Wellington Scoop

Responding to the climate emergency

by Paul Bruce
How do we move to a collaborative environment where we can really respond to the climate emergency? The keystone legislation for our response, the Zero Carbon Act, has been delayed by bipartisan politics. One possible answer is a Citizens Assembly as carried out in Ireland.

The Irish Assembly was a body comprising the Chairperson and 99 citizens, randomly selected to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate, established to consider some of the most important issues facing Ireland’s future. The Assembly Members deliberated on the topics as outlined in the Resolution approving its establishment. To be successful there must be deliberation, where questions are open and participants listen carefully.

Wikipedia defines Deliberation as

“a relation to others as equals engaged in mutual exchange of reasons oriented as if to reach a shared practical judgement; achieving a deliberative stance in citizen assemblies involves careful facilitation and attention to “emotional interaction; its achievement in group settings can be a pleasurable experience and consistent with ideals of human cognition.”

As a former Wellington Regional Councillor, I believe that our interactions were most often not deliberative, and led to unfortunate decisions such as the demise of 100% electric trolley buses. Decisions made at the national level since the 1980s have similarly taken us away from sustainability.

We now have the highest light vehicle ownership and close to the lowest air quality vehicle standards in the western world and our carbon footprints have more than doubled.

The Club of Rome “Limits to Growth” reports in 1972 provided the basis for my political activism, shifting me towards a vegan diet, a bicycle for everyday commuting, and involvement in environmental campaigns aimed at lowering our carbon footprint.

However, collectively we failed to bring limits to growth and sustainability into the public consciousness.

The Wellington City Council declared a climate emergency only a few months ago. Yet, a massive expansion plan for Wellington Airport just went public.

Professor of Physical Geography at Victoria University James Renwick says expanding the airport is not a good call if the city is to have any hope of reducing carbon emissions, and that the “number of flights being taken needed to be managed down, not expanded.”

What about overnight rail sleeper cars to Auckland for internal travel, as was the case 50 years ago? It would serve business well, leaving and arriving in the centre of our respective cities.

According to Rod Oram on Newsroom, the campaign of Judith Collins’s the National MP for Papakura is ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’ and ‘no’ – no vehicle emission standards, no restrictions on factory style farming, no climate emergency. And in the 15 months since National announced a number of themes last year, it has given no policy examples and treats the climate crisis as an “economic cost, not as an opportunity for clean, better technology.”

What a joke to claim that we are feeding the world, when we converted forestry plantations and horticultural land to dairy farming, now selling our milk powder to lactose intolerant Asians, and bringing on heart disease and cancer, contributing to the contamination of 60% of our lowland rivers and global warming. The truly deadly outcomes from dairy farming are methane with a warming potential 84 to 112 times that of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide from effluent runoff and fertilisers with a warming potential of 298.

Why not pioneer regenerative farming systems producing healthy foods for human and environmental resilience, and clean rivers.

One third of Antarctica’s ice sheet—equivalent to up to 20 metres sea-level rise—sits below sea-level and is vulnerable to catastrophic collapse from ocean heating. When atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were last at 400 parts per million (ppm) 3 million years ago, sea levels were 20 metres higher.

Lowering our carbon footprint within a just transition framework can lead to increased well-being from active lifestyles, connected communities, better health outcomes, greater life expectancy, fewer suicides, alongside cleaner air and rivers. Surely that is what we all want!

So when the nature of the problem is so clear, and the solutions are so numerous, why do we keep stalling and making retrograde decisions? Bipartisan politics is not serving our needs. To get there, we need a different approach, one where citizens can assess evidence, deliberate on the benefits and costs, and make a just transition.

A randomly selected citizen assembly might just provide a dispassionate assessment of business as usual, and lead to the measures that take us to carbon zero and sustainability via a just transition.

Aotearoa Climate Emergency is holding a conference in Wellington on 11th November on the need for a Citizens Assembly here in New Zealand to break the political deadlock.

Paul Bruce is a Meteorologist and a former Wellington Regional Councillor

Read also
Parliament passes landmark climate change legislation


  1. steve doole, 6. November 2019, 9:28

    Perhaps the UK upper chamber known as House of Lords and the upper chambers of several parliaments in Australia are imperfect examples?

  2. Helene Ritchie, 6. November 2019, 9:33

    Paul this is a very valuable contribution. A citizens’ assembly is well worth a go to break deadlocks and lead to decisions which we must make for now and the future.

  3. Micky, 6. November 2019, 10:17

    What emergency? The sun ( and water vapor) is the planetary climate driver. Last thing we need is a Citizen Alarmists Assembly dictating decisions based on scientific errors.

