We’re careening towards the iceberg of runaway climate change. Here’s a comprehensive look at what each party is promising to do about it.
For the past four weeks, I’ve been having election nightmares. There have been cameos from David Seymour in fluorescent lycra, and Winston Peters in a tophat and white scarf waving a walking stick at journalists. One night, there was clawing at the window followed by an almighty smash. Nicola Willis and Grant Robinson were hissing at each other in a language I couldn’t understand.
One night, too scared to sleep, I turned on the TV. Unfortunately, the Titanic was playing, so as I drifted in and out of consciousness, Jack’s face melded into Christopher Hipkins’, Hal’s became Christopher Luxon’s, and there was a shootout over a blue diamond called Carbon Zero, even though the ship was sinking and everyone knows diamonds don’t float.
The dream was alarming in its prophecy, and I woke the next morning wondering if there were hidden insights to be revealed through an analysis of each party’s climate change policies through the allegorical lens of the Hollywood Blockbuster film, Titanic.
Stupidity combined with excessive self-confidence makes for chilling repeat viewing. Watching Titanic 25 years after its release, and a hundred more since the ship was swallowed by a calm ocean on a moonless night, it’s hard to imagine that the 1997 film was made for any other purpose than climate allegory.
Like the country’s current predicament, it seems to offer chilling lessons about the dire consequences of human error coupled with arrogance and denial. This is why any comparison of climate policies must be reviewed holistically: not as individual items for different classes of passengers, but as a package deal in which all our fates are intertwined.
Climate change election promises: a holistic review
If you type “Titanic” into a GIF search engine, without fail you’ll find Jack and his best mate Fabrizio standing at the prow of the ship shouting “I’m the king of the world!” into the icy wind. Jack’s attitude is similar to that of early imperialists who set off in search of new lands to conquer and subdue.
Remember that scene when the captain calls for the engines to be shut down and everything goes utterly quiet for the briefest second, then there’s a shudder and a tinkling of glasses in first class? A steward in the lower decks is later seen running through the cabins telling people to go back to their rooms, that the ship has “probably just thrown a propeller blade.”
In fact, they’ve hit an iceberg, and in this environmental allegory, that iceberg is mining. Over the last fifty or so years, masses of scientific evidence have finally vindicated indigenous communities the world over, who have long understood that gouging the marrow of the land that sustains us and calling it wealth is, well, not all good, bro.
Fossil fuels and minerals come from under ground, and their extraction has both known and unknown consequences. One of the consequences of burning oil, coal and gas, for example, is that carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere at a rate faster than trees can absorb it. This is especially so given that large swathes of forest and wetland in this country were felled and drained, and those that remain are being choked by introduced pests. Together, these activities have been simmering the planet like a next-day boil-up.
Avoiding icebergs: mining policies compared
If you’re serious about avoiding fatal icebergs, quitting mining and burning fossil fuels ought to be right up there as a priority. In 2019, the coalition government took steps to do that, introducing an offshore oil and gas exploration ban (although consents have continued to be issued in Taranaki). If elected, Labour has said it would maintain the ban, although it only applies to new permits, not existing ones, so it will still take time – possibly decades – to completely switch course.
Both the Greens and Te Pāti Māori are committed to swerving faster, and also shoving the propellers into reverse. Both would phase out existing permits and extend the ban to include conservation land. Te Pāti Māori want to go even further and ban mining of reserves and Significant Natural Areas as well as the seabed. Their member’s Bill to that effect was voted down earlier this year. The mining company that wants to dredge up millions of tonnes of iron, titanium and vanadium near Pātea was quoted as saying that these activities would have “minimal impact on the environment.”
Sometimes, especially in an election, politicians will obscure, deny or downplay the connection between global warming and mining. New Zealand First’s Lee Donoghue referred to the climate crisis as fear-mongering, alarmist hysteria, and urged people to calm down because going green “would be bad for the economy.”
In a similar vein, Act and National are promising a swathe of policies that will get New Zealand “back on track”. These sentiments seem to echo Mr Ismay’s insistence that the “ship can’t sink,” and should speed up rather than slow down. In this iconic scene, Mr Andrews, the ship’s builder, replies to Mr Ismay with all the gravity of the International Panel on Climate Change: “She’s made of iron, sir. I assure you she can sink, and she will. It’s a mathematical certainty.”
