Election 2023 should be a vote for the future of Planet Earth

Abigail Smith
Abigail Smith
This is a climate election, Abigail Smith writes.

An election is coming. You would think in a world that is making headlines and setting records for storms, fires, heat, floods, droughts, extinctions, sea-level rise, marine heatwaves and general climate chaos, that climate-related policy would be top of the agenda.

But no. Candidates aren’t in the business of depressing their constituents with difficult, complicated stuff. Potholes and vegetables are all they think we can absorb. Surely we deserve better than that?

I have been a climate scientist for 30 years and it feels like being Cassandra — you can shout all day but nobody listens. Those who do, do not act. I hear people saying "we didn’t get enough warning about this storm/fire/flood" and I want to shout "REALLY?". We have warned for decades that these crises were coming, and little has been done to avoid them. It’s baffling, because preparation is always better than last-minute reaction.

Climate change is like a lit stick of dynamite with a long fuse. People in charge looked at the spark and thought "we have some time", so they handed it on to the next person. Only now the fuse is very short. Is anyone in power brave enough to take action before the explosion? Are we brave enough to demand it?

What can we do? I am reminded of that cartoon that said "If weight loss was as simple as exercise and diet, don’t you think we’d know?". Decarbonising is relatively simple too. Stop burning fossil fuels to make energy. There are plenty of other ways to make energy without adding harmful gases to the air. It should be illegal to produce excessive greenhouse gases, the same way it’s illegal to poison children.

But what if we don’t? Too often we hear people arguing that some action or policy costs too much. There’s no question change requires investment, but we never hear the counter-argument — what does it cost if we don’t do something?

In climate, that’s the key. Would you rather pay money for some windmills and solar panels, or would you like to choke to death in a wildfire? Would you be willing to change how you farm, or would you like to lose the capacity to provide food to humanity?

Really? Shouldn’t we just calm down? Nope. The international science community’s expert panel (the IPCC’s 2023 report) says: "Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all."

We must do whatever it takes to avoid the end of our greatest taonga — us.

There just aren’t enough resources for all of us. When there’s been an excellent season for acorns, squirrels can have two babies each instead of the usual one. But if the next season goes back to normal for acorn supply, then many of the year-old squirrels starve. Ecologists call this "overshoot" — and, my goodness, we really are doing that.

In 2023 we used up our year’s worth of resources in August. Ecological theory tells us we have only two choices: either lots of people die, or we cut back on how much each person uses.

It’s hard to do the right thing. Many New Zealanders want to make a difference, and are willing to help. We recycle, we turn off our computers at night, we do without a receipt or a straw or a bag, we bike to work. But we can’t do it alone. We need government to support the community actions needed. Farmers want help to change the way they farm; commuters want help to get to work efficiently; coastal communities want to plan for larger storms and rising seas. Subsidies, policies, compensation and regulations help people to do the right thing — it’s time we focused this kind of people-management on climate. Right now.

Are we all doomed? Not yet. The IPCC report from 2023 offers options and opportunities and emphasises that actions taken now can really make a difference. There is hope, but only if we can channel our anger and fear into action. Action has to be "deep, rapid and sustainable" to make a difference.

It’s tempting to say "I’ll be dead by the time it comes." But that’s not true — it’s here already. And anyway, surely younger people deserve a future?

Vote as if your life depended on it. Everyone has their causes, their pet peeves

and their deal-breakers, but now, in this time and place, all of those things are less significant than climate change. If the planet burns, if food supplies collapse, if the rising sea inundates our cities, then pronouns, potholes and gang patches will not matter. Once we have safeguarded our planet, then we can worry about the other important things again. Old people, vote for your mokopuna. Young people, vote for your lives.

Look for incentives supporting solar and wind energy initiatives, commitment to electrifying transport of all kinds (ferries, buses, cars), the end of mining and burning fossil fuels, a commitment to fund and develop infrastructure to help us survive disaster, support for forests/wetlands/oceans (they absorb carbon), and willingness to address the effects of farming. In all cases, the sooner the better.

Vote for Planet Earth. This is the only planet with life (that we know of). It’s a miraculous, beautiful, splendid, multifarious, unique world covered with life and complexity and beauty. But it can’t vote. Give the Earth a voice.

I’m a climate scientist, and I’m desperate. Let’s vote for the planet, for the future, for bold leaders that will do what has to be done, for us all. Please.

 - Professor Abigail Smith is a marine geochemist and climate scientist at the University of Otago.