Opinion: Does a council climate emergency mean anything? Sure

12:25 pm on 13 June 2019

By Greg Roughan*

Opinion - Auckland has joined the Canterbury, Nelson and Kāpiti Coast councils in declaring a climate emergency. Will it make a lick of difference?

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School students strike for climate change action in Auckland in May. Photo: RNZ / Jordan Bond

Answering that thoroughly would be an awful job. After all, councils are like the third drawer down in Kiwi kitchens: each one different - and each full of useful things - yet always jumbled, messy, and likely to leave you frustrated when searching for what you need.

So let's do ourselves a favour and answer in more general terms. Here's what these emergency declarations mean - and why they actually make a lot of sense.

Councils wear much of the risk

It won't be lost on Phil Goff et al that the liability for climate damage falls largely on them.

I mean, if you thought the leaky homes fandango was bad consider the cost to business or property prices if - say - that low stretch of motorway just north of the Auckland harbour bridge started getting washed out multiple times each year, preventing thousands of people from getting to work.

Or ask yourself who's at fault if a council grants consent for beachfront properties that insurers decide - ten years later - they won't underwrite?

Remember your property doesn't have to literally float off in a storm for it to become a toxic asset.

All it takes is for the access road to be inundated, a hillside to slip out, or the sewerage system to implode - and hey presto, your lawyer starts rubbing their hands.

Granted many local bodies are already way ahead of government on climate planning.

But given that everything from overloaded drains to fallen trees has to come from their coffers it makes sense to sharpen their focus with a declaration - even just as a signal to the electorate that, look guys … this is going to get expensive.

Climate change activists from Extinction Rebellion Auckland at Auckland Council Environment Committee meeting.

Climate change activists from Extinction Rebellion Auckland at Auckland Council Environment Committee meeting the day the council declared a climate emergency. Photo: RNZ / Rowan Quinn

It's good internal comms

Imagine - just imagine - the sheer horror of herding the 7000-plus cats currently employed by Auckland Council alone.

All those sub-committees and working groups... it doesn't bear thinking about.

Note though that the declaration made this week obliges all council committee reports to include a climate change impact statement, which is basically a way of keeping all those diverse teams focused on the issue. And that's a good thing.

It shifts the middle

The national conversation happens on a kind of bell curve. A few people talk about avante garde issues at the edges, and over time these ideas shift into the middle, where actual political action can occur.

Ten years ago middle New Zealand was still debating whether climate change was real, while only the 'out-there' voices considered it a crisis.

Now this week's declaration has given mainstream cred to the need for urgent action (even if it doesn't spell out how that looks), which is a dramatic shift in the kind of climate kōrero that's going on.

As for the next 'out there' ideas that will need to become mainstream (if we're to keep our society functioning, that is): these are big, structural issues around decoupling economic activity from emissions.

If you're ready for that conversation, then read the rather poetic case for renaming GDP as Gross Domestic Burn.

You'll wonder why all those councils ever took so long.

* Greg Roughan is the former editor of Green Ideas magazine.

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