(Illustration: Pablo Espinosa)
(Illustration: Pablo Espinosa)

PartnersApril 4, 2022

What New Zealand can learn, and teach, about climate change

(Illustration: Pablo Espinosa)
(Illustration: Pablo Espinosa)

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of this generation, but slowing the planet’s warming will take a huge, global effort. International students in New Zealand bring important knowledge with them and are helping to spread climate knowledge far and wide.

This content was created in paid partnership with Education New Zealand.

For almost a century, climate change has contributed to unimaginable natural disasters, loss of life, land and resource. From New Zealand, it’s not a long journey to see some of the countries that are losing land to the sea at drastic rates; Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands are all shrinking due to sea level rise. Climate change is a problem that, according to the authority on the matter, can only be tackled by getting all hands on deck.

It’s no wonder then that New Zealand’s climate change researchers are banding together, sharing their expertise and linking up with experts from overseas – through multinational programmes, research collaborations and a new transdisciplinary climate change degree – to make sure our future is sustainable.

International students coming to New Zealand contribute hugely to the shared knowledge that is needed to tackle climate change, bringing with them expertise that helps our local efforts. And through these students, our own climate experts share their knowledge with the world, too.

(Illustration: Pablo Espinosa)

Crossing borders

“We want to show that although people are from different countries they can collaborate, especially when there’s similar issues,” says Hélène Eunson. She runs the Winds of Change Programme for the Latin American Centres of Asia-Pacific Excellence and the University of Otago – a programme that brings together New Zealand and Chilean postgraduate students to work on climate change issues – together with a team of academics lead by associate professor Chris Moy. 

Every year, Winds of Change selects around 30 students to participate in its programme, which involves workshops, a project assignment and a final symposium where participants present their groundbreaking ideas for combating climate change. “We provide participants with a little more knowledge and a lot more connections,” says Eunson. 

Chilean-born New Zealander Javiera Otero is one of the students who brought their international knowledge of climate change to New Zealand for the Winds of Change programme. 

Otero and her team, consisting of two geologists and one glaciologist, were keen to understand the effects of tourism on glacier retreat and figure out a way to lessen the impact. Glaciers are a big tourism drawcard in both Chile and New Zealand yet are shrinking as the earth warms – with big consequences not just for the planet but also for local communities that rely on glaciers for drinking water and businesses that need these natural wonders to bring visitors in.

The team created a website called The Nice Tourist that offers visitors to Aotearoa and Chile easy-to-understand information about the science of climate change and glaciers, as well as tips on reducing their impact. 

What they learned was surprising: It isn’t so much walking on glaciers that has a big impact, it’s the travel to and from glacier sites. “Climate change [has] the biggest impact on glaciers. Tourism in glaciers is minimal if it is compared with gas emissions, high temperatures and the use of fossil fuels,” says University of Canterbury glaciologist Heather Purdie, who consulted with Otero and her team. 

Based on advice from experts like Purdie, Otero’s team encourages visitors to Aotearoa to go slow, and stay a few nights and spend time in the communities around glaciers. It benefits the community and businesses and can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

As well as Purdie and Parsons, Otero’s team consulted with other university and government experts, and reached out to tourism operators near Franz Joseph and Marinelli glaciers, community groups and iwi. “For us it [was the chance] to provide every single actor an opportunity to share,” says Otero. 

But it’s a two-way street, Eunson points out. “We learn from each other,” she says, adding that New Zealand can learn a lot from Chile about managing water scarcity. 

The biggest problem, and a good one to have, with Winds of Change right now is that there are more enthusiastic, talented applicants than they can take on. 

Eunson says the Centres of Asia-Pacific Excellence – which are government-funded through the Tertiary Education Commission to utilise university expertise and academic networks – are looking to expand the programme to take on more people from more countries. At the end of the day, Eunson says, they want to bring together more “passionate young leaders who are eager to make a change”.

