The Front Page: Climate crisis – Simon Wilson on why we need to change now

We only have about three years left to reverse greenhouse gas emissions to avoid climate chaos in the coming decades.

This is the key message from the latest instalment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has warned that lofty ambitions set for 2050 won’t be enough.

Speaking to The Front Page podcast, Herald senior writer Simon Wilson says we need to be acting now.

“Now means this decade,” Wilson says.

“Now means that by 2025 we need to have stopped increasing the rate of emissions. That’s only three years away and we are absolutely not on track with that.

“One of the problems is that so many of the national plans and so much of the focus at the Glasgow Conference was on what we were going to be able to do by 2050. That’s fine. Being net neutral by 2050 is a good goal to work toward, but we also need more immediate goals.”

The IPCC hasn’t minced its words about what might happen if we don’t start looking at ways to reduce emissions immediately.

“The report told us that if we keep going the way we’re going, there will be chaos, and that’s their word, for half the population of the world in just a few decades.”

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Wilson says a problem with any climate crisis is warnings like these don’t tend to move people because the threat doesn’t seem apparent.

“It’s entirely consistent for humans to do things that reward us now: to eat well, to drive the car because it’s convenient, and all those things. The threat doesn’t feel immediate. We can’t see it in the sky,” Wilson says.

“We’re not good at seeing problems that build over time. If you’re a smoker and you eventually get lung cancer, you didn’t just get it the week before when you were diagnosed. You got it from a lifetime of smoking. And in those years, it probably felt like it was just an absolutely fine thing to do.”

The real challenge of addressing climate change immediately is that it will require people to give up some of the luxuries or conveniences they have long been accustomed to.

No issue sparks greater controversy than any steps that challenge the supremacy of cars on city roads. This was seen in the response to a recent announcement on the removal of kerbside car parks in a business district in Auckland. The anger was immediate, including from business groups questioning the impact it would have on their businesses.

Wilson says we need to reframe these discussions so people better understand why it’s necessary to take these steps.

“To repurpose road space is actually the cheapest thing we can do,” says Wilson. “And for urban New Zealanders,the single most important thing to do is to change our transport habits. In the countryside, we need to be looking more at methane emissions, but in the city, it’s about transport – especially in Auckland, where 40 per cent of our emissions come from transport.”

The problem we have is the decisions coming from politicians aren’t always consistent and are sometimes driven by other motivations.

In response to the cost of living crisis, the Government is set to forego between $25 million and $40m as it halves the cost of public transport for three months. Alongside this, the Government is also relinquishing around $350m in potential revenue by cutting fuel excise.

So doesn’t this just reinforce our cultural reliance on motor vehicles?

“Cutting fuel costs has been deemed to be politically necessary by Governments around the world in response to spiking prices in oil due to the war in Ukraine. And that’s just appalling,” says Wilson.

“It’s not the first time this has happened. And it’s also not the first time a Labour Government has done that here. Helen Clark also did it in 2008. It’s not politically acceptable to allow fuel prices to get too high.”

Wilson says addressing climate change shouldn’t be understood as an elaborate scheme to stop people from using their cars.

“It’s not that we even need most people to stop driving. It’s that we need vastly fewer trips and vastly more people to recognise that they could actually walk to the shop around the corner, take the kids for a walk to the dairy or ride a bike in a city.

“If public transport was reliable, cheap or free, then it becomes something worth using.”

Getting to this point is going to require concessions in the shorter term which mean we will have to change our habits or start doing things a bit differently. Accepting is never easy and there will inevitably be more backlash in the coming months and years as rules shift in alignment with climate goals.

“We all need to understand that we can’t continue to be driven by those loudmouths who keep saying: ‘But I just want to keep doing things the way I did.’

“We need to change.”

The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald,available to listen to every weekday from 5am.

• You can follow the podcast at nzherald.co.nz, iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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