Rage, rage against the settled science. Image: Tina Tiller
Rage, rage against the settled science. Image: Tina Tiller

Local Elections 2022October 4, 2022

How many local election candidates are still on the climate change denial bandwagon?

Rage, rage against the settled science. Image: Tina Tiller
Rage, rage against the settled science. Image: Tina Tiller

The number of would-be local body politicians prioritising climate action appears to be falling, while climate misinformation remains an issue, Policy.nz’s candidate survey shows. Heidi Bendikson reports on the data.

The effects of climate change – from rising sea levels to extreme weather – present a growing challenge for local authorities. But fewer local elections candidates appear to be running on climate change platforms this year compared to last election, according to an analysis of profiles on Policy.nz

In 2019, 18.1% of candidates who responded to Policy.nz’s nationwide candidate survey referred to “climate” in their top three priorities. This year, that figure has fallen slightly to 16.2% of candidates. 

And at least 40 candidates running for public office around the country appear to deny or dismiss human-made climate change altogether – including in areas where the impact of climate change seems self-evident.

In Napier, the Westshore is under threat from rising sea levels, according to data from NZ SeaRise. But one Napier mayoral candidate, John C Smith, describes man-made climate change to be a “myth”, referring to a “war on carbon”. Climate change policy focuses on reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, not on carbon.

In Dunedin, managed retreat of parts of South Dunedin is being considered as a part of the council’s climate change strategy. However, Dunedin mayoral candidate Pamela Taylor sees luges and water taxis as the future for Dunedin – not in an effort to curb emissions, but because “CO2 is not a pollutant. It is essential to all life on Earth.” 

“We will drive, fly and boat,” she says in her climate policies. While carbon dioxide, or CO2, is not harmful in and of itself, the science is settled: emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases by human activity is preventing heat released by the earth from radiating into space.

Christchurch mayoral candidate and far-right supporter of the parliamentary grounds occupation Carl Bromley rejects the views of NIWA, which predicts that Christchurch will face increased risk of wildfire and tidal flooding from climate change, instead referring to “climate change CENSORSHIP.” 

Some candidates combine misinformation about climate change with other conspiracy theories. For example, Hutt City Council candidate Mark Atkin combines a rejection of the “scam that is human-caused climate change” with concern about “Agenda 2030”, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Programme which is the subject of a conspiracy theory about an attempt to create a new world order. 

Climate scientist Dr James Renwick, who is a professor of physical geography at Victoria University, says it is crucial that local officials pay attention to climate change. “If they are in a position of power, they are the people that make things happen in communities. These are the people at the front lines.”

Renwick is surprisingly patient as he listens to some of the candidates’ climate policies, calmly explaining that the science is the most peer reviewed in the country. “It has to be.”

Climate change science is not something that has been “dreamed up recently”, he says, and there is simply no argument in the scientific community that climate change is not man made. The chemistry tells them so.

Only when it comes to the comments linking climate change policies to UN interference in democracy, does a hint of exasperation set in. “People can believe whatever they like. None of it is to do with science.”

Those candidates who responded to requests for further comment doubled down on their views, citing virtue signalling, propaganda or that opposition to the mainstream narrative is censored by mainstream media and social media.

While these views may no longer be mainstream, the lack of competition in many elections around the country means the odds of any given candidate being elected are strong. Nationally, nearly 50% of candidates nominated will be elected, according to a report by Policy.nz.

While there are 40 candidates around the country who appear to deny the reality of climate change in their candidate profiles on Policy.nz, there may be others. 

Sean Phelan, Associate Professor at the school of communication, journalism and marketing at Massey University, says some climate change deniers are becoming more savvy in their language as climate change denial becomes a pejorative term. “It is a bit like the line ‘I’m not a racist, but…’, ‘I’m not denying climate change, but …’”

He adds that it is not unusual for proponents of misinformation to present themselves as the “truly objective ones, in contrast to the “woke ones”, Phelan says. 

But that is not to say candidates are deliberately looking to misinform. Where climate change policies are contrary to someone’s interests, that creates a kind of subjectivity that makes someone spend more time at night looking for “stuff that supports their case,” Phelan says.

For example, while Taranaki Regional Council candidate, Alan Murray, states that he enjoys “detailed discussions and will happily alter my stance if proven incorrect”, his top climate change and resilience policy is to “commit to council fighting emotionally led pseudoscience which attempts to convince us all that a changing climate is our fault.” 

While the number of candidates identifying climate change may have fallen slightly since 2019, the vast majority of candidates have listed policies which acknowledge climate change. 

As one candidate for Canterbury Regional Council, Ashley Campbell, puts it: “Climate change is happening now, but it’s giving us time to change, mitigate and adapt. If we act now we can choose how we adapt, if we wait much longer we won’t be able to.”

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