Climate change presents an existential threat - and a challenge that's going to require transformative action by governments and polluting industries across the globe. What actions can we, as individuals take? In the final of a series of extracts from his contribution to the upcoming book Climate Aotearoa: What's happening and what we can do about it, edited by former prime minister Helen Clark, Herald science reporter Jamie Morton asks whether framing the problem as a personal one shifts the blame from our biggest polluters.
By focusing too much on individual action, do we risk shifting the blame from those bigger polluters?
Climate change campaigner David Tong says the choices we make as people and consumers are shaped by the fundamental economic and political structures we live in, and those structures still don't fully factor in the price of carbon.
That means that individual lifestyle or purchasing impacts are limited.
There are many ways people can lower their impacts, he argues, but we need to make sure we don't guilt-trip them or shift blame onto individuals.
After all, more than a third of global emissions since 1965 can be traced to just the 20 biggest fossil-fuel companies, and almost 70 per cent of global emissions can be tied to just 100 companies.
That's not to say that legitimate carbon-cutting efforts aren't being made by big corporates here — notably with the newly launched Climate Leaders Coalition with its heavyweight members like Fonterra, Z Energy and The Warehouse Group — or overseas.
Coca-Cola is trying to shrink its carbon footprint by a quarter within the next five years, the same timeframe within which McDonald's also aims to source all its packaging from recycled materials, and beauty giant L'Oréal wants to become carbon-neutral.
But should the same pressure be heaped on individual consumers?
Tong felt that individual people have the most power not in lifestyle or purchasing decisions, but in compelling governments and companies to act.
It was people — and especially tangata whenua — who secured the ban on offshore oil and gas exploration, and it was young Kiwis who came up with the idea of the Zero Carbon Act, and who pushed until 119 MPs voted for it.
"Ultimately, even the Paris Agreement itself is proof of the power people have in pushing decision-makers," Tong said.
"Perhaps the most important thing about individual action is that it makes us more compelling advocates for systemic change.
"Research shows that people trust calls for climate action and justice more when the person making the call is walking the talk."
So, how can people effect change?
Aside from voting carefully and joining protests when they happen, Tong recommends using social media to apply direct pressure, emailing and phoning local MPs and district councillors, and getting involved with advocacy volunteer groups.
"And volunteering for a group like a non-government organisation doesn't have to come with a scary, psychological barrier," he said.
"These groups generally just believe in good things and want to make them happen."
It's worth, too, noting another psychological barrier we all need to get past.
Scientists rightly call climate change a "wicked problem", as science itself can't overcome it — especially when we begin normalising climate conditions we shouldn't be normalising.
In one fascinating study, a group of US researchers illustrated this danger by quantifying a timeless and universal pastime — talking about the weather — using an analysis of posts on Twitter.
They sampled 2.18 billion geolocated tweets created between March 2014 and November 2016, to determine what kind of temperatures generated the most posts about weather.
They found that people often tweet when temperatures are unusual for a particular place and time of year — a particularly warm March or unexpectedly freezing winter, for example.
However, if the same weather persisted year after year, it generated less comment on Twitter, indicating that people began to view it as normal in a relatively short amount of time.
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This phenomenon, the authors noted, was a classic case of the boiling frog metaphor.
If a frog jumps into a pot of boiling-hot water, it immediately hops out.
If, however, the water in the pot is slowly warmed to a boiling temperature while the frog is in it, it doesn't hop out, and is eventually cooked.
A similar problem is climate apathy.
Journalists may have largely learned to ignore the misguided ramblings of cranks who reject climate science, but the apocalyptic narratives that often colour our reporting can only deepen that public sense of hopelessness.
Because the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten our fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair, people often respond by discounting the evidence, or by simply saying that the problem is too big.
A case in point is the poll mentioned above, indicating that most Kiwis feel we won't be able to avert catastrophe.
Research suggests that if the media — and scientists — avoid doomsday narratives and focus on positive messages, people will not only be more receptive of the evidence, but will also be more willing to reduce their carbon footprint.
And we can indeed say this: Kiwis now overwhelmingly accept that evidence, and recognise the threat.
But, as Tong notes, while awareness can drive action, it doesn't automatically lead to action.
"People change their behaviour when they see a problem, and see how they can be part of fixing it," he said.
"It's not enough to show people that we face a climate crisis. We also need to build a new narrative of how we can solve this crisis together."
• Text extracted from Climate Aotearoa: What's happening and what we can do about it, a new book from a range of leading New Zealand climate scientists and commentators, edited by Helen Clark. Published by Allen & Unwin NZ. RRP$36.99. Available in stores from Monday, April 19