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Illustration: Tina Tiller
Illustration: Tina Tiller

OPINIONBusinessAugust 13, 2021

Bernard Hickey: Without political ‘air cover’, climate action is all but doomed

Illustration: Tina Tiller
Illustration: Tina Tiller

When the government took extraordinary emergency measures to eliminate Covid-19, it had support from all major political parties. This week’s climate change ‘code red’ demands the same sort of emergency action, but it’s not going to happen without support from across the aisle.

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It was a local news item that was barely noticed in the parliamentary press gallery or by the national media at the time, but it struck a sobering blow in the Beehive and is now shaping the government’s lack-of-emergency-response to the now existential threat of climate change.

The announcement on May 20 of the cancellation of the Arthur Grey Low Traffic Area pilot project in Onehunga never made it to the top of the television news bulletins or anywhere near the front page of the New Zealand Herald. It should have, with the right reporting, editing and explanation, because it showed just how politically difficult meaningful action on climate change will be.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Using wooden boxes and signs, the project blocked off a “rat run” in Onehunga from cars and opened up the roads to pedestrians and cycles. It was just the sort of tactical urbanism that climate activists agree will be the quickest, cheapest, most community-enhancing way to reduce emissions.

It was also exactly the sort of thing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called for on Monday: “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in emissions to stop an already precarious amount of warming becoming a human extinction event with a century. Switching from cars to cycling and walking is one of the only ways to rapidly reduce emissions in a cost effective manner. No resource consents. No new concrete. Just swapping road markings for painted tarmac and a few planter gardens. Happier and healthier people and a slightly-less-warm planet. Job done.

A postie rides into the Onehunga low traffic area soon after the trial started. (Photo: Auckland Council)

The trial was designed to last a couple of months to collect data and test it with the local community. It must have seemed relatively uncontroversial to the traffic planners steeped in the success of similar conversions in New York and Paris. But it turned out Onehunga was different.

Starting in late March, almost as soon as the wooden boxes were plonked at the intersections and the tarmac was painted with green geometric designs, all hell broke loose. The local Facebook pages exploded with anger as local motorists suddenly found their morning commutes taking twice as long.

Within weeks, angry meetings were held and the trial was tweaked. The boxes were soon graffitied. By mid-May tensions online and in real life reached flashpoint: someone used a forklift to pick up the wooden boxes and wreck many of the other temporary installations. Two days later, on May 20, the trial was abandoned and a linked project also part-funded by Waka Kotahi has now also been put on hold.

“There was a concerning escalation of criminal activity by a minority which has resulted in serious public safety issues, including a number of reported near-misses involving cars and pedestrians,” said Maria Meredith, chair of the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Local Board.

“In the face of threats to continue this dangerous behaviour, the board felt the only response was to call an end to the trial. It was clear to us that there was an increasing social cost falling on local board members, the teams working on the project and indeed a widening divide within the community,” she said.

The amount of heat and grief was evident in this plaintive tweet from fellow local board member and project coordinator Peter McGlashan.

This local flashpoint isn’t the only indicator that the tactical urbanists’ ideas are well outside the Overton window – the range of policies deemed acceptable to the median voters whom politicians must win over to get elected. Everyone agrees with the tactical urbanists when they’re in their tight Twitter bubbles and on the Greater Auckland blog, but everyday ratepayers and voters are more focused on how long it takes to drive the kids to school and whether they can park in their driveway.

The government is acutely aware of the risk of a centre-right political backlash against all the moves to reconfigure roads into cycleways and walkways, let alone making it more expensive to buy diesel and petrol-powered double-cab utes. National’s “ute tax” campaign against the clean car rebate scheme has been one of its few policies to resonate this year, along with the “bike-lash” against transport minister Michael Wood’s proposal for a second Auckland Harbour Bridge especially for cyclists at a cost of $685m. Judith Collins’ appeal to the parents wanting to drive their kids to netball in their SUV, rather than on a bike across the bridge, was both simple and effective.

On Newstalk ZB, Mike Hosking and his partner Kate Hawkesby were in their element, righteously outraged on behalf of motorists everywhere. How dare the government take away “our” roads that “we” paid for and give them to people who use them as a playground for their Lycra fetishes, they complained each morning to listeners parked end to end in rush-hour motorway queues.

A ute at the Howl of Protest demonstration in Dargaville, July 16 2021 (Photo: Alex Braae)

Labour’s poll support has dropped around 10 percentage points to around 40% this winter, at least in part because of the “groundswell” protests in provincial cities against the ute tax and the overwhelming opposition to the bike bridge, which Wood has quietly placed in the lowest locked drawer of his filing cabinet. That drop in support helps explain why the government has yet to unveil either a politically or financially painful policy that makes a sizeable difference to emissions, both of carbon and methane, despite the PM’s grand announcement of a “climate emergency” in December.

