A girl in India taking part in a climate protest (Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto)
A girl in India taking part in a climate protest (Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto)

SocietySeptember 21, 2019

Wanted: A real climate change conversation

A girl in India taking part in a climate protest (Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto)
A girl in India taking part in a climate protest (Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto)

Covering Climate Now: Saying climate change is important is one thing. So why are we so incapable of having a real conversation about what actually addressing it will mean? Sam McGlennon investigates. 

The Spinoff’s participation in Covering Climate Now is made possible thanks to Spinoff Members. Join us here!

Up until a week ago, I often wondered whether New Zealand was even holding an active climate change conversation. Now I’m wondering whether we’re yet having a real one.

Ahead of next Monday’s UN Climate Change Summit, the New Zealand media has been positively gushing with climate stories. Together the coverage provides a compelling mosaic of the latest climate science, the implications for New Zealand and a multiplicity of ideas – for individuals and the country – on how we can and should respond.

All of that coverage is welcome and highly needed. But are we yet having the climate conversation we need to as a country? How would we know if we were? What might that conversation even entail?

Associate Professor Bronwyn Hayward thinks that a real climate conversation would include the need to rethink our lives, our economy and our everyday life in a collective sense.

Professor Hayward is based at the University of Canterbury and is one of the country’s foremost climate scientists. She was a lead author of last year’s landmark IPCC report, which set out the need for 45% emissions reductions globally by 2030. She described that report’s launch as a moment marking ‘the end of magical thinking’

I spoke with Professor Hayward about what she meant by ‘magical thinking’ (turns out there’s a lot of it about!). She referred to several strains, including:

  • that climate change is not going to affect New Zealand, nor require any change from us
  • that it will be easier (and cheaper) to adapt to climate change than engage in serious mitigation measures
  • that techno-fixes are just around the corner, 
  • that climate change is a future problem and there’s still plenty of time.

Removing these aspects from our conversations takes away multiple sources of psychological comfort, both for us as individuals and as a society. Making climate change somebody else’s problem or waiting for a technological fix absolves us from having to do anything substantial to our own lives. Perhaps that’s why we’ve hidden behind these arguments – or hopes – for literally decades now, as the climate issue-turned-emergency spiralled ever more out of our control.

Students march through the streets of Wellington during the strike to raise climate crisis awareness (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

But finally, we have it straight. Professor Hayward’s interpretation of the IPCC report is that New Zealand will be strongly affected by climate change and must embark on serious mitigation measures, beginning now with technology that’s already available.

There’s an immediate upside to embracing the challenge on these terms. What we lose in convenience and psychological comfort, we suddenly (and finally) gain in clarity.

So how close are we to having a conversation along these lines here in New Zealand?

Professor Hayward thinks we’ve actually got quite a polarised conversation. “On the one hand, we’ve got declarations of emergency, feelings of panic and despair. On the other hand, we’ve still got magical thinking, for example, that there will be technology breakthroughs that will just solve this.”

That polarisation seems hard to deny when, on the one hand, famous American author Jonathan Franzen is telling us it’s already too late to do anything to mitigate climate change (that landed poorly), while at the same time a large segment of the population is only slowly waking to how big the issue really is.

Professor James Renwick of Victoria University in Wellington feels similarly. Professor Renwick is this year’s winner of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize and delivered the keynote address at his university’s Toitū te Ao – Sustainability Week last week.

“There’s certainly a lot of conversation going on, a lot more than even a year ago. But a lot of it is just around the fact there’s a problem. I don’t think the business community and the public at large have much idea what they can do to improve things. And you know, I sympathise.

“There has to be really systemic change to tackle this problem. But that means everyone’s kind of waiting around for someone else to do something.” 

Polarisation, apathy, uncertainty. It seems a messy place from which to concoct a society-wide response to the defining challenge of our times.

Professor James Higham, a sustainable tourism expert at the University of Otago, sees these features play out within tourism, not least with respect to the high-emitting aviation industry.

“Are we having a real conversation within tourism? Not really. I hear some expressions of concern, from the CEO of Air New Zealand and some of the other big companies… but as long as the dominant growth paradigm remains so deeply entrenched, it’s hard to see how we’re going to have that real conversation or make meaningful change.

“As for the aviation industry, it’s very much fixed in this mindset that technology is everything, and that technology will save us.”

In other words, aviation’s current thinking fails one of Professor Hayward’s litmus tests of magical thinking.

An Air New Zealand plane, contributing to global emissions. (Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

Even more poignantly, Professor Higham has been watching the emerging space tourism industry, and he’s convinced there isn’t a single, polarised conversation on climate change so much as several conversations that are downright contradictory. 

