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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 8, 2023

An election reality sandwich

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

There are no bigger ‘bread and butter’ issues than the health of our environment and future of our climate, argues Nicola Toki.

I’m a proud Kiwi, and especially a proud Mainlander. A big chunk of that pride comes from a collective national identity that has a history of stepping up and taking on big challenges: holding our ground and going nuclear free, giving women the vote before any other country, getting to the top of Everest, being quite good at rugby (here’s looking at you, Black Ferns).

Yet, amid the endless election debates, I’m hearing a worrying lack of determination to protect our natural environment – which is, of course, intrinsically linked to our national identity. That silence is not just disappointing. It’s downright scary.

Climate change impacts are no longer hovering on some distant horizon. The accelerated effects of major weather events are destroying homes, coastlines, communities, farms, livelihoods, and lives.

A washed out bridge in the Hawke’s Bay after Cyclone Gabrielle (Photo: Tom Kay)

Compounding the impacts of a changing climate, the DNA pool of the planet and our country is shrinking. Biodiversity – the building blocks of life – is in decline. New Zealand, a country that loves to be number one, has the dubious honour of having the highest proportion of threatened species in the world.

Sure, we’ve saved the black robin, bred some more takahē, and are slowly bringing kākāpō (once so common you could shake a bush and have them fall down like apples) back to the mainland, but guess what? Over 4,000 of our native species are slipping towards extinction. As they decline or die out there is a ripple effect across the interconnected ecosystem that we humans are part of, reducing the resilience we need to survive.

That’s why conversations about nature-based solutions are crucial. Conservation shouldn’t just be a low-priority budget line item based on the premise of people in Gore-Tex wandering about in the bush. Real money needs to be dedicated to things like healthy forests, which protect entire catchments from the impacts of extreme weather, floods and droughts. Forests could be the key to solving our carbon sequestration issues, given how much money we’ll have to front up in a few years to fulfil our international commitments to the Paris Accord. Wouldn’t it be better to invest in our natural assets – ones that provide crucial resilience against flooding, protect communities and farms downstream, and could be our home-grown carbon bank balance – instead of the billions of dollars we’re now predicted to have to find from elsewhere?

Biking through Whakarewarewa Forest (Image: Mountain Bike Rotorua)

You’d think this would be front of mind for our political leaders, especially going into an election. That they’d be clamouring for votes based on the scale of their ambition and promises of action. Instead, there is tumbleweed rolling across the political landscape. Instead, National and Labour are trying to outdo each other over who can cut more from DOC’s already meagre budget.

It’s frankly appalling that at this critical juncture, a tipping point, there is such a dearth of leadership on the climate and biodiversity. “We are going to focus on bread and butter issues,” they say. But what could be more “bread and butter” than the very foundation of the system that gives us bread and butter – nature? “We are going to protect frontline services.” What could be more frontline that the very things that underpin our entire society and economy and provide us with food, water, fresh air?

It’s time for decision makers to take their bread and butter and eat the reality sandwich. We can’t just saunter through a planet on fire like it’s business as usual. And it’s no longer enough to just say “the house is on fire”. An emergency doesn’t call for a plan for someone to do something at some point in the future. It calls for action. Someone has to grab the fire extinguisher and start putting out the fire.

This needs to be a Climate Action election (Image: Archi Banal)

A call for this to be a Climate Action election has been issued by Forest & Bird, along with a number of other organisations representing a huge chunk of the New Zealand public. It’s now or never.

There’s a quote by Sir David Attenborough that I keep coming back to. “Many individuals are doing what they can. But real success can only come if there is a change in our societies and in our economics and in our politics.”

So, if our politicians have lost their nerve, and leadership is wanting, what can we do? Vote – and really think about what you are voting for. Think beyond the here and now because this cost of living crisis, as genuinely painful as it is for so many, will pass. Our vulnerability to the forces of nature, to te Taiao, will not.

Which party you vote for is your choice. But the polls tell us that there are tens of thousands of people who are so confused, apathetic or disenchanted that they will not vote at all.

Voting is one of the most powerful collective actions we can take. This year I am voting with my heart – for my awa, my maunga, my community, my mokopuna (yep I’m a nana these days) and those to come. For all of our sakes, I hope you do too.

Keep going!