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Wellington City Councillor Iona Pannett (File photo, Radio NZ)
Wellington City Councillor Iona Pannett (File photo, Radio NZ)

Local ElectionsSeptember 6, 2019

Wellington councillor launches climate change denial attack on colleagues

Wellington City Councillor Iona Pannett (File photo, Radio NZ)
Wellington City Councillor Iona Pannett (File photo, Radio NZ)

Tensions have flared around the Wellington Council table, with one councillor accusing her colleagues of engaging in a form of climate change denial in how they approach related issues. Alex Braae reports.

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The Wellington councillor who led the charge on declaring a climate emergency has launched a stinging attack on her colleagues.

Lambton Ward councillor Iona Pannett, who is standing again on a Green Party ticket, said that those around the Council table haven’t been taking the issue seriously since in their deliberations, and even labelled them “new climate change deniers”.

Pannett says while her colleagues and Council officials don’t contest the science of climate change, they’re resistant to taking it into account in their decision making.

“We just ignore it, when we’re trying to work through a policy or project. It’s absolutely fascinating, because we declared an emergency, and I lead that process, but it doesn’t feel like much has changed.”

She says an example of this came at Thursday’s council meeting when a report on moving the city’s ferry terminal to Kaiwharawhara was discussed and voted on. Pannett questioned whether any planning had been undertaken around mitigating sea level rise, which is predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“I honestly had one of our officials say, ‘oh, well should we close the city down, is that what you’re saying?’ It’s not the level of response I’d expect – it needs to be more sophisticated than that.”

The vote on the ferry terminal report passed 14-1 with Iona Pannett the only councillor voting against. She described them as “all climate change deniers,” and added that “the proof is in the pudding, when it actually comes to saying yes or no to a project”.

Wellington’s waterfront (Image: Naomi Arnold)

Pannett also hit out directly at two of the current candidates for mayor: Onslow-Western Ward independent Diane Calvert and Labour-aligned incumbent mayor Justin Lester.

Pannett said Calvert had questioned whether sea levels were rising, and also accused her of saying “we shouldn’t be scared of sea-level rise”.

“It’s a bizarre statement. I mean, which charts are you looking at? It’s an absolute disaster.”

In response, Calvert insisted she absolutely was not a climate change denier, doesn’t question whether sea levels are rising, and that action on reducing emissions and mitigating against the effects of climate change is necessary.

“She made that comment but she obviously misread what I was saying in support of a new ferry terminal,” said Calvert.

“I think she just basically misheard me and what I was saying. If we’re building a new ferry terminal, and adapting to sea level rising, it’s probably better to do it on a greenfield building site, rather than retrofitting on existing land. That’s why I was supportive on further work on moving the ferry terminal.”

“We have to be realistic,” said Calvert. “She’s the one who’s always talking about how we’re going to have flooding in buildings, and I’m just saying we know that. And we know that we can go for zero carbon emissions, but we’re just one part of the world.

“If we don’t get the sea level rise, that’s great, that’s fine. But if we do, we’re prepared for it. So I think she’s being rather naive.”

Calvert said she voted for the climate emergency, but wouldn’t personally describe climate change as an emergency, “because it’s not what people understand in the strict sense of the word.”

“It’s more important for me that we get on and start actioning, and having stuff we can do,” said Calvert. She added that she’s more concerned about what the council itself can achieve, rather than trying to “be a world-leader” on the issue.

“The emergency thing was a bit of a red herring because it didn’t do anything in terms of changing our views on the things we needed to do, and what we can do as a Council.

As for mayor Justin Lester, Pannett also accused him of not taking the issue seriously.

“The mayor of Wellington has ridiculed me over the last three years over my strong stance on climate change, which is a bit irritating.”

Justin Lester after being elected mayor of Wellington (Radio NZ)

In response, the mayor said that “simply wasn’t true,” and that he consistently sought to incorporate climate change into all council decisions. But he added that he and Pannett would have to “agree to disagree on the alarmism.”

“The vote was 14-1 for movement of the port to the north of the city, and I think Iona was frustrated, because she was the only one to vote against that.”

“The reality is, when you’re moving the port, it has to be on the water. Iona’s concern was that climate change will have an impact on this, but as everyone else noted this is a win-win. We need a more resilient ferry terminal, and it needs to be on water – that’s the nature of ships.”   

Mayor Justin Lester also pointed towards his stance on cleaner public transport options in the Let’s Get Wellington Moving plan, despite also receiving attacks for his support of cycleways and mass transit.

Pannett has often found herself at odds with fellow councillors over climate change action, with a recent example being her opposition to the controversial Shelly Bay development on the grounds that sea-level rise will seriously affect the long term habitability of it.

She said that aspect hadn’t been given enough consideration by the developer Ian Cassels, which is the main reason why she voted against approval for the development. She was also on the losing side of that vote. 

“The developer, and he’s a nice chap, said ‘oh, the residents can build a sea wall.’ And it’s like, you have got to be kidding.

“I think local authorities and the government have a responsibility to protect citizens and their property to some expect by making good decisions, rather than saying oh well, buyer beware, everyone knows about climate change, and then wash your hands of it. We’re basically saying to the thousands of people who live there that they’ll have to pay for their own defence.”

The issue will be a serious one for Wellington City to grapple with in the coming years, with huge swathes of coastal areas at risk of inundation, in particular around low lying areas like Kilbirnie and the CBD.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

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