More Kiwis are worried about climate change. What's been driving that concern? And why do some of us still refuse to accept the scientific consensus? Science reporter Jamie Morton talks to Victoria University's Associate Professor Taciano Milfont, who has been tracking attitudes over time.

Polls and surveys have been pointing to a rising level of acceptance and concern around climate change among New Zealanders. What do you think has been driving this?

Acceptance and concern around climate change are indeed increasing. Data from the Pew Research Center indicates the median of respondents in 23 countries who said climate change was a major threat to their country increased from 56 per cent in 2013 to 67 per cent in 2018.

Using data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, we've also observed that belief in the reality of climate change and in human causation has steadily increased. I put this public concern down to media coverage of the scientific evidence.

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Yet many Kiwis still reject the scientific consensus. Is this more about values or ideologies that conflict with the reality?

Most people around the world are actually concerned about climate change, and only a minority are rejecting the scientific consensus.

Why? It's fair to state that climate change denial stems from a motivation of certain individuals to maintain the current societal structures.

A study last year by some of my Australian colleagues examined climate denial across 25 countries.

They found denial is greater for individuals who uphold conspiratorial and conservative ideologies, like individualism and hierarchical values.

Focus: Three Kiwis share their perspectives on climate change. Video / Michael Craig / Alan Gibson

Denial is particularly stronger for those upholding right-wing and conservative political orientations, particularly in the United States. Scholars have also indicated a "conservative white male" effect in the US, whereby conservative white males are disproportionately more likely to deny climate change.

We've observed a similar effect here.

Has that minority grown at all in our current era of fake news, social media, and with some of the troubling comments and actions that US President Donald Trump has made?

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Those who reject the scientific consensus are still the minority and this hasn't increased in the last years. However, these individuals often hold positions of power and make it politically and practically difficult to achieve change demanded by most people.

Actions taken by the Trump administration – notably censuring scientific publications and withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement – illustrate this point.

You've been researching this topic for years now. What have been some of the more surprising insights?

One has been the confirmation of a "better-here-than-there effect". That is, individuals tend to judge environmental problems as better in a geographically near place, like their suburb or city, than in a distance place, like a region or a whole other country.

Our findings indicate this effect is robust across countries and comparative places. It's all related to psychological distance of environmental problems, whereby people take the view environmental issues will be worse there, to them and in the future, which could decrease their willingness to act.

Since the emergence of the School Strike 4 Climate movement led by teen activist Greta Thunberg and young people around the world, I've become interested in age differences regarding climate change concern and action.

There has been some discussion about a "climate change generation gap", with some scholars and commentators suggesting that young people are more concerned about addressing climate change than older people.

We're currently completing a manuscript testing whether this is indeed the case. Using nine waves of data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study and over 16,000 people, we've found that belief in climate change has increased between 2009 and 2017, across all ages.

US President Donald Trump has rolled back US clean energy initiatives, withdrawn his country from the Paris Agreement - and even questioned the science of climate change. Photo / AP
US President Donald Trump has rolled back US clean energy initiatives, withdrawn his country from the Paris Agreement - and even questioned the science of climate change. Photo / AP

We need collective action to address climate change, so this finding indicating that Kiwis of all ages are increasingly aware of climate change is very positive.

Yet polling data has pointed to a sense of gloom among Kiwis, or pessimism that the worst impacts of climate change will not be averted in time. There also doesn't appear to be much faith that New Zealand will meet its climate targets. Why do you feel this is?

I feel this is a reaction of the very slow actions taken by our leaders. The Paris Agreement was a historical event, but countries are not taking enough action to meet the set targets.

The current Government is showing strong signs of faster and tough actions, including bans of all new offshore oil exploration and the Zero Carbon Bill.

Do you think most Kiwis really back bold action - despite what other countries are doing - as has been shown by some poll results?

Beyond being aware of climate change, our data also shows that most New Zealanders see having a clean-and-green attitude as foundational to our national identity.

I'm confident that most New Zealanders want, and would thoroughly support, bold actions to address climate change.

Is focusing too much on the disastrous potential impacts of climate change counterproductive? Does it risk turning people off lowering emissions and foster a sense of hopelessness? Or do people need to know what future we might be creating for coming generations?

Well, in one study with undergraduate students from Canada, we found that environmental concern predicted pro-environmental behaviours more strongly when sense of helplessness was low, suggesting that sense of hopelessness and helplessness might act as barriers for climate action.

"I'm confident that most New Zealanders want, and would thoroughly support, bold actions to address climate change," Associate Professor Taciano Milfont says. Photo / Supplied

Yet, in a 2009 article articulating climate activism, Adam Sacks argues that "the sooner we embrace the truth [about the state of the climate and its consequences], the sooner we can begin the real work".

Although psychologically taxing and potentially immobilising, we must communicate the urgency of climate change.

What are some of the other promising things you've seen come out of your research?

I'm very enthusiastic about the School Strike 4 Climate movement, which might create an important momentum for action.

It's also very positive to see that Victoria University of Wellington is endorsing the next strike on Friday, September 27, and encouraging its staff and students to take part.

I think we might have achieved a tipping point regarding public support for climate action - and we know from psychological research that social norms are very powerful in influencing our behaviours.

Kiwis and climate change

86%:

Expect more frequent and extreme storms.

79%: Think climate change is important - up from 72 per cent last year.

69%: Have become more concerned over the past few years.

67%:& Are prepared to lower their emissions.

41%: Think New Zealand's approach is on the right track.

41%: Think insurers should increase premiums for homes and businesses that face more risk.

Source: IAG-Ipsos poll 2019
This story is part of the Herald's contribution to Covering Climate Now, an international campaign by more than 170 media organisations to draw attention to the issue of climate change ahead of a United Nations summit on September 23. To read more of our coverage go to nzherald.co.nz/climate