Time and again, farmers have avoided being dragged into the emissions trading scheme, while the EV rebate scheme was fiscally neutral because Treasury and the government refuse to get off their track to reduce debt, which in turn ensures mortgage rates stay low and house prices stay higher than would otherwise be the case. The climate emergency announcement came on the same day the police announced it was replacing its fleet of now-obsolete Holden Commodores with petrol and diesel-powered Skodas.

Despite Ardern’s claims that the public sector would be carbon neutral within four years, most government fleet managers are still buying petrol Toyota Corollas and Hiluxes and there are hundreds of coal boilers in schools and hospitals up and down the country that will keep running for decades. The public service is far from ready to change its habits of a lifetime, and neither is the public. It’s no accident that the top 10 new vehicle lists have been dominated by double-cab utes and SUVS for most of the last decade. In the last two years, only the rental fleet favourite Corolla and the Suzuki Swift have consistently made it into the top 10.

In terms of attitudes and intentions, New Zealand’s median voters are nowhere near the sort of “immediate, rapid and large scale” emissions reductions that the world’s scientists say are now needed. But that doesn’t mean those reductions couldn’t be achieved.

As climate activist and fund manager Paul Winton says in this week’s When the Facts Change podcast, the biggest, fastest, fairest and most efficient way to reduce emissions would be a rapid de-motorisation of cities, which would require limited spending on reconfiguring roads, much larger spending on electric buses, and a whole lot more spending on redesigning and rebuilding our housing stock to make it much more energy efficient and much closer to work, school, play and public transport. Entire industrial and business sectors would have to change the way they operate. People would have to change where and how they live, along with what they drive, ride in, ride on and aspire to.

However, Winton also acknowledges this sort of cultural change will be politically hard. His group conducted research among voters in New Zealand 18 months ago that found the percentage willing to change their lifestyle to respond to climate change was shockingly small at 3–7%, and nowhere near the Overton window of centrist policies that are deemed acceptable to talk about in public, or give advice on in the halls of government. He doubts a re-run of the survey being done now will show that much change.

Political constraints are the main problem, as UMR director and regular political pollster and focus group runner Stephen Mills also told me in this week’s podcast. He thinks it will be very difficult for the government to take politically painful decisions, given the level of immediate threat from climate change is not Covid-19-like and the government does not have the “air cover” it had from the centre-right during those strange weeks in mid-March last year.

A moment of levity between Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges at Rātana, February 10 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

That’s the irony. I thought there was little chance Jacinda Ardern’s government would be able to abandon its incrementalist-one-step-behind-the-public ways in the face of a remote and unseen threat. Yet the PM was able to orchestrate and carry out major restrictions on public and commercial freedoms before a single death. No other western democracy managed that. Usually, television pictures of overflowing emergency care units and morgues are required for politicians to take action.

New Zealand did it though, largely because the centre-right, big business and the “sensible voices” of academia and civil society came out strongly in favour, both in public and behind the scenes, giving their blessings to actions usually seen as politically intolerable. Economist and social policy adviser Jess Berentson-Shaw points in the podcast to the role these centrist, trusted and non-political figures in the community can play to help smooth the path to difficult policies.

It could be argued the climate emergency revealed this week by the IPCC is just as urgent and enormous, but the sense of immediate threat and collective solidarity is not there this time. Back then, opposition leader Simon Bridges and Act leader David Seymour were among the first to call for a hard and early lockdown. Epidemiologists at Otago, Victoria and Auckland called for the lockdown. Senior business figures called for a lockdown to effectively sacrifice the economy to save the grans. On the day of the announcement of the level 4 lockdown, there was an extraordinary joint statement from the CTU and BusinessNZ in support of the move.

This time opposition leader Judith Collins is appealing to the electorate’s base instincts in her campaign against the ute tax and the cycling bridge. Business leaders are eerily and sadly silent. The PM has sniffed the wind in the Overton window and is quietly moving in the other direction, even though the IPCC’s report and the Climate Commission’s recommendations should be pushing the government towards bigger emissions moves.

The government will release its response to the commission’s report and its contribution to the global effort before the Glasgow climate summit in November. That response will likely be vague, focused on the future rather than current action, and be as non-threatening as possible. Just as voters say they want climate change action, but also “not now and not me”, the government will effectively say “yes it’s an emergency, but one we can deal with some time next decade”.

As I’ve written before, our double cab ute culture looks set to eat the urban activists’ climate strategy for breakfast. That is, unless those at the centre of the debate develop the same urgency and solidarity we had in March 2020 against another threat we couldn’t see right in front of our faces.

Here’s hoping.

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