At a business conference in the Aotea Centre earlier this month, Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton came out swinging.
“It’s not good enough to pick at the scabs of public discontent,” he declared. He wants effective action on climate change and he was talking about political parties that stop that happening, because they pander to voters who object to any threat to their existing lifestyles.
He meant Act and the National Party.
Act, we know, is likely to keep waving the flag for denialism, even while sometimes denying that’s what it’s doing.
But National? Leader Judith Collins has had her fingernails dug deeply into those scabs. She’s promised lots more roads, complained farmers are treated as “pariahs”, and threatened to gut key provisions of the Zero Carbon Act.
Upton was calling out opportunist politicking from people who should know better. He was reminding his audience that climate change poses the greatest threat to our wellbeing in our lifetimes.
So who is this Upton upstart?
Older voters will remember him from the National Party: he was our youngest MP, aged 23 when he was first elected in 1981, and a stroppy supporter of National colleague Marilyn Waring, who had also been just 23 when elected in 1975. The pair of them, supported by a few others, went to war on the PM, their boss, the backward-looking, irascible old fool Robert Muldoon.
It’s a good age, 23. The same age Chloe Swarbrick was when she entered Parliament.
Upton, like Waring, like me, is a boomer. Part of a whole stroppy generation: the boys wore long hair and the girls short skirts, both of them enraging to Muldoon and his ilk.
Not all boomers were hippies, but the sentiment was widespread. We protested: at the Vietnam War, apartheid South Africa, punitive abortion laws, nuclear ship visits, bans on mixed flatting and pretty much everything “the olds” said we had to do or couldn’t do. Even the All Blacks grew their hair long.
We made up our own minds, or so we believed, and our defining characteristic was that we believed, “I’m the boss of me.” We dismissed authority, a skill we learned when we were 14.
And now the people who want to tell us what to do are the kids.
Don’t they know Upton is one of us! We’re the generation who’ve been there and done that and earned the right to what we’ve got.
Still, there is a flip side to the freedom that comes with being the boss of me. It’s selfishness.
Interesting real news out of America last month, about the rise of fake news. During the 2016 election, people on Facebook aged 65 or older were seven times more likely to share fake news than those aged 18 to 29.
There are many reasons. We’re not good at processing information on the internet: we’re too trusting and we don’t recognise when we’re being led from fact to fantasy.
Also, despite some decline in memory, we remain super-confident of our own cognitive powers. Ever since Richard Nixon we’ve been far too smart to be fooled, so we’re not alert to the possibility.
We like to say young people are ruining their brains with their screen obsessions. Turns out the people whose brains are being scrambled by the internet are far more likely to be ours.
It’s surely worse in America, but it affects us here too. Facebook, which is so great for sharing but is also a seething mess of misinformation, is becoming much more popular among the over-50s, while it may be declining among younger people.
Boomers, eh. We’re so determined to believe our minds are open, we don’t realise it might not be true.
Meanwhile, Upton’s old stomping ground, the National Party, has decided to keep its two boomer leaders, Collins and president Peter Goodfellow, for a while longer yet. An abysmal election result was not, apparently, their fault.
It was because of Jacinda, she’s too telegenic. It was Covid, which gave her the excuse for “temporary tyranny”, according to Goodfellow. This is called the denial stage of grief, with bonus flashes of anger.
At some stage, it will occur to the party that the 400,000 former National voters who switched to Labour, if we accept John Key’s numbers, did not do so because they were fooled by a telegenic leader or forced into it by a tyrannical one.
They did it because they preferred what Labour had to offer. And that includes its position on the climate crisis. All the polls that ask about this reveal New Zealanders do understand the danger and want things done about it. We may not want every hard thing done, but we are on side.
There were some remarkable outcomes of the election in October than snarky critics of the Government tend to overlook. The Green Party broke the rules by increasing its vote, and it did so with clearly progressive policies. Almost all parties seeking to exploit “popular discontent” did extremely badly. And rural and provincial New Zealand gave their party votes to Labour in every single electorate.
There’s revelation in this. We don’t have a massive town and country divide. We believe in our ability to deal with a crisis, and we believe we have a Government that can lead us through it.
In relation to the climate crisis, it means we’ve just agreed: let’s do this thing. And the PM has indicated, through yesterday’s Speech from the Throne, that she agrees too. (Details, and all the devils in them, as always, to follow.)
The National Party’s re-confirmed leaders show no sign of grasping this new mood. Classic boomer denialism? We might as well buckle in: after denial and anger come bargaining, then depression and only then acceptance.
We’ll know they’ve got that far when they show they understand what Upton is telling us all: that we must reduce our emissions by about half, within the next nine years. That it will be very hard, so good leadership will be essential.
That what it boils down to, basically, is this: we must rethink our approach to cars and cows.
Political leaders who deny it will do the country a terrible disservice and their parties will have no future, except on the fringe.
But hang on. Maybe it’s going to be boomer time after all. It’s easy enough to write us off as selfish and entitled. Many of us are. Many people in most demographics are.
But the thing about boomers is, we know about making change for a better world. There’s a well of goodwill and experience in these old bags of bones, and it can be harnessed, because we have a surprisingly useful magic power: the confidence to believe we can do anything.
Changing the world is already in our social and political DNA, along with a love for our children and grandchildren.
Christiana Figueres, a boomer who has headed the UN effort on climate change, was also a speaker at that business conference. She said this: “We are the generation. Our parents did not have the tools. And for our children it will be too late.”
And you know what? Most of us probably still have the wit to choose the right side to be on, if we want to.
• Part 2 of my essay Why I’m Afraid, on the climate crisis and much more, will be published tomorrow, with more to come in the new year.
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