  4. C.R.Y Wolf, 6. November 2019, 11:08

    I’m over all this emergency stuff… Life’s too short to get all worked up about some CO2. The real problem is the increasing number of people on the planet. A population emergency? This one should be easy to solve. China managed it.

  5. Geoff Cameron, 6. November 2019, 12:06

    I read China’s annual emissions growth is eight times NZ’s total annual emissions.
    Ten times as many people globally die from cold than heat.
    The globe (sea/land/plants) emits 20 times more carbon dioxide than humans.
    I think plastic pollution is a far worse problem. Our harbour, beaches and gutters are riddled with plastic.

  6. Flub, 6. November 2019, 12:23

    What happens if the representative sample decides to do nothing? Are they then as invalid as the current representatives?

  7. Curtis Nixon, 6. November 2019, 13:01

    Hard hitting home truths Paul, a well written and thoughtful piece. See you at the conference on Monday.

    Your regenerative farming point is extremely valid. Healthy soil full of microorganisms and fungi can soak up a huge amount of carbon. This is only possible if farmers stop poisoning the land with artificial fertilizer, chemical pesticides and herbicides, and toxic animal treatments.

  8. David Mackenzie, 6. November 2019, 13:55

    Paul you are talking about Athenian democracy where many matters were decided directly by an assembly of the people.
    I think we also need to have an absence of political parties and an absence of professional politicians. Governments would be formed by selecting at random people who would be compelled to serve, but have no chance of remaining in power after their single year of service was over.
    There would be no entrenched political clique of self-interested politicians.

  9. Dave B, 6. November 2019, 14:00

    Paul, you state that “One third of Antarctica’s ice sheet—equivalent to up to 20 metres sea-level rise—sits below sea-level and is vulnerable to catastrophic collapse from ocean heating”.

    As one educated in physics albeit many years ago, I struggle to see how ice that is already below sea level, can cause sea levels to rise when it melts. If that ice is currently either floating or else sitting on land that is below sea-level, then when it melts it will continue to occupy pretty-much the same space and volume as before and have no reason to displace any sea. Unless of course it had ice which was above sea level piled high on top of it, and this drops under gravity and displaces what is melting underneath. Can you explain what you think might be going on here?

    Ultimately it is ice that is above sea-level and supported on land, that will flow or fall into the sea when it melts and cause levels to rise.

  10. Andrew, 6. November 2019, 14:45

    Wouldn’t there be a net reduction in sea levels if ice that was displacing sea water melted, as ice has a lower density than water? I guess this would be countered by geological rebound. Sweden is rising ~1cm per year as the land rebounds being compressed by the last ice age. So much to be anxious about.

    100% agree about the comments about plastic and population. Another issue is consumerism, which is responsible for all sorts of waste.

  11. glenn, 6. November 2019, 15:13

    Who would be involved in “randomly” picking/selecting a citizens assembly then? And what happens if this “random assembly” is made up of more people with some common sense perspectives on the climate, and doesn’t toe the woke line of the Aotearoa Climate Emergency Group?

  12. PCGM, 6. November 2019, 18:04

    Despite being entirely genuine in his beliefs and – in my experience – a man of considerable personal integrity, I think Paul Bruce’s suggestion underlines why the Greens are going to be wholly ineffective at addressing the climate emergency.

    To state the obvious, more talking about climate change and its problems is a singularly useless endeavour at this point. Convening yet another body to talk about the same old issues and wave their hands around in alarmist circles will make the participants feel valuable, but won’t affect the level of CO2 in the atmosphere one iota.

    I doubt there’s a single person left in Wellington who doesn’t understand what climate change is and its likely effects on the human race, so what’s the point of rehashing the discussions from a decade ago? We need tangible, practical and pragmatic steps by local and central government to reduce our carbon footprint – such as a subsidised transition to electric vehicles. Yet some of the opposition to these sensible steps appears to come directly from the Greens, not because they won’t work – they will – but because they fail to display the requisite ideological purity.

    In the current world of a fast-changing climate and rapid environmental degradation, the Greens are increasingly looking like an obstacle to making progress, because they seem to lack both the practicality and the ability to compromise that are going to be so essential in building a “coalition of the willing” around the council table. And in that environment, the time and money needed to mount a citizens’ talk-fest that will produce nothing more than recommendations about how we should all become vegan will be wasted. It would be better to spend our limited resources on doing, rather than talking.

  13. Kerry, 7. November 2019, 9:43

    The point is not that we don’t know, but that so many choose to ignore and try to distract. This is why so many ‘striking’ children in Civic Square turned out, and why so many of them were wrinklies, well into retirement.

