It worked for our Covid response, so could it help the climate crisis? Alex Casey speaks to an activist calling for regular climate emergency press conferences.
Update 22/2: Bernard Schofield’s petition calling for a regular climate press conference is live now on ActionStation
When activist Bernard Schofield answers the phone, he says he is doing only “as good as one can be” given the latest findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In a report issued last week, the IPCC found that emissions need to peak by 2025, ie within the next three years, to give us a 50:50 chance of keeping heating to 1.5℃ and therefore reducing the damage caused by catastrophic floods, droughts, heatwaves and mass extinctions.
The bad news? The planet is currently headed to warm up by 3.2℃ within this century.
“We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree limit agreed in Paris,” said UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, who also called the report a “file of shame”, revealing the “empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world”. Local climate scientist Andy Reisinger put it plainly to Stuff: “the door is closing now in our face.”
Aucklander Schofield, 83, says he is a “new boy on the block” when it comes to climate activism, but also that it was a “no-brainer” to give time to the cause. “I’ve got five grandchildren,” he explains. “When it comes to the crunch, we have absolutely got to do something.” Schofield first attended an Extinction Rebellion event in 2019. Although he has sight and mobility issues, he continues to work on the restoration of Motuihe and the Te Henga wetlands.
Last year, Schofield stumbled across a Facebook post from activists in Finland that gave him an idea – they were lobbying their government to hold regular climate press conferences. “It really lit me up,” he explains. Much like the regular Covid-19 updates, which became appointment viewing, Schofield says it is key that the government regularly communicates – and is regularly held to account by the media – about developments and progress in the climate crisis.
“I thought ‘wow – what a bloody good idea’. And then I thought I should do something about it, so I did.”
Schofield took the idea to a hui involving different activist groups earlier in the year and was met with a positive response. “It went through some rounds of meetings and other people seemed quite lit up by it too, so that was pretty encouraging,” he says. He got to work drafting a petition, which is now in its seventh iteration, to present to parliament. Although it is yet to go live, Schofield dictated the request over the phone:
“We respectfully request the House of Representatives to urge government to hold fortnightly press conferences to inform the public on the country’s progress in reducing greenhouse gasses. We face a climate emergency, the consequences of which will be devastating. We therefore request that the government hold regular updates on progress in meeting the targets on which our survival depends.”
Sophie Todd, community coordinator of WYMO and member of both Generation Zero and Fridays for Future, says that regular communication from the government is essential in getting climate action into the public discourse. “We’d love to see the government taking climate change as seriously as Covid-19, and we want to see it talked about.” Climate literacy is key, she says, and something that a lot of New Zealanders are still lacking. “I don’t think the average New Zealander would know how much CO2 the country is even emitting, you know?”
“If we are having our government actually present and talk about those metrics and their progress towards that greener, livable world on a regular basis, that will increase the climate literacy of everyone,” Todd says. In raising that literacy, she hopes more of the public will get involved in the submission and consultation process, alleviating the pressure on volunteer-run groups whose members are increasingly suffering burnout.
The petition ends by explaining why regular press conferences would be a vital tool in the climate emergency:
“We rarely hear of government policies on climate change, the greatest threat to the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren and indeed of the whole planet. In 2019 the prime minister said that the climate crisis is ‘this generation’s nuclear free moment’ and government declared a climate emergency. Arguably, government has failed to treat it as such.”
When approached about the petition by The Spinoff, climate minister James Shaw agreed that communicating the realities of the climate crisis is of critical importance. “I engage regularly with a wide variety of stakeholders, including public forums, in a way that enables constructive conversation and useful feedback. Of course, I support anyone who wants to know more about our changing climate – and I am always open to changing or adding to the ways I communicate with New Zealanders.” More important than the question of press conferences, Shaw says, is the focus on “bold, enduring action on climate change”.
Schofield says that if his petition gains traction and the 1pm update becomes a reality, it will hold the government to account and allow the media to send along reporters that “are capable of asking the hard questions”. He is hoping for a minimum of 5,000 signatures for his petition, but is aiming for 10,000. “Getting it out there and getting people behind it is absolutely crucial,” he says. He is still waiting for final approval from the parliamentary petitions office before it can go live (it will also be available to sign on Action Station) but hopes to launch it by Earth Day on April 22.
“The whole idea is to galvanise people into paying attention,” says Schofield, who describes climate activism as “like hitting your head against a brick wall” at times. “It is frustrating, but we will not go gently into that good night.”