Natalie Jones: Earthquake Recovery Minister denies climate science: what does this mean for the Christchurch rebuild?

I’m here in Warsaw at the annual UN climate talks – part of what are, perhaps, the most crucial negotiations for the future of our planet. However, to my surprise, New Zealand are not covering the talks at all.

The closest they’ve come is Russel Norman’s speech in Parliament, where he quoted Phillipine lead negotiator Yeb Sano’s brilliant intervention, in part about the links between climate change and extreme weather events like Haiyan. Since David, a fellow young Kiwi, wrote about this excellently yesterday, I will leave it without further comment.

However, since then the incident has somehow down-spiralled from a simple Parliamentary expression of solidarity with the Philippines, to MPs questioning the very reality and existence of climate change.

In the wake of the incident, here’s what our very own Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee said:

“I think climate change is something that has happened always, so to simply come up and say it’s man-made is an interesting prospect.”

Brownlee’s unintentional agreement with our COP19 hosts aside, to all of us here in Warsaw this level of denial is staggeringly illogical. The latest report from the IPCC, the international research body which has been studying climate change for over 30 years, makes it clear that climate change is anthropogenic. We don’t like this fact, but it’s true. The scientists are surer than ever. There is no room for climate denialism. One has to wonder: exactly which rock has the Earthquake Recovery Minister been living under?

I am concerned for the Minister’s mental health. More pressingly, I am concerned because the man who has an unprecedented amount of power over the future of Christchurch city denies the reality of climate change.

What are the implications of this for the recovery? Brownlee is well known for his bolshy, straight-forward character and controversial use of his extraordinary earthquake powers, and he's a hugely influential actor in the Christchurch political scene.

The key to this may well be the Mayor, Lianne Dalziel. Before the recent elections, Generation Zero ranked her the most highly out of all the mayoral candidates in a survey assessing attitudes toward climate change, carbon-neutrality, cycling, public transport and green buildings. She acknowledges the existence of human-induced climate change, that it is a serious issue, and that we in Christchurch have an obligation to help reduce our impact on climate change. She is “absolutely committed” to public transport and a cycle-friendly city, and displays a positive attitude towards green buildings.

Crucially, Dalziel and Brownlee are expected to have a good relationship and work well in collaboration. Dalziel said their first informal meeting was “hugely positive” and they talked about “how we might develop and work together for the betterment of the city of Christchurch”, among other things.

What, then, will be the combined impact of their polar opposite attitudes? The line between the respective powers of the Council and CERA concerning city planning and the rebuild is anything but clear. Their roles and functions are inescapably entwined – so a functional working relationship is a good start.

In terms of mitigation efforts, early signs are mildly promising. The inner city Transport Plan, recently released by CCDU (a unit of CERA) boasts improved cycleways and public transport, and limited vehicle speeds to 30 km/hr in some areas. While not revolutionary, it’s a start.

The Council has a long-term Transport Strategic Plan, which contains some excellent (if aspirational) aims. The Council this year has shown particularly progressive action toward building cycleways.

Adaptation is another issue. What action will be taken to help low-lying coastal areas of the city to adapt, and how can we build our new city to be resilient against the effects of climate change? This is a longer-term issue, but one our leaders should be thinking about now. Simple climate denialism is not helpful for future planning and risk management.

Anyhow, I think Gerry Brownlee should check his letterbox in the next few days for a personally addressed copy of the IPCC’s latest assessment report. I’m sure he’ll be grateful for the opportunity to become informed on what world leaders already know.


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