Simon Wilson: It's not climate change, it's a climate crisis, so let's treat it as one
Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. Homes were being swept into the flooded Mississippi last week, while another super-season for tornadoes ripped its way through the American Midwest. Oklahoma seemed to be underwater. The good news for Oklahoma is that it's temporary, at least until next time. In the Pacific some countries will be permanently underwater within decades. In northern Africa, they'd swap the droughts and the wars they cause for a few tornadoes, any day. The new threat is the new normal. We keep failing to register how serious the climate crisis has become because we keep adjusting our understanding of what's normal, without noticing we're doing it. That's one of the reasons it's important to shift the language. Saying "climate change" asks so little of us, so let's call it a crisis and recognise we have to treat it like one. The kids who marched last Friday knew that. For many of them it was a brave step. It takes guts to take time off school to protest in places like Timaru and Taihape. It takes guts in the bigger cities, too, when your school tells parents you're going to miss out on grades if you're not in class on protest day. Wow. I expect the people responsible for that one encouraging students to forsake civil engagement, pretending nothing bad is happening, not even seizing the teaching moment will be hanging their heads in shame within the next 10 years. Still, how splendid to see kids from all sorts of schools there. Westlake Boys and Westlake Girls, Avondale, Rangitoto, Lynfield colleges, Auckland Girls Grammar, Auckland Grammar. So many more. Of course, there was a busy chorus of boomers on social media, all lining up to tell the protesting kids they can't think for themselves. Such an impressive feat, all those finely tuned independent minds speaking in such spontaneous unison. Boomers, of all people. The generation, my generation, for whose benefit almost everything in the world is organised, the generation defined by its own youthful protests. The selfishness and hypocrisy are so appalling, we're lucky schoolkids aren't burning the place down. Not that the crisis has been easy to grasp in Auckland or in most of New Zealand, as this gorgeous autumn rolls warmly on. Climate crisis is hard to think about when you're kicking your way through the leaves in a pair of jandals. Mind you, warm winters will mean warmer and wetter summers, too. We'll be thinking harder about it when Auckland is infested with dengue-fever mosquitoes, Queensland fruit flies and grape-destroying fungi. The peculiar curse of Auckland may be that the climate crisis will devastate us even as the weather remains nice. One of the easy tropes of the crisis is that the people who control the economy are not doing very much about it. You might be surprised. Money has a way of looking after itself. Sovereign wealth funds, including the NZ Super Fund, are divesting from the sunset industries of the 20th century and turning to renewable energy and electric transport infrastructure. Refocused investment means Texas, home of the oil rig, already produces more energy from renewables than it does from oil. Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank warned this week that insurance companies will get tough on owners who don't safeguard property at risk from floods, droughts, rising sea levels and other impacts of the climate crisis. Individuals and corporates who blithely pretend it's not their problem will face steep premium rises or no cover at all. Local councils will have some explaining to do when rates start rising sharply to cover the cost of their neglect. The Bank of England requires companies to manage their exposure to climate change risk. The NZ Productivity Commission wants companies here to be forced to disclose that exposure. Corporates, in other words, will help hasten the end of fossil fuels. Why? Because some directors have a conscience, and because of government initiatives, and because consumer demand will make it harder to make money out of oil. And the real kicker they'll do it because company directors will be held personally liable if they don't. Corporate law firms are already advising their clients about this. As of two years ago, close to 900 climate crisis cases had been filed in courts around the world, many targeting the people who sit in boardrooms. With some, the charges relate to behaviours known to make the crisis worse. But with others, directors are charged with misleading shareholders about the health of their companies, because they ignored the impacts of the crisis. That can be a criminal offence. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia and an Australian superannuation fund have both faced legal challenges like this. In New Zealand, according to law firm Bell Gully, 16 cases have been filed. Translation? If corporates neglect the climate crisis, we can sue them. Their directors will be held personally responsible and could go to jail. Also on the corporate front, high energy-efficiency has become a core design requirement for many new commercial buildings. Corporates know it's not just the right thing to do: it also keeps them competitive in attracting staff. If you work in a downtown building now that hasn't overcome the horrors of old-fashioned aircon by using passively circulated heat and fresh air, or doesn't have good bike facilities, you should know your competitors probably don't have those problems. There's greenwash mixed in with this, but that's not all it is. Fighting the climate crisis is working its way, slowly but surely, into the lifeblood of the economy. Which is why it's disappointing the Zero Carbon Bill is so unambitious. I get Climate Change Minister James Shaw's quest for consensus, I really do. Progress has to withstand a change of government and he needs the National Party to reinforce, not undermine, the message to its own voters. But we're not doing well in this country. New Zealand emissions, per capita, are the fifth worst in the OECD. Our Zero Carbon Bill is based on Britain's Climate Change Act, which sets steeper targets for reducing emissions and became law 11 years ago. It's not just about the cows. The cities, where nearly all of us live, are what we should worry about the most. Australia has better energy-efficiency requirements for homes. We lack the large-scale public transport and cycling infrastructure common in Europe. We have no targets for electric vehicles and low take-up of solar and wind energy. We are barely even talking about the modern options of micro-hydro generation. We do have scientific research into reducing methane emissions, and we're planting a lot of trees. Both are excellent. But we have done surprisingly little, society-wide, to change how we live, either to mitigate our impact on the climate or to adapt to meet the crisis. Let's not go blaming James Shaw and the Greens for this. That bill is not what they wanted. The problem comes down to this: National and NZ First are both desperate to command the votes of provincial and rural New Zealand. And they've chosen a race to the bottom as the means to do it. It's disgraceful. The kids on the streets know it. In boardrooms, they're learning it. The rest of the country has some catching up to do. Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. The Labour party has released its Rainbow Manifesto.