For over a decade now, the Greens and environmentalists have been trying to get Labour and National-led governments to address climate change. Above many other environmental issues, it made sense to join in with a global political movement that led to the historic Kyoto and Paris agreements.
But it has consistently failed to persuade National governments, or form unity of purpose and dialogue in society. It’s not set to change. So is this focus on climate change in New Zealand politics fundamentally misjudged?
Compared to climate change, the earthquakes that started in Christchurch in 2011 to 2014, and now set to roll from Kaikoura to Hawkes Bay to Gisborne for many years, are a more immediate and more powerful political challenge to our lived connection to nature.
In the Christchurch examples, the earthquakes have required a similar future-proofing to climate change: managed retreat from the coasts and estuaries, strengthening of institutions and civil defence, changes to planning regulations, focus from global insurers, binding local and central government expectations and responses, forcing engineers to think hundreds of years into the future for return events, strengthening reticulation systems and networks, and rebuilding thousands of houses and the entire CBD. We would have had to do most of that across Christchurch for climate change anyway.
In the Kaikoura case, ferries are being considered to build redundancy against tested highway and rail systems along the coast. Rahui against sea harvesting have already been agreed to let the coastal realm recover.
No analogy is perfect, but earthquake response, unlike climate change response, has demanded and received no resistance and complete unity from all political parties, all governmental layers, all kinds of institution, and all media.
Not all responses to earthquakes will be good for the environment – but then neither are earthquakes. They are a lot to deal with for every living creature.
Unlike climate change, earthquakes register right across the public sector from Treasury to Statistics to the SIS, and with absolute immediacy. They demand of us all to deal with the force of nature, and to re-tool our whole society to accept that rather than ignore or resist it. Ignore or resist is what our current government is continuing to do on climate change, and that won’t change. Earthquakes on such magnitude and duration force us to deal with and understand nature as never before.
I’m not saying rip up your urban gardens and stop beating your head against the governmental brick wall about climate change. Go for it. But I’m saying firstly, these earthquakes have and will continue to force governments and our society broadly to think about how we live with nature. It’s a good and hard-to-argue-with thing generating immediate political and structural unity.
Secondly, New Zealand’s global circumstance is different to most. For the foreseeable future we will likely be affected more by earthquakes than any other natural force. Maybe we all need to alter our priorities about how we engage with natural forces.
Right now is an acting and reconstructing and planning moment that will roll, like earthquakes, for many years to come. It has already demanded societal unity. It changes us all. That demands a shift in how we think.