(Illustration: Pablo Espinosa)

Degrees of warming

This approach of tackling climate change from multiple sectors and angles is also at the heart of a new Bachelor of Climate Change degree offered through the University of Waikato – the first of its kind in the world.

The degree – which is currently seeing its first intake of students – combines science with humanities, economics, politics and indigenous knowledge, explains dean of science Margaret Barbour. “It’s quite unique, we haven’t found an undergraduate degree that approaches [climate change] in this way,” she says.

Students complete a range of compulsory courses, ranging from climate change science to Māori and Pacific responses to climate change, and bolster their degree with courses from one of 21 different majors, spanning anthropology to philosophy to law. “Because climate change is such a super wicked problem, we need to have people who can dip in and out of disciplines as they need to,” says Barbour. 

She envisions that a person who completes the degree could be fully leading the charge on a country’s climate change response, for example as a policy analyst or advisor, or they might work as a scientist with a strong environmental focus, or work within a company advising them on sustainability.

A big focus of the degree is seeing climate change from different viewpoints. Not just through different disciplines but also different people from different backgrounds. Part of that means an emphasis on Māori, Pacific and other indigenous worldviews. 

“We had this realisation among scientists, like me, who are western trained, that colonialism is part of the problem,” says Barbour. “If we turn our thinking to more indigenous world views then we can approach our interaction with the natural world in a different way.”

International students will also help foster discussions and new ways of looking at problems, says Barbour. Although there are currently just a few international students enrolled in the degree, due to border closures last year, she’s optimistic that the next semester will see an influx of new talent. According to the university’s own market research, a third to a half of international students they surveyed see climate change as the biggest issue facing the world right now. 

When the degree was first announced, Barbour saw huge amounts of positive feedback from climate change organisations across the globe, including Swedish climate action group Climate Dialogue, and visits to the degree’s website were at around 170,000 a month. They hope demand for the degree will continue, including from international students seeking out the highly bespoke degree, as borders open back up to the world.

(Illustration: Pablo Espinosa)

Squid stories

Some of the most relevant climate change research comes from international students who come to New Zealand in search of expertise. That was the story for German-born Alexandra Lischka. 

Lischka began her New Zealand journey in perhaps one of the furthest locations away from New Zealand. She was on a research trip on the Sargasso Sea, catching and identifying different squid species, when she came across one neither she nor her professors recognised. Her professors suggested getting in touch with deep-sea squid expert Kat Bolstard, from Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

That initial conversation turned into an internship, which grew into a full-on PhD. It was the expertise on offer in New Zealand that drew Lischka in, and the beautiful people and oceans that made her stay. “It’s so beautiful and there’s so much ocean, and the people were so friendly. I like the New Zealand lifestyle a lot,” she says.

Lischka investigated how heavy metals build up in arrow squid from various locations around Aotearoa. Squid are important to study, she explains, because they’re essentially in the middle of the food chain so heavy metals can be passed on to other animals, including whales or people who eat them. 

Plus, Lischka adds, squid are likely to stick around even as the ocean changes because of climate change. “Squid are the ultimate survivors of climate change,” she says. “They can adapt so quickly and they seem to cope with zones of the ocean with low oxygen and rising temperatures.”

But Lischka learned more than the ins and outs of squid ecology. Studying in New Zealand was a chance for her to see things from a different perspective and form new professional connections. “Kat is very well respected and has contacts around the world. I’m now part of a global network of marine biology experts,” she says. They also worked closely with the Department of Conservation and, through them, local iwi.

The importance of indigenous knowledge is one of the things Lischka took to her next role working as an environmental project coordinator with the Kahnawake people in Quebec, Canada. She now works on the other side of the country, in British Columbia, as an environmental scientist for a consultancy company and says she uses many of the things she learned studying for her PhD in New Zealand in this new role. “Critical thinking is really important and a do-it-yourself way of thinking too.”

And those are skills that many students, like her, Otero and those participating in the world’s very first climate change degree, can take from their New Zealand education. It’s the academic knowledge, yes, but it’s the culture and unique New Zealand way of doing things that sticks with people long into the future.

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