Combatting climate change is all very well, but when the means to do it is little more than a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich, that's quite wrong. Right?
Auckland Council battled with that question this week, in an Environment and Community Committee debate over the proposed Clean Car Standard and Clean Car Discounts.
This is the Government's "feebate" proposal: vehicles with high CO2 emissions incur a fee while low emitters are discounted. The policy will be phased in from 2021 and apply only to New Zealand-new light vehicles. Cars, vans, people movers and utes already in the country in 2021 will not be included.
The council was debating its draft submission to Government on the proposal.
Cr Daniel Newman called it a wealth transfer. "This will be punitive on those that have the least means," he said. He used the example of a high-emitting Toyota Camry that might retail for $7000 and would now attract a $1100 fee. "That's going to help fund a discount of $3000 on a $73,000 Hyundai."
The author of the submission, the council's principal transport adviser Alastair Cribbens, suggested a family might choose to buy a lower-emissions vehicle instead of the Camry, for the same price.
Renata Blair had an answer to that. He's on the committee as a member of the Independent Māori Statutory Board (IMSB), and he said he was "yet to meet the Māori, Samoan or Tongan whanau that could fit into a Suzuki Swift". Cue laughter.
He agreed with Newman. "Māori won't be the ones buying an electric Mercedes or a Tesla or an electric Volkswagen. Māori are not represented in this submission and nor are low-income immigrant families."
Blair said he wasn't aware of research that showed, as the submission notes, that climate change will have a bigger impact on the poor.
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Cr Fa'anana Efeso Collins also agreed. "I get the impression that there needs to be a socio-economic analysis done for our submission," he said. "And could the analysis include some kind of understanding of the people buying these cars, how it's going to benefit loan companies, all those sorts of things?"
It all sounded so reasonable. They'd like to combat climate change, but they weren't going to sign up to anything that penalised the poor. But is that really what was proposed?
Cr Penny Hulse was in the chair. After Blair spoke, she reminded her colleagues they were submitting on a Government proposal, not deciding what the council itself should do.
Their job, she said, was to "raise clearly the problem of how this will impact on disadvantaged communities". Deciding what to do about it was the Government's job. "No one is saying this work shouldn't be done. We want to see it strengthened."
After Collins spoke, she said all that again and then went further. "I will be blunt. Let's not put our most vulnerable communities at risk and encourage them to buy, or let them buy, belching emitting cars that will impact on their children, who are the most vulnerable.
"We have research coming out of our ears about climate change as an exacerbator of deprivation. It is poor people who will suffer, who are the least resilient. However, to say we'll let them keep buying the crappy cars is also not okay.
"Our strongest message to Government," she said, "is that although we support the change, we won't see our poorest people revictimised in this process. That is absolutely the centrepiece for us."
Given the submission supported what Newman, Blair and Collins seemed to be saying, she struggled to know what they were really objecting to.
Others also responded to the trio. Cr Richard Hills said only 15 per cent of lower socio-economic households buy their cars new: if Newman's cheap Camry is already in the country in 2021, it won't attract a fee.
Cr Chris Darby pointed out the policy will be phased in over five years, giving everyone time to adjust. And, he said, as more fuel-efficient vehicles arrive, older models will shift to the second-hand market and get cheaper.
Jokes about Suzuki Swifts aside, it's simply not true the Government's policy will inevitably force low-income families to pay more for their cars. The risk does exist, but the "centrepiece" of the council's submission urges the Government to ensure it doesn't happen.
Cr Desley Simpson had a different problem: she wanted to hear more from local boards and the public. "I don't think we've got the facts," she said. "This is not good process. I can't support this."
Transport adviser Cribbens responded that three local boards had expressed a view, all clearly in support of the submission.
Hulse said, "I just want to remind councillors we have actually signed up as New Zealanders to reducing our emissions to reach the 1.5oC target." With nearly 40 per cent of our CO2 emissions coming from cars, she said, a clean fuels policy was essential.
"To say no is like going on a diet and still eating your chocolate cake."
Meanwhile, despite a big uptake of renewable energy worldwide, the gap between fossil-fuel production and low-carbon energy is getting bigger. The fossil-fuel industry is actually on the rise.
Why? Partly, because of a powerful disinformation industry, pumped up by the fossil-fuel sector. It's no longer credible to deny climate change or even to deny we're in crisis. So the ground has shifted. Now it's: "We do care, but your proposal isn't quite good enough, or it's not right for us just now, not the right settings, not the right process." More process, less action. Whatever.
It's the new denialism, and this week it was hard to avoid the conclusion some people at council have fallen for it.
Cr Cathy Casey made a blistering speech. "We're on notice," she said, reminding them all that in June they had voted unanimously to declare a climate-change emergency. "And one of our resolutions then was to take a leadership role."
She quoted Sarah Thomson, an activist who presented to council in June. "Leadership is not about taking the path of least resistance, it is about taking a step in front."
Casey glared at them all. "It wasn't a token gesture. It was a call to arms. Are we going to walk the talk? Because this is the first hurdle and from what I've heard today there are some people not even going to jump over the first one.
"Did you hear the submissions that were made to us that day in June, or did you hear but you didn't listen? Because the message is clear. Do the right thing." Cue long silence.
For the vote, councillors were asked to approve the submission – and to involve the IMSB in making sure concerns about the vulnerable were clear in the final wording. Who could object? Answer: Blair, Collins, Newman and Simpson. And Sharon Stewart, who did not speak. They all voted against.
Mayor Goff was absent, as were IMSB member James Brown and councillors Bill Cashmore, Christine Fletcher, Greg Sayers and Paul Young. The motion was carried 12-5.
Later that evening, a second storm in three days produced a tornado-like wind in Queen St, tore a ferry from its moorings, flung containers into the sea and ripped open the roof of the Queens Wharf Cloud.