    Paul, your ice figures are astray, but that hardly affects your argument. The real problems are temperature as much as sea level, and that many effects are self-accelerating. If the ice melts, it no longer reflects sunlight back into space, and the rate of warming increases. We can offset some of this by re-roofing or repainting in white, but how many of us do? Melting ice on land also increases warming, by reducing sunlight reflection. Another effect is that as it melts, its centre of gravity moves from a few hundred metres above Greenland to the centre of the earth, which raises these level in New Zealand more than Europe. Similarly, Antarctic ice will have more effect on Europe. Another self-accelerating effect is methane bubbling our of melting permafrost, much worse than carbon. It doesn’t last so long as carbon, but it turns into carbon.

    We are close to a tipping-point where a human response is no longer possible, and all the Ford Ranger owners will be able to relax, until the oil runs out.

  14. Max Rashbrooke, 7. November 2019, 9:45

    Pleased to be speaking at this event in Wgtn on Monday about the need for a citizens’ assembly on climate change. Could help us understand what action the public actually wants after thinking issues through, and what tradeoffs people will accept. [via twitter]

  15. Mark, 7. November 2019, 11:08

    Since eliminating all (.02 of the world’s CO2) of NZ’s Co2 would do nothing to the climate, why would we spend limited resources doing so? This is a nation without the resources ( or govt will?) to fund all needed medical treatments needed, housing, support and legal entitlement to the neediest of us. Get off your moral high horses.

  16. Helene Ritchie, 7. November 2019, 14:08

    I just cannot comprehend those attacking Paul Bruce’s expert opinion piece, and who seem to smugly think that we in Wellington will be minimally affected as if that were true; that we have no responsibility as citizens of the world, to act; that we are such a small part of the world that anything we do is meaningless; that our climate and impacts of change now and on future generations do not matter; that we should not believe the scientists and decades of warnings; that we should not discuss, plan and evaluate; that a Citizen’s Assembly is a waste of time.

    We need climate action for now and the future. This is way more important than wasting time giving NZTA the same Lambton Quay message over and over again … taking cars out but leaving bunched polluting buses in … for pedestrians to breathe their fumes. How global warming affects New Zealand.

  17. Robert D, 7. November 2019, 14:27

    Well said Mark. Helene – the Council’s fleet of diesel buses and their carcinogenic diesel fumes (which is pollution) has very little to do with C02 or the climate.

  18. Catlin Makery, 7. November 2019, 15:54

    What “tradeoffs” should we have to accept as a punitive punishment for an imagined emergency? Trade offs for the Council trashing our trolley buses and their infrastructure? Trade-offs for the govt building heaps of new roads while declaring their obsession to get “first to zero”? It’s very sad that people think they are on the moral high ground for being alarmists , for flying to climate conventions to tell others how they should not.

  19. glenn, 7. November 2019, 15:58

    @helene, can you give one instance of the decades of warnings, where one has actually eventuated ???

  20. Paul Bruce, 7. November 2019, 17:06

    Kerry, one-third of Antarctica ice sits both below and above sea level – it is grounded not floating and rises substantially above it. I am no expert, but glaciologists have shown that that was the portion which was a major factor in the higher sea levels 3 million years ago.
    So we are not talking about floating ice here!
    The last interglacial 100,000 years had sea levels 10 meters higher, and a major part also was said to have come from Antarctica. I understand that Greenland is worth about 7 meters sea-level rise.

  21. TrevorH, 7. November 2019, 19:47

    @ Paul. As you point out sea levels were substantially higher than now in the last interglacial. Our current interglacial began about 12,000 years ago and sea levels have been rising again ever since then. Temperatures have steadily increased too although not without considerable fluctuations eg the Medieval Warming followed by the Little Ice Age that ended about 200 years ago. All of this happened without human forcing via CO2.

  22. PCGM, 7. November 2019, 20:15

    Helene – Events have now proven that a citizens assembly is a futile waste of time and money, as the Zero Carbon Bill has now passed, 119 to 1, with support from the National Party, despite the fact that not one of their proposed amendments was adopted into the legislation. It’s a wonderful day for Aotearoa New Zealand, a proud moment for our Parliament, a feather in the cap for the Green Party, and an underlining of the fact that everyone who has been banging the drum for an unnecessary citizens assembly is on the wrong side of history.

  23. Helene Ritchie, 7. November 2019, 21:58

    @PCGM. I received a Gen Zero email about the Zero Carbon Act which says: “The real work begins now – of working to implement solutions to reduce our emissions, with deep reductions absolutely needed in the next decade. And the hard work to see justice for those who are already suffering the worst impacts of climate change continues. But young people are more determined than ever to build the future we need. Generation Zero volunteers are planning the next campaign – to introduce transformational policies that will guide us to build better, low-carbon cities, and smart and accessible public transport networks.”

