Into the blue

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Of all the penguins and forests and fire and ice, the horses and high wires and aerial shots in our Photographer of the Year finalists, my favourite frames are both portraits. First, Joe Harrison’s shot of a boy on a campground seesaw. Just look at the light. Look at that boy, looking straight through you. Expecting better.

Then there’s Brian Turner, fading like old tussock, like the light, shot by Alden Williams. A classical portrait through and through. Every time I look at it tears come to my eyes. This is partly because Brian has Alzheimer’s. His brain, he’s said, feels like a shower of asteroids coming at him. My dad had dementia, and he died last year, just after his 65th birthday, and it doesn’t take much to make me cry for him.

But when I look at this photograph I’m also deeply moved by the way Brian has lived. He is a poet and an environmental activist—has been since Save Manapouri in the late 60s—and he lives in Central Otago, and it lives in him. “Before the dusk / mellows and fails / the light is like honey / on the stems of tussock grass…” Turner’s partner, fellow activist and writer Jillian Sullivan, puts it this way: “Whether it sang for him or he to it, his words now paint the land and hold it sacrosanct.”

This was not a cost of living election, it was a climate election. We just didn’t talk about it. About the fact that Antarctica is melting, corals are cooking, and the world has just experienced the hottest July on record. Also the hottest August. And September.

National’s full environmental policy seems to have been quietly published the day before the election. No poetry here, and it’s fairly broad-brush. “New Zealand faces major environmental challenges from climate change and the rapid loss of biodiversity,” the opening pages of the document assert. “A cohesive, integrated approach to environmental regulation is crucial.” Yes and yes, please. Throughout, there is an emphasis on data. Targets. New tech. New wetlands. There are words that let me hope this next government will share my sense of urgency: turbo-charge; unleash; fast-track.

But there is a mountain to climb to “get our country back on track”. New Zealand has committed under the Paris Agreement to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions 50 per cent by 2030 to limit warming to less than 1.5ºC. The science is unequivocal: we can’t honour that commitment and restart oil and gas exploration too. Or defer pricing on agricultural emissions. Or prioritise new roads over public transport. And the fiscal penalties for failing to decrease emissions or pulling out of the agreement would be catastrophic for the economy.

The new coalition must find a way to rehabilitate both our economy and environment at the same time. As this next government steps from rhetoric to the real-world work of making change, promises may prove very hard to keep.

Many of our leading environmental scientists have become accustomed to difficult compromises. Kelsey Miller, who spent days on the bottom of the Hauraki Gulf culling emaciated kina with a hammer, was trying to find a solution to the barrens the urchins are creating. She hated it, cringed every time, but she kept going, trying to strike a balance between our new context and a restored ecology.

As with kina, the new government’s approach to our twin crises—climate, biodiversity—needs to evolve as the challenge does (it will). But the science to underpin it is already there for the taking. We just need the will. The political weather.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer.