This week the Herald is again taking part in Covering Climate Now, a global news media initiative highlighting the need for action against climate change. Amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, the existential threat of climate change remains just as real and pressing. So what can we do that we aren't already? And is it really fair to put the challenge on our own shoulders? Science reporter Jamie Morton asked Victoria University climate scientist Professor James Renwick (JR); University of Auckland psychologist Professor Niki Harre (NH); Oil Change International senior campaigner David Tong (DT); University of Canterbury political scientist Professor Bronwyn Hayward (BH); climate scientist Professor Jim Salinger (JS); and University of Auckland epidemiologist and public health researcher Professor Alistair Woodward (AW).
What are the simplest and quickest ways we can reduce our own emissions?
• JR: It depends on people's situation, so there's no one size fits all answer to this question.
Whatever is easiest to reduce your use of energy and goods will be the best for you. For many people, it would be to drive less and use more public transport and active transport, like walking and cycling.
Flying less is a big win for emissions reductions, if you do tend to fly frequently. It's something we could all do, but how easy it is depends on your circumstances. If you work for an international company and are expected to show up regularly at offices overseas, or if you have family overseas that you wish to visit regularly, then it isn't so easy to drop the flying.
But, we're finding right now that on-line meetings and conversations are very possible, so the need for travel is perhaps decreasing. For many people, I think a year without flying would be very achievable.
Otherwise, just consuming less and being thoughtful about what you buy can be valuable.
Aim to make goods like clothes and home appliances last, buy second-hand, and repair rather than replace.
Buy food that's sourced as locally as possible – or from New Zealand, rather than overseas fruit. If you use a lot of energy to heat your home and you are in a position to make changes, have your house better insulated, and install solar panels to power your home.
• AW: The opportunities will differ from one person to another. Those who fly a good deal for work, for instance, will find on any carbon audit that aviation is far and away the biggest source of emissions.
And modest reductions in flying will be the easiest way of making a substantial difference. In other situations, dietary choices may stand out as the easiest and quickest changes.
Reducing the amount of meat, especially from ruminants, and cutting dairy, are likely to be health improving as well as carbon saving.
Greener commuting is an easy option for some – for many trips, a bike will get you places in the city more quickly and reliably than a private car, and make you happier and healthier into the bargain.
Will the lockdown encourage more of a work-from-home ethos in New Zealand - and thus lower travel emissions?
• JR: I think it is really causing all of us to think about how we live and why we do what we do.
Life will go back towards "normal" once the pandemic is over, but I expect a significant number of people, and businesses, will re-evaluate how they operate and change their habits over the longer term.
More working from home, and more creative approaches to interacting with others, will be good news for emissions.
Does higher awareness of climate change equal action?
• JS: There is certainly growing public recognition of the climate challenge.
Many think of climate change risks - and thus of the benefits of mitigating them - as both considerably uncertain and also as being mostly in the future and geographically distant, all factors that lead people to discount them.
The costs of mitigation, on the other hand, will be incurred with certainty in the present or near future.
There is significant variability in people's reactions to climate risks, much of which is mediated by cultural values and beliefs.
However, the example of our younger cohorts and pressure on the older cohorts is starting to galvanise some action.
• BH: Growing public awareness is influencing action and renewed media coverage has made a huge difference to that.
But it's not quite as simple as just informing people about climate change and waiting for them to act.
Before Covid-19 filled our immediate headspace, a range of polls were showing widespread public acceptance climate change is something happening now and something that we can already see.
However, a lot of people can't easily act on that knowledge because they are locked into high-carbon lifestyles, making change hard.
Maybe you don't have access to regular, efficient, and affordable or safe public transport, so you have to rely on a car to get to work - even though you know shifting to low-carbon transport is a change we all need to make.
This lifestyle lock-in explains why we also need to make changes at a city or national level as well as at an individual level.
• NH: I think awareness is critical to action, but it isn't a linear relationship. As general awareness increases, some people start to demonstrate new practices based on that awareness, others copy these practices, and then legislation follows.
[The ban of] plastic bags is the obvious example, some people started using cloth bags, others copied and eventually the law followed.