A 2010 study modelled the climate impact of 1,000 space rocket launches (the number then forecast for 2020) and found that it could add one-degree celsius to temperature at the poles, melting 5-15% of polar ice. Thankfully, for us and the vanishing Arctic ice, last year saw only 114 rockets launched.

But as with tourism and aviation, the space industry is planning for expansion, and the rocket launches from Mahia peninsula by Rocket Lab bring that contradiction home.

Professor Higham says: “You talk about trying to reduce our carbon footprint locally, or nationally, or on earth, but then you’ve got MBIE saying that space is going to be great for our economy, and we want space launches and space tourism here in New Zealand. How on earth is that compatible with New Zealand’s climate commitments?”

The presence of these contradictions could be a symptom of multiple things: highly varied levels of awareness among New Zealanders, the lack of a national roadmap towards emissions reductions, or both. But one thing these experts agree on is how quickly these conversations can – and are – changing.

Professor Hayward says she has started to see ‘quite significant’ shifts in the social acceptability of some behaviours, particularly around fossil fuel emissions from travel.

“In the UK it has become socially unacceptable to drive your large SUV – especially if it’s diesel – to the school gate to pick your children up. There’s also the new Swedish word flygskam (‘flight shame’), which has been coined to convey a sense of shame about flying.” 

(Satisfyingly, there’s also an inverse word for flygskamtågskryt – which translates as ‘train bragging’. Not that it’s too much comfort for us here in geographically isolated New Zealand. Although trains – and new sleeper buses – are welcome options for travellers between Auckland and Wellington.)

“So one of the shifts we’re starting to see is the social norm around travel,” concludes Professor Hayward. Some businesses are even beginning to award additional annual leave for employees shunning air travel.

Changes to that particular norm will have implications for us here on both an individual and economy-wide scale. Obviously, our two largest industries – tourism and dairy – are shackled to transporting people and goods across vast distances. And indeed, there are dangers lying in wait for incumbent businesses with respect to all of the norms we’re coming to interrogate, from the meat and dairy in our diets to our excessive levels of consumption.

Are New Zealand businesses ready for those challenges? Professor Hayward’s experiences have not been overly encouraging.

“We’re still a very long way in the boardroom from the actual practice needed,” she says. “There’s a big cognitive dissonance within businesses and boards because even if a board wants to do the right thing, there is no requirement to do so and no – or few – incentives to do so yet.

“Agriculture can see it coming. But I think many other businesses have yet to realise that ‘this means us too’. Governments have to support businesses to make that shift possible and also make it palpably real that these changes have to be made.”

Professor Hayward cautions that one danger in the cap-and-trade approach embodied in the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill is that it allows businesses to think they can simply buy their way out of their emissions. Perhaps that’s another element of magical thinking still to vanquish from our boardrooms and executive suites.

Professor Renwick believes that government needs to provide strong guidance to the business sector, including a mix of financial incentives, legislation and other approaches.

“Business people are obviously, by and large, the ones that get things done. They build wind farms and install the stations and import the EVs and so on.”

He’s keen to see a partnership between business, government and the community pulling together to tackle climate change. That vision only underscores the need for a crystal-clear communication of the overall direction of travel and its implications for each sector.

Professor Hayward thinks the part of the conversation that’s really missing is about how we need to rethink our lives, our economy and our everyday life in a collective sense. 

“Leaving that aside leaves us in quite a vulnerable position, I think.”

Cows at the Synlait dairy farm in Canterbury stand in the darkness of night on May 25, 2015. Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images

Until very recently, New Zealand’s hubbub has been noticeably quiet on climate change. The only silver lining to that slow start is that we can now avoid the known pitfalls of magical thinking.

Only when we’re truly and honestly discussing the changes we need to make to society, business, the economy, and our lives as individuals will we embark on the real conversations we urgently need to have. 

There are some signs these real conversations have begun. For example, the mayor of Auckland, while calling for submissions on the city’s climate action framework, told us upfront this July that Aucklanders need to “transform our economy, our relationship with the environment, and our way of life”.

Even way back in 2017, Jonathon Porritt, the chair of Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Advisory Panel, wrote in the airline’s sustainability report that anyone who cares about climate change has to “either stop flying altogether… or fly as little and as discriminatingly and responsibly as possible”.

There’s been a noticeable uptick in volume and profile of climate news and stories this week, thanks to the Climate Coverage Now alliance of international media, including many here in New Zealand.

But unfortunately, real climate conversations are still patchy across many areas where they’re needed. They also often fall short on detail, both with regard to changes needed and the implications of those changes.

Maybe we aren’t as far away from those conversations as some of us fear. There are multiple forces – the school strikes, Extinction Rebellion, some businesses and councils – pushing us ever more unforgivingly towards those conversations. And it’s at moments in history like these that change can happen fast.

Keep going!