To higher ground

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It’s 8pm in Auckland on February 13 and Cyclone Gabrielle is winding up. Over the hill from us families are being evacuated—the old-man pines that hold the cliffs up are falling. We’re fine, but it’s weird. Sirens in the background. I’m getting up every two minutes to check the trampoline, the willow, the kids.

During lockdown, if the kids or I were feeling anxious, we’d head for the weedy bush gully at the bottom of our street. There’s a bridge to drop sticks off, dragonflies. The kids discovered a cluster of baby ponga and came back each day to watch the fronds unfurl. When we found a ruru dead on the road, we carried it to that special spot by the stream, and buried it.

The gully was squashed under a slip in the floods that came a fortnight ago.

This is what climate change feels like to me: a convergence of new and startling happenings, once-in-a-lifespan events that now shunt into one another and overlap, a state of ambient emergency. And hunger, if you’re a rockhopper penguin on the Antipodes.

“We should use the list of NZ’s biggest climate polluters to rename this year’s climate disasters,” someone tweeted the other day, snapshotting a top-10 chart compiled by the Environmental Protection Authority. Cyclone Fonterra? Cyclone Z Energy?

As the American writer and activist Rebecca Solnit said in a speech at Princeton University last year: “Every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis. This is as true of climate chaos as anything else… A climate story we urgently need is one that exposes who is actually responsible for climate chaos.”

It’s not individuals making bad choices as consumers, Solnit argues. It’s the fossil fuel industry and the fact that, given the stakes, there are still bad choices available.

I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Why not demand change on both fronts? We should expect the people who can make sustainable choices to do so—to go solar, take the bus, cut back on meat and milkshakes. At the same time, we should push the system to change, fast—true systemic change is not a pipe dream. Look at cigarette smoking, seatbelts, smacking kids, free-range eggs, plastic shopping bags. (Aucklanders, one way to effect real change is to make a submission, this March, on Auckland Council’s 2023/24 annual budget proposals—Search ‘AK Have Your Say’).

Meanwhile, we need to wrap our arms around the people whose choices are limited and those who, like our baby ponga, face being hammered and hammered again. Too often, these two groups overlap. The RSE orchard workers left stranded on their rooftops for 10 hours out the back of Taradale. The people of Rānui, west Auckland, who dragged their sodden couches and carpets out to the kerb just in time to catch the next wallop of weather. Wairoa. Gisborne. Northland. Muriwai. And most of all, everywhere: our kids. As the wind picked up tonight, my eldest asked for a bedtime story, for the first time in months. He chose one called Kōwhai and the Giants, about a Lorax-like little girl desperate to save New Zealand’s trees.

“I cannot do it alone,” says Kōwhai. “And when I speak, my voice is not heard.” He lay awake for a long time after that.