Nevertheless, both National and Act have said they will repeal the offshore ban on oil and gas exploration, stating that gas is an important “transitional” energy while we switch to greener sources like wind and solar. Turning a 300 metre long steel ship around (becoming 100% renewable) can’t be done overnight, but Act insists it’s just a matter of cutting the red tape that’s strangling innovation. National have acknowledged that gas is “not a perfect solution” but they say it is a smart one, and Act agrees, dismissing the ban on mining as illogical virtue signaling.
Buying time: mitigation policies compared
Broadly speaking, mitigation is where much of the debates about climate change tend to focus, eg the Carbon Zero Act, EVs, the ETS, planting trees, future technologies and public transport. These activities are largely about reducing and removing harmful emissions from the atmosphere and reversing the damage to Papatūānuku (although things like walking and cycling are also good for humans).
Mitigation policies are critical because every minute counts in a crisis. But they also tend to be the most confusing subject for the layperson, kind of like being in the engine room of a sinking transatlantic cruise liner when you’re not a mechanic.
Technical arguments about how much carbon we’ve sucked out of the atmosphere (net emissions) versus how much we’ve put into it (gross emissions), while we’re still actively on course to plough into more icebergs, feels like delusion, or at least a distraction, especially when lives are being lost in increasingly frequent catastrophic weather events.
Put another way: pumping water from a sinking ship can no more be considered a solution to a hole in the hull, than planting trees can be seen as the solution to burning fossil fuels.
Most current mitigation activities can be tied back to the 2019 Zero Carbon Act. This makes climate change action mandatory no matter what party is in government. It was an historic achievement because it was passed with almost unanimous cross-party support. At the time, James Shaw said it restored his faith in politics.
The Climate Change Commission, which was established by the Act, now provides independent, apolitical advice to help ensure we’re on track to meet emissions targets by 2050. Through the Emissions Trading Scheme, which charges a fee for carbon pollution, these targets have flow-on effects to the consumer. This is being felt at the checkout and the pump, especially by those whose wages haven’t increased to keep up with climate-related economic pressures. Farmers are also impacted, with future legislation proposing to introduce a price for methane emissions (another harmful pollutant) so that they would be on a par with carbon emitting businesses deferred earlier this year.
Debates about mitigation are complex and can feel a bit like arguing over a diamond when all the sirens are going off (for a detailed comparison of different positions, see policy.nz). But whichever policy is picked, there is a clear pattern: Labour are proposing to sustain the current work programme and the Zero Carbon Act, the Greens want to strengthen and increase its pace, while Te Pāti Māori want to make the Act legally binding and enforceable by the courts.
National, on the other hand, has said it would keep the Act but correct its course and curb significant areas – for example, axing the clean-car discount and instead building more EV charging stations. However, the Act Party, National’s would-be coalition partner, have promised to get rid of the Zero Carbon Act. This is concerning not only in terms of progress to date, but raises serious questions about who will actually be at the helm should National and Act win.
Evacuation: adaptation policies compared
The real tragedy of the Titanic is illustrated most acutely in the third hour of the film. Only about 700 people survived the sinking, most of whom held first-class tickets. The scenes in which families are drowning below deck while those in the ball room are still eating pudding are grim to watch.
Had the evacuation begun as soon as the warnings were given, hundreds more would have survived. Precious time was lost in denial. Some thought the alarm was just a drill (think: climate mis- or disinformation). Others didn’t think the ship would sink so quickly. They went back inside the sinking ship with a faith they’d be rescued, the same way some political parties believe that future technology (like vaccines for livestock that inhibit methane) will arrive before anyone needs to seriously worry or make sacrifices.
When the lifeboats were finally launched, there weren’t enough, and many were only filled to half capacity. Discussions about managed retreat following Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle concern similar issues: how will lifeboats be seated?
While ceasing, reversing and reducing the harm of global warming (mitigation), work to actively prepare for the impacts that are baked in (adaptation) need to be happening simultaneously. This is where the Green Party’s policy manifesto distinguishes itself for its rational, comprehensive, fully-costed and integrated climate strategy.
The Greens’ clean-power policy was one of their first to be announced, providing incentives to help individual households install rooftop solar, improve insulation and shift away from fossil fuel appliances. This translates to healthier homes, reduced power bills, lower emissions, and crucially, better resilience so that the next time a cyclone blows through and kneecaps the national grid, people won’t be left so vulnerable and exposed.
Labour announced a similar, though slightly less generous, policy, and Te Pāti Māori wants to ensure that within these discussions, marae are prioritised. This is no surprise, and a no brainer, considering the leading role that marae show during Civil Defence emergencies. A National Party policy in this area couldn’t be found, while the Act Party has said it’s opposed to grants to support home insulation or heating.
Other urgent adaptation policies include putting funds aside to respond to future disasters, and retreating away from risky coastal and flood-prone areas. The Greens want to develop a law that all parties agree to, with the costs shared by government, councils and homeowners. They also want to stop issuing consents to build in risky areas. Labour supports managed retreat legislation, while Te Pāti Māori are pushing for an equity-based fund within it to ensure that those who don’t have insurance aren’t left out in the cold.
The National Party says it supports the development of managed retreat legislation, but their tax policy has been heavily criticised by the Greens, who say National proposes to raid the money set aside to pay for adaptation and climate emergencies to fund their tax relief package. Meanwhile the Act Party has called climate funding “wasteful” and will scrap it all.
Neither National or Act support regulations to stop building in at-risk areas in the future, either, meaning houses could keep going up in places where flooding is inevitable.
Life jackets: social and economic policies compared
When the Titanic foundered, it quickly became apparent there weren’t enough life jackets to go around. At one point, a wad of cash was sent flying into the air. The officer in charge of the evacuation rejected Hal’s bribe, like a tax cut for the squeezed middle, spitting: “Sir! Your money can no more save you than it can save me!”
In the film, whole families were depicted locked out and forcefully contained as the water rose above their necks. One of the most difficult things about climate change is to show how poverty, homelessness, cost of living and crime are climate issues at the most primal level: survival. They are the flip-side of conversations about the economy, and certainly as relevant as discussions about emissions targets or who can afford an EV. These issues concern the most urgent and complex human impacts of climate change which are often unseen, misrepresented or misunderstood by those with better economic and physical protections.
To combat the social crises of climate (health, housing, poverty and the cost of living) the Greens and Te Pāti Māori – with some differences – want to introduce a wealth tax. This is so that everyone can be adequately taken care of as climate change increases economic hardship.
The Greens are promising minimum income guarantees, a limit on rent increases, and free dental for everyone. Te Pāti Māori would remove GST from all food, stop taxing low-income families (tax calculator here), and instead place a tax on the many thousands of houses that are sitting empty around the country.
A wealth tax is likely to be unpopular with the 0.7% of the population who own the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth, but if introduced the Greens say it would benefit 95% of the rest of us: squeezed middle, squashed bottom, farmers, small businesses and everyone in between. As a combined package, it would amount to a materially greater tax cut than National’s proposed “back-pocket” boost.
National’s strategy, on the other hand, is to ease up on landlords and rental property owners and get tougher on the poor. They also want to make it easier for foreign owners to buy houses and remove a range of taxes on property investors. National’s back-pocket boost amounts to roughly a tub of Christopher Luxon’s favourite ice cream each week, but since they’d take away free prescriptions for everyone except those on low incomes, the extra cash might melt a little too quickly.
National has also vowed to kick “unruly” tenants out of Kainga Ora housing while simultaneously introducing harsher sanctions for beneficiaries and job seekers. With Act as coalition partners, both parties want to crack down on gangs and lock up more people. David Seymour has boasted this is a “compassionate law and order policy” and a bargain at only “a dollar a day” per prisoner (To compare the actual costs of benefit fraud versus tax evasion, this documentary is highly recommended.)
The band played on: how it ends
Of all the iconic scenes in the Titanic, the one that stands out in most people’s minds is that of a stoic and inspired group of string musicians playing Orpheus in the Underworld under the blinking stars until the bitter end. In real life, those musicians were remembered as heroes; everyday people who sacrificed their own lives to help others.
The Titanic’s legacy endures today – even to point people are still prepared to lose their life to uncover its secrets – because history tells us the decisions and actions of a few individuals, at critical moments in time, could have prevented such an inordinate loss of life.
As a voter and climate layperson, you may not always know where to focus your attention this election, especially when hypothetical debates about scarcity and blame are deliberately inflamed. But you don’t need to be an expert. You just need to look at the big picture, and remember the courage and leadership that emerges in real life whenever communities face a crisis.
Every single time, we will help each other.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.