deliver more on climate. But only if NZ First was out of the government; and the Greens were in it.

Labour is committed to responding to the climate crisis. Launching her party’s campaign in the 2017 election, Jacinda Ardern said it was “my generation’s nuclear free moment.” Leading the Government in the three years since, she has delivered on the Zero Carbon Act and making the ETS fit-for-purpose at last. But her conservatism and NZ First’s obstructionism denied us further progress.

If Labour led the next government it might deliver more on climate. But only if NZ First was out of the government; and the Greens were in it.

Shaw, the Greens co-leader, is by far our most knowledgeable, constructive, committed and persuasive politician on climate issues. It was he who led all the legislative and political negotiations that made the Zero Carbon Act possible.

An example of Shaw’s knowledge and where he sees a Greens-inclusive government leading in the next parliament is this webinar this week hosted by Mindful Money, which offers New Zealanders invaluable research on responsible investing.

If you want a future, vote climate.

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