Hikers approaching Franz Josef Glacier, Westland. The glacier was still advancing until 2008, but since then has entered a very rapid phase of retreat. Photo: Getty Images

West Coast council shows that on climate change, facts often aren’t enough

The astonishing decision by the West Coast Regional Council to refuse to back major climate change legislation shows there are still major communication hurdles to be overcome, even when the science is settled.

One of the first things to understand about the science of climate change is that it’s actually quite simple. The projected effects might be unpredictable and complicated, but the causes can be summed up in a few basic bullet points. In fact, it was done so by climate scientist James Renwick on Twitter today:

1. Greenhouse gases absorb heat.

2. More greenhouse gases = more warming.

The issue has blown up after the West Coast Regional Council announced that they would not be supporting the Zero Carbon Bill – the government’s flagship climate change legislation aimed at reducing emissions. The Council made a submission that said “the evidence proving anthropogenic climate change must be presented and proven beyond reasonable doubt”.

Hasn’t that already happened? The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report for policymakers put it bluntly: “Impacts on natural and human systems from global warming have already been observed (high confidence). Many land and ocean ecosystems and some of the services they provide have already changed due to global warming (high confidence).” Human activities are listed as the cause. It’s not an overly complicated document, but it is pretty dry. And that could be part of the problem, according to Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw, a researcher and co-director of think tank The Workshop.

“I think it’s important for scientists to understand that just because we find the evidence compelling, and then talk about it, does not automatically mean that’s compelling to everyone else,” she says. “There is a really big gap between the general public’s understanding of this stuff, and experts.”

She adds that the way scientists often talk about climate change can be in and of itself unscientific. “We pay very little attention to the the science of making those facts compelling to the people who need to act on those facts. And it’s not really the scientist’s fault in that sense – that’s a whole different level of expertise that isn’t really well understood or recognised.” She adds that research she has undertaken shows that – counter to the protestations of the West Coast Regional Council – more science and more evidence probably won’t make much of a difference.

So how can it be made more understandable? It’s about finding shared values, says Berentson-Shaw. For climate change, one value that could bridge the gap could be wanting to help future generations. That’s something fundamental to pretty much all political ideologies – that you want your children to grow up in a better world than you did. “Look, it’s really hard to do, and I have to say half the time I fail at it. But starting from a position of arguing the facts immediately gets people into a position of not wanting to hear the evidence. You kind of have to find a way to lower the barrier to do that, and one way to do that is to seek out those common values.”

Sometimes those values may be more easily expressed in economic terms than environmental terms. According to Infometrics, the economy of the West Coast is disproportionally dependent on mining and other primary industries, relative to the rest of the country. The region is on struggle street, with the most recent data showing a shrinking economy, and falling numbers of jobs. As James Renwick puts it, even though the West Coast’s economic fears of emissions reductions have to be taken seriously, “the sea level continuing to rise – that’s going to be more damaging to the local economy than any change in how the economy works there.”

But part of the problem might be simply that those in charge don’t want to listen. Last year, experts from NIWA and the Ministry for the Environment visited the Regional Council, to discuss the effects that climate change-caused sea level rises will have on the area. James Renwick has sent an email to the Regional Council offering to come to them to discuss the issue. He’s hopeful they’ll take him up on it, but believes “they’ve heard the story, and it’s not a matter of not understanding it or needing it to be explained in words of one syllable. But I don’t really think it’s about not understanding, it’s about resistance and not wanting to change.”

But to take that as evidence that Coasters don’t care about climate change would also be wrong. The counter-argument was put in 2017 by Megan Rich, a school principal in the town of Granity. She noted that the school used to have a tennis court and a pool, but both have been destroyed by rising seas. To the north, Buller District’s elected representatives are grappling with the idea that Westport might need to be moved further inland. And political scientist Dr Bronwyn Hayward says she takes students to talk to people on the West Coast every year, and the people are aware of the effects of climate change. “It’s a tough situation they’re in, and listening matters rather than just writing off their objections as being those of rednecks.”

According to Radio NZ’s reporting, only councillor Stuart Challenger opposed the submission. In contrast, councillor Allan Birchfield described climate change as a “fraud.” Jess Berentson-Shaw says for scientists and communicators, people like Mr Birchfield are probably a lost cause. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no point in talking about the issue generally. “Think about it – are you actually going persuade this particular person? Is it worth expending your energy? Or is it more worth trying to persuade people who don’t yet have a particular view on it?” For voters around the country who do want more comprehensive action on climate change, those questions will be in sharp relief when elections roll around later in the year.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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