    @ Glenn. Have a look, for one example, at some of Dave Lowe’s world recognised (Nobel prize contribution) work on the human impact on climate change and measurements taken over decades at Baring Head.

  24. Helene Ritchie, 7. November 2019, 22:44

    This Zero Carbon Act is a great bipartisan, coalition and government achievement and a great start for work still to be done. James Shaw needs to be congratulated.

  25. Curtis Nixon, 8. November 2019, 9:55

    @Trevor H. The most accepted theory about the Little Ice Age, 1300-1850AD is that it was caused by a combination of a series of eruptions of Mt Samalas on Lombok island and the Maunder Minimum low point in solar flare activity. This created glaciers and sea ice in a cooling feedback loop, which led to a shut down of the Gulf Stream which warms Europe.

    If these extreme natural causes can affect the climate, then it makes sense that extreme human-caused greenhouse gas emissions can also affect the climate, but warming it instead of cooling it. We don’t understand this science very well yet and much more study needs to be done before we can write off or be certain of one cause or another. Until then we need to go with the best available research.

  26. Mark, 8. November 2019, 10:53

    No it doesn’t Nixon. What caused the little ice age was solar activity which was not humans or C02.

  27. TrevorH, 8. November 2019, 19:03

    @Curtis Nixon. The major change in thermohaline circulation you suggest is entirely speculative. Many scientists believe that the Gulf Stream today is at its weakest point for 1600 years. The eruption of Mt Samalas in 1257 was certainly major and is likely to have caused cooling for several years, but not for six centuries. The Maunder Minimum may well have contributed to the Little Ice Age because solar activity is the major determinant of temperatures on Earth and changes in solar activity and fluctuations in the Earth’s orbit are believed to have triggered the periodic cooling and warming episodes.

  28. Curtis Nixon, 8. November 2019, 22:13

    @TrevorH. Wikipedia says the theory involves an initial 1257 eruption of Mt Samalas, followed by three smaller eruptions in 1268, 1275, and 1284. This may have caused the initial cooling, and the 1452–53 eruption of Kuwae in Vanuatu may have triggered a second pulse of cooling. Further to that was the eruption of Billy Mitchell on Bougainville Is around 1580, Huaynaputina in 1600, Mt Parker in 1641, Long Island in PNG 1660, and Laki, Iceland, in 1783. In 1815 Mt Tambora filled the atmosphere with ash and SO2 so much that 1816 came to be known as the Year Without a Summer. Multiple eruptions creating a cooling effect over time. Yes, the Gulf Stream thermohaline theory is just that, a theory.

  29. TrevorH, 9. November 2019, 8:15

    @Curtis Nixon. According to NASA there is a major volcanic eruption about every 20 years on average with the cooling effects from the ash dissipating after about 2 years. If however you look out the window towards the sky you will see the major determinant of earth’s climate. In their wisdom our ancient ancestors worshiped the sun because they understood the enormity of its role. Our fortunes are intimately linked to the sun’s moods and the ever-changing variations. These, known as the Milankovitch Cycles, are well understood as being responsible for triggering major changes in climate such as the ice ages. Climate change is always with us.

  30. Henry Filth, 9. November 2019, 14:12

    So when the sea level rises, what’s the future for Eastbourne? Is there a plan?

  31. Johnny Overton, 16. November 2019, 11:26

    Our party political system, which largely exists to further the interests of the elitist globalisation establishment, is no longer fit for purpose. The urgent development of future proofing solutions & action plans that are required to address today’s challenges, is being seriously hindered by our 3 year electoral cycle thinking. The best way to rectify this would be to bring about the installation of a broad-based, people’s assembly like localisation government, with a long-term mandate to develop & implement a sustainable, long term future proofing plan.

    Next year Our Party, which stands for removing the globalisation establishment & replacing them with a benevolent localisation dictatorship, will go on the road with its tongue in cheek – let’s really get things done “Kick A Movement” (WE KAM DO).

  32. Guntao Stem, 16. November 2019, 13:59

    Hey Johnny – Have you been reading Karl and Friedrich’s Communist Manifesto?

  33. Johnny Overton, 16. November 2019, 17:57

    @Guntao Stem, been there done that, have been listening to “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones though.

  34. Guntao Stem, 17. November 2019, 8:09

    Johnny – no moss has grown on Stones Mick and Keith as they roll on downhill earning their millions. Being from the north, I listen to John, Paul, George and Ringo who knew when enough was enough.

  35. Johnny Overton, 17. November 2019, 9:02

    @Guntao Stem, good on ya mate. I’m a boomer, apparently we’re responsible for everything wrong with our world. The guilt is crippling, so I’m just trying make amends for all my sins. As John Lennon said, “I hope you’ll join us”.