The challenge of our time

Victoria University is leading research and a debate on understanding climate change and how we can best respond to it.

Academics and student representatives share what is top of mind ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (30 November–11 December).

Professor Tim Naish

Director, Antarctic Research Centre

Climate change is a global problem, and the world’s nations have agreed global warming must be limited to less than 2°C to avoid its most serious consequences. To achieve this target, global emissions of carbon dioxide need to be reduced to zero before the end of this century. Therein lies the challenge of our time.

As New Zealand considers its contribution to emissions reduction, it’s important to remember that if we miss the 2°C target we may be determining the shape of our planet’s coastlines for centuries to come. We need to be asking questions such as the following:

  • How much sea-level rise, along with the other negative impacts of climate change like droughts and floods, are we prepared to commit future generations to?
  • What will be the real social and economic cost to New Zealand?
  • What role should we expect our government to play in the guardianship of Aotearoa?

The longer-term impacts and costs of climate change must be given equal weight with shorter-term issues as we consider our commitment to the Paris negotiations.

Catherine Iorns

Senior lecturer, School of Law

Top of my mind is the need to take climate change more seriously, plan for it and incorporate it into our laws and policies and, especially, our decision-making procedures.

New Zealand has laws and policies where decision-makers have been expressly forbidden from taking into account future climate change in their decisions.

We are treating our natural environment as a sewer and overloading it with the side effects of our activities. We should change our laws to make people account and pay for all the environmental costs of their activities.

Most of these changes wouldn’t just help to prevent climate change problems, but would improve other environmental issues as well.

I’d like to see all countries in Paris agreeing on, and starting to work towards, concrete goals that would actually prevent the worst effects of climate change.

High on my action list is preventing and reversing deforestation: plants reduce carbon dioxide levels in our air, plus we get other ecosystem co-benefits while preventing biodiversity losses at the same time.

Professor Dave Frame

Director, New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute

Wishing away the politics is pointless. Political will follows possibility, not the other way around. Countries know they need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They all face incentives not to do so, but instead to free ride on the efforts of others.

The way to change that is to reduce the costs of mitigation so that the world’s peoples feel that the costs of changing to a low-carbon economy are low enough to bear.

Technology is fundamental to this, since the surest way to eliminate emissions is to make non-emitting technologies preferable on price grounds.

Normalising the expectation that carbon dioxide emissions will become unacceptable over time is also important. But as the international relations scholar Kenneth Waltz put it,“necessities do not create possibilities”.

What we need to do is create the possibility of a low carbon world, not to remind people of its necessity.

Associate Professor Marc Wilson

School of Psychology

One thing that fascinates me about climate change is the gap between the expert consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real, and the fact that only 60 percent of the public agrees.

As a psychological researcher, this tells me that climate change belief is not just about the science—other factors come into play.

In New Zealand, education and income are both unrelated to climate change belief, but one’s political orientation is a factor and women are three times more likely than men to be climate change believers.

A question we should ask ourselves is: Even if climate change is not real, wouldn’t we still be making our world a better place by paying more attention to maintaining our environment?

Personally, I’d love to see our politicians acknowledge the scientific consensus, because that would legitimise the use of the many mitigation strategies that we know can work and make New Zealand a better place.

Stephanie Gregor and Anya Maule

Students from Gecko, Victoria's student environmental group

It’s important to look at how interconnected issues of climate are with many other issues facing our planet, including gender, race, socio-economic standing and ability. Community is also important.

Without support networks it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem. Time to relax and recover is vital—action for the climate should not come at the cost of our own personal and collective wellbeing.

New Zealand needs to ramp up its commitment to global change on this issue, and back that up with concrete targets coupled with plans to meet those targets.

At previous United Nations Climate Change conferences, New Zealand has received the ‘fossil of the day’ award for ‘actively hampering international progress’. That is irresponsible, embarrassing and shows an incredible lack of foresight.

This global problem requires a global solution, and we need to play a strong role in implementing that solution.

Dr Maibritt Pedersen Zari

Senior lecturer, School of Architecture

New Zealand should be taking immediate and more widespread action on climate change, both in terms of adapting to the impacts of it and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

We need stronger political leadership in this area—it will be easier for society if politicians make the tough and unpopular decisions that will drive the behavioural change that farming, industry, business and citizens need to make.

Immediate things New Zealand could be doing are growing more food within our cities, increasing subsidies for solar hot water heating and solar power generation and initiating extensive and heavily-subsidised public transport networks in major cities and towns.

At a global level, the imperative that businesses must continually expand and increase profits is directly implicated in climate change itself. This notion is also partly responsible for the widespread inequality that makes effective and fast action to address climate change so difficult to achieve.