Chlöe Swarbrick at the Auckland climate strike. Photo: Julie Zhu

Chlöe Swarbrick: Time for a new tribe of anybody-MPs to smash the marble walls

The political status quo is unfit to confront the climate crisis. We need more of those who will take to the street for what they believe in, rather than sniffing out snide put-downs from air-conditioned television studios, writes New Zealand’s youngest parliamentarian.

A large contingent of Pasifika South Auckland students led tens of thousands of New Zealanders flooding Queen Street. Hand-made signs declaring a climate emergency shared the four lanes with a life-sized plush squid, tentacles strewn across half a dozen activists. Tangata whenua reminded all that indigenous sovereignty is climate justice, unfurling a gigantic Protect Ihumātao sign.

Small children were pushed in wheelchairs and sat on parents’ shoulders. Older kids brandished megaphones and ushered calm order to the masses in bright orange vests. Older people waved signage demanding better from their supposed leaders. Memes ridiculed the indifference of politicians.


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By organisers’ estimates, 80,000 Aucklanders, as part of 170,000 New Zealanders nationwide, joined #FridaysForFuture and #SchoolStrikeForClimate. While this absolutely is what democracy looks like, it’s a far cry from the current state of our representative politics.

That same Friday morning, politicians from both sides of the aisle dismissed young climate activists, saying they were wasting their youth or should ‘grow out’ of it.

As the youngest member of our parliament, I’m familiar with such explicitly patronising language. I’ve found that sentiments like “grow up” are typically synonymous with “give up” – a passive aggressive, coded articulation that you’re making others uncomfortable with your earnest ideas that we could possibly hope to create a better world.

I couldn’t care less about the personal jabs. Nor do the facts care about my feelings. If you don’t like or trust or want to listen to me, or to the millions of citizens demanding better, listen to the science.

Ninety-seven percent of scientists are in strong agreement that humans have sped up global warming, to the point that we now risk not only our species’ survival, but biodiversity and the world as we know it. The climate emergency is confronting us either by design or systemic neglect. We created this mess.

Politicians across the world have their hands on the wheel of a car that they are driving directly into a forest fire. They can see the fire. They have been, and are being, constantly warned about it as they drive. The heat and smoke is starting to make some of the car passengers uncomfortable, sick and coughing.

Politicians have their hands on the wheel and their feet at the pedals. They can slow the car. They can stop it. They can choose a different path: one that doesn’t lead to destruction of the car, its passengers – ultimately of civilisation as a whole.

It just so happens politicians are among the least trusted professionals on planet Earth. This state of affairs offers a perverse feedback loop; those who are most disgusted at their actions, those who feel the least represented and least heard, are among the first to turn off. This narrows the field of available voters, as people who have become disenchanted and disenfranchised are far harder to reach and turn out, a shallower pool emerges. When people feel deeply unrepresented, they’re less likely to engage, and therefore the chance things might change descends into an ever downward spiral.

Fear and anger almost always turn up to the ballot box, but they don’t regularly manifest in solutions. They’re intentionally targeted by self-styled strongmen who conjure up scapegoats and divisiveness.

New Zealand has been privy to its fair share of attempted polarisation recently. An unignorable 48% of our country’s emissions coming from agriculture, which evidently must reduce if we are to do our bit to help keep global warming within 1.5 degrees. That is a fact. It is also a fact that thousands of New Zealanders work on the farms and in the industry that, unfortunately, produces these emissions. These people are important, and they – like all of us – deserve a warm, dry home, meaningful work, a sense of identity and strong community ties.

Some politicians have sought to sever those two crucial components for their own gain. They don’t talk about helping our farmers transition, but speak in divisive, binary, fanciful rhetoric You can only have one, they assert: a liveable climate or regional development. They ignore the reality that farmers are already being hit with climate breakdown in ever-less predictable seasonality and increasing international standards on carbon transparency.

And still, those politicians will do their best to divide us, and they will tell those who will listen that the young people and those who stood in solidarity with them to demand urgent climate action aren’t trying to ensure we’re all better off; these politicians will say these activists are trying to hurt you. The tactics are Trumpian: diminish trust in everyone and every source but those that reinforce your world view.

The Climate Strike in Auckland. Photo: Sylvie Whinray

More than 150,000 New Zealanders marched in the streets calling for stronger climate action, but with two and a half weeks until the Zero Carbon Bill is reported back to parliament, it remains unclear if the National Party will support it. That cross-party support is seen as critical to the long term stability of the legislation and the independent Climate Commission. That cross-party support helped in the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008, on which the Zero Carbon Bill is based.

At least one Senior National Party former minister – that’s Judith Collins – has publicly stated she will not support it. Both Simon Bridges and the party’s former climate change spokesperson, Todd Muller, say they couldn’t offer caucus votes unless the already controversially split-target for methane drops even lower than its present 24%-47% reduction by 2050 range.

To spell it out, in practice this means that our defining piece of climate action legislation – one which 170,000 Kiwis just this last Friday demanded be made stronger and delivered faster – risks passing with only the government majority of 64 votes to 56 votes. That vote is less than three weeks out.

I can’t stress it enough: this is a law that – at present – a massive number of New Zealanders do not see as bold or progressive enough to the extent that they were willing to put their bodies, their education and in some places their jobs on the line.

Status quo politics cannot solve climate breakdown. It created it.

Through generations of lobbying, unequal access, donations and manipulation, the political system has grown into a monolith bred to protect and conserve the way things are.

So-called leaders dismiss young people terrified for their future on the basis of their age. They dismiss scientists for sounding the alarm about the urgency of action required. Nothing, it would seem, will sink in except reinforcement of cognitive biases. These politicians arm themselves with a deeply entrenched ideology, something they accuse everyone else of having.

There were five demands from the New Zealand School Strike, and the Greens are the only party even close to agreeing with every single one. We are eight MPs of 120 in parliament, and while we’ve leveraged the hell out of our size to achieve more climate change action in this term of government than the last 30 years, we’ll be the first to say we want to go further, faster. We can only do that with greater numbers.

Regardless of whether you choose to engage in politics, the decisions it produces govern your life. If you drink water, breathe air and value a roof over your head at night, it’s important to remember that the accessibility, quality and affordability of all of those things is inherently political. If you don’t trust your politicians, find somebody who you do trust, and support them in running.

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We’ve still got so much more to do, but we will only achieve it with our hands on the wheel.

We need representatives in positions of power who are there not to hold up the marble walls, but to knock them down. I’m heartened by the reminder that if I – a highschool drop-out with tattoos and a potty mouth – can somehow wind up in parliament, anybody can. And we need more anybodys; the kind who will take to the street for what they believe in, instead of offering snide put-downs from the comfort of an air-conditioned television studio.

The sentiment lives in the chant that bellowed across Queen Street last week: “We are not drowning! We are fighting!”

Take the fight to election 2020. I agree climate action should not be partisan. But the reality is stark: a number of political parties do not as it stands want to make the sufficient steps to deal with it. If you marched on Friday, you already know that.


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