Cycling and eating less meat are other examples where most people doing these practices are copying others – in a good way.
Action tends to lag behind awareness however, as people rarely change what they do if it makes their lives more difficult and complicated – even if they feel bad about their current behaviour.
• AW: There isn't a one-to-one connection between awareness and action, and sometimes it is even the other way round.
If people adopt green behaviours for incidental reasons, they are more likely to tune into climate change and support action generally. But I am an optimist.
Events such as the Black Summer bushfires in Australia are sticking in people's minds. Climate change is not a remote possibility – it is taking shape in front of us, every year.
On its own, I don't think the awareness is enough to change behaviours substantially. But greater public awareness does give social licence to governments, I reckon, to do some serious nudging.
This might take the form of carbon pricing, green city planning at scale, incentives for diverse, low carbon agriculture.
The bicycle is a good metaphor – make it available, make it safe and easy, give people a chance to try it, provide an economic reward, and presto, there is action.
• DT: Awareness can drive action, but awareness 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.
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.
What's more important out of individual action or advocating decision-makers and polluters for change?
• BH: I have to argue we need both. We need individuals who understand the problem and can pressure governments and businesses as shareholders, voters, citizens, to make far reaching changes - and we need those institutions to step up and change.
I strongly disagree with the disempowering narrative of despair that it's all the fault of one per cent of the world of high net worth individuals or a few firms, and there is nothing anyone can do.
This is a cop-out, and in the global North it is unethical too. In my work and research with children and young people, I argue that the last 40 years of what we often call neo-liberalism, the emphasis on individual action, and market choices in public life, has placed too heavy a burden on very young citizens.
They now often feel intensely personally responsible to make changes and quite despairing if they can't see a way to effect long-term change or live up to impossibly high standards.
• NH: I'd argue they are inseparable. I've also never met anyone who is politically involved who doesn't also try and make changes in their daily life.
People need to feel at least some degree of alignment within themselves, and besides which you become much more credible politically if you practise what you preach.
Also, only a few people are political beings in the sense you mean – most people just want to get on with their lives. If they do that with a bit more eco-consciousness we start to see the shifts that help make the big business and politicians feel brave enough to put in place the really big changes.
• DT: 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, but we need to make sure we don't guilt-trip people or shift blame onto individuals. That doesn't work, and it's just not fair.
Eating less or no animal products, flying less, and switching from private cars to public or active transport modes can all significantly cut your emissions - but there's no one magic bullet, and no one size fits all answer.
Personally, I found it pretty easy to give up eating animal products - and that gets easier every year. For cultural, health or economic reasons, some other people won't find that so easy.
More than a third of global emissions since 1965 can be traced to just the 20 biggest fossil fuel companies. Almost 70 per cent of global emissions can be tied to just 100 companies. In that context, it's totally backwards to shift responsibility to individual consumers.
Stopping the climate crisis demands economic transformation. Together, we can make that transformation possible.
It's here where we have the most power, not our lifestyle or purchasing decisions. It was people - and especially tangata whenua - who secured the ban on offshore oil and gas.
It was young New Zealanders who came up with the idea of the Zero Carbon Act and who pushed and pushed until 119 MPs voted for it.
Ultimately, even the Paris Agreement itself is proof of the power people have in pushing decision-makers. In Paris, I saw people from the Pacific shake the world.
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.
• AW: The big changes will come at higher levels, that is true. I like Niki Harre's advice "model, speak up, and vote". The voting bit is most important.
But personal action, setting examples, and socialising the debate by speaking and questioning, is an important foundation for political change, in my view.
• JR: Things we as individuals can do to reduce our carbon footprint are always worthwhile.
But, the society we live in and the economy we operate in has been defined by governments and big businesses.
We need change at that level as well, to change the direction of the overall economy. Governments can make it easier for each of us to be "green", through things like subsidies for electric vehicles, improving public transport, sending price signals to business to encourage lower-carbon manufacturing.
Those things are ultimately more important than our own individual actions, since we have to change the way the whole of the global economy operates, so advocating for change at the government level can ultimately lead to greater impact on climate change than we would see from individual actions.