Comment: In his valedictory speech last week, Todd Muller issued a warning to the MPs he is leaving behind in Parliament.

“We are a tiny country seeking to play a meaningful role in global action on climate, but we must be realistic about our size, distance from market, infrastructure vulnerabilities, and balance sheet capacity. But all that strategic context cannot mask the inevitable: we must reduce our gross emissions and seek efficient ways to offset them in the short term,” he said.

“It is a challenging path for a country so small and so distant, but it will become impossible if dispassionate assessments of complex options provided by the Climate Change Commission get drowned out by simple tag lines of denialism or catastrophisation, or even kick it down the roadism.”

Govt cuts further $236m from climate policies
* National’s ‘carbon dividend’ takes climate cash for tax cuts

Muller is correct, but he chose to reserve this important criticism for his final speech in politics. Why not speak up when he held National’s climate change portfolio earlier this year, while his leader promised to reinstate offshore oil and gas exploration?

For the same reason, Labour and National both independently decided this week to ignore Muller’s advice and give the can a good punt. Politics.

On Monday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced $4 billion in savings and cuts to the public service, including $236 million slashed from climate policy. It was all done without consulting the Climate Change Minister James Shaw and will also see that cash – which came from the ring-fenced Climate Emergency Response Fund (CERF) – returned to the general coffers instead.

Then on Wednesday, National leader Christopher Luxon and deputy Nicola Willis decided to one-up Labour and announce they would completely dismantle the CERF to pay for their tax cuts. They called it a “carbon dividend”, but it is no more a carbon dividend than raiding the National Land Transport Fund of fuel excise revenue to cover tax cuts instead of building roads would be a “petrol dividend”.

The two big parties have clued in to the fact New Zealanders are increasingly concerned about climate change – but they’re also aware the average voter has little real understanding of it.

That means they can get away with paying lip service to the issue. Greenwashing, if you will. As long as the two Chrises make the right noises about our climate targets, about reaching net zero, about cutting emissions and adapting to the impacts of the ever increasing number of severe weather events, they don’t have to worry about actually doing anything.

In fact, as we saw this week, they can even take us backwards, so long as they say we’re moving forwards. It’s gaslighting on a grand scale, promising that climate action is happening while they raid climate funds, slash many of the actual policies we do have to reduce emissions, and build more motorways while plugging their ears to the obvious carbon-heavy impacts those bring.

Neither Hipkins nor Luxon are stupid. They understand the urgency of the issue. They will have read the summaries for policymakers from the recent round of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, if only to avoid stumbling on basic facts when questioned.

Here are some of the highlights from those summaries:

  • “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”
  • “Every tonne of CO₂ emissions adds to global warming.”
  • “Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability.”
  • “The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.”
  • “Projected global GHG emissions from [Paris targets] announced prior to COP26 would make it likely that warming will exceed 1.5°C and also make it harder after 2030 to limit warming to below 2°C.”
  • “All global modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C (>50%) with no or limited overshoot, and those that limit warming to 2°C (>67%), involve rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emission reductions in all sectors.”

There is no excuse for ignorance when statements as authoritative as these are as readily available as they are. If these basic facts are news to the two major party leaders, that would display a breathtaking negligence.

Still, it would be preferable to the alternative: The two major party leaders know this and they just don’t care. That would be tantamount to soft-core climate denial, saying they believe the science but acting the opposite.

The difficult truth is that the electoral incentives for serious action on climate are outweighed by a range of other issues, from the cost of living to crime. There was hope that seeing the devastating impacts of climate change play out in our own lives, as with the Auckland floods and the deadly Cyclone Gabrielle, might shift the dial. It appeared to, temporarily, but neither Hipkins nor Luxon seized the opportunity to build on that opening.

In time, then, the primacy of climate concern faded in relation to other issues. Now we’re back, if not at square one, certainly not much farther than squares two or three.

That parties, including National, feel a need to pay lip service to climate is an improvement. Just last election, the issue was almost entirely sidelined by Judith Collins – although that clearly wasn’t a key to electoral success.

But in the stage of the climate crisis that we now find ourselves, when it is making itself fatally apparent on a regular basis all around the world, slight improvements like that are wholly insufficient.

New Zealanders deserve an election in which climate change plays a major role. They deserve parties taking the issue seriously, rather than trading it off against tax cuts and fiscal headroom.

Sadly, that seems unlikely to happen this year.

If you listen hard enough, you can actually hear the tin can clanking its way down the road. It’s just barely audible over the gale-force winds of the next looming climate disaster.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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