The climate crisis looks and sounds terrifying, but I had never anticipated the smell.
It smells like sewage spewed out of neglected pipes. Sodden carpets and curtains ripped up and out of thousands of homes. Air so thick dehumidifiers choke.
When the news cycle moves on, thousands of New Zealanders will continue rebuilding their lives for months and even years to come. Photographs and videos will never fully capture the experience of living in the thick of the clean-up.
At least 11 people have died in the climate-change-charged extreme weather wreaking havoc across the North Island this past month. At the time of writing, more than 1500 people are still unaccounted for. Financial and material losses are estimated in their hundreds of millions.
At Māngere Civil Defence Centre among makeshift help desks, volunteers, community organisers, Local Board members and councillors lamented the thousands of impacted people without insurance. It’s expensive being poor; it’s incredibly expensive to replace the worldly possessions you couldn’t afford to insure in the first place.
While decades of political decision-making supercharged car dependency in our largest city, conscious lack of investment in public transport means that many who had their cars written off in the storm are in impossible positions where they can’t get to the jobs necessary to generate the income to buy new cars, which they’re forced to need to get around. It is precisely like this that inequality compounds and poverty multiplies. Systemically.
I’ve heard more than my fair share of arguments from people who protest that the Greens are too focused on poverty, because, seemingly, those arguing care more about the planet than the people who live on it. What these arguments fail to comprehend is that precisely the same system manufactured both.
The least wealthy half of New Zealanders own just 2 per cent of the wealth of this country, according to researcher Max Rashbrooke. The top 10 per cent own approximately 60 per cent, while the top 1 per cent own 25 per cent of our nation’s entire collective wealth.
Evidence tells us that the wealthier among us consume and produce disproportionately more climate-changing emissions than the poorer communities who bear the brunt of our climate-changed reality. The wellbeing of people and our planet are interconnected.
To individualise or attempt to isolate the systemic problem of climate change by morphing it into an issue of conscious consumerism is to scapegoat “lazy” everyday people just trying to get by, while those who make a fortune depleting the commons laugh their way to the bank. Worse than ignoring the crux of the issue, it pits citizens against each other, exhausting time and energy and headspace that would make far more sense spent trying to collectively build an equitable, environmentally-friendly system change.
That means solar panels to power homes when the grid goes down. Green spaces to soak up rain and stop it overloading stormwater pipes. Density done well, so everyone is housed and our precious food-growing soil is protected. Guaranteed minimum income for all, to ensure no one, especially at moments of crisis, falls below the breadline.
Translating the compassion and care we show each other in times of crisis into everyday, tangible, systemic change to ensure everyone always has what they need to live with dignity.
A better future is not only possible, it’s essential. We must cut emissions and adapt our neighbourhoods for an already climate-changed world.
We all knew, in some way or another, that the system wasn’t working for the majority of people well before the floods arrived. It proved entirely dysfunctional when they did. We get to decide whether we build something entirely new into the future.
• Chlöe Swarbrick, Green Party, is the MP for Auckland Central.