Waikato University researchers have begun a new study that will canvas Kiwis on how New Zealand can prepare for climate change.
The two-year research project - supported with a $270,000 research grant from the Deep South National Science Challenge - will also explore how people's own cultural values shape and influence their adaptation strategies.
The project will include citizen panels with a range of business and community groups across the country, including farmers, small-to-medium business owners, tourism operators, iwi and hapu groups, and residents living in coastal or low-lying areas. Science reporter Jamie Morton talked to two of four lead researchers of the study, Professors Debashish Munshi and Priya Kurian, about what Kiwis think of climate change.

Recent research has shown that growing numbers of Kiwis believe climate change is real and human-driven. But large parts of the population still question the scientific consensus: and as recently as 2015 only half of those polled by Motu Research agreed they were certain that climate change was happening, 24 per cent were undecided and 28 per cent disagreed. Also, just over half agreed there was a scientific consensus on climate change. Are you worried that many New Zealanders are still refusing to accept climate change?

The good news, as you point out, is that more and more Kiwis are accepting that human-induced climate change is real.

The research shows that perceptions are shifting - and what is more important is that there is scope to deepen and broaden that shift. Helping make that happen is the focus of our project.

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We are concerned but not really surprised that there is still a significant number of people who don't accept climate change.

We know from teaching about climate change that for a majority of our students, it was only when they got the chance to read and reflect about climate change that it became "real".

For many people, who are busy enough with more immediate commitments, climate change appears to be, at best, part of the background noise.

Creating opportunities for people to learn how climate change does have an impact on their lives is therefore really important.

It is also worth noting that we can't wait for a significant majority of the public to "believe" in climate change for action to take place.

There is scientific consensus that climate change is happening and there is no time to lose at all in stepping up public engagement on preparing people to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Your project has a large cultural component and you note there's strong interest from Maori in climate action. The Mataatua District Maori Council has also just brought a second lawsuit against the Government on it. How can cultural values drive greater awareness or action on climate change - and how can climate advocates such as yourself harness this?

Flooding in Edgecumbe earlier this year. Scientists say climate change will bring more intense extreme weather events. Photo / File
Flooding in Edgecumbe earlier this year. Scientists say climate change will bring more intense extreme weather events. Photo / File

Yes, culture is indeed central to our project.

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Conflicting cultural perspectives on the meaning of climate change and competing understandings of the implications of climate change are challenges that deepen uncertainties in decision-making processes.

When we use the word "culture", we don't necessarily equate it with "ethnicity".

For us, culture is an expression of certain values and meanings.

These meanings and values influence the way different groups behave and communicate.

So while horticulturists, dairy farmers, tourism operators, small and medium business owners and workers, or impoverished communities all face specific challenges in dealing with climate change, they have disparate views on how to respond to it.

Each of these is a separate cultural group with distinct sub-cultures within them.

Our project has a special emphasis on engaging with Maori to address potential impacts of climate change on tikanga as well as on people's relationships with land, food, and ways of life.

We believe that an understanding of cultural values can enhance public engagement processes, which, in turn, can lead to sustainability-based policy outcomes.

If we can incorporate culturally appropriate tools that are co-designed by target groups through an engagement process, we believe it will facilitate a better uptake of science-based climate adaptation strategies by different groups of people.

For us, as researchers and climate action advocates, centring culture in public engagement on climate adaptation is crucial. It is especially exciting as it is a fresh new approach.

Research has suggested some values have been involved in the rejection of climate science. For example, studies have suggested that political affiliation and political ideology are the main predictors of climate-change belief - and self-reported conservatives showed low agreement levels in climate-change reality and its human causation. So how can we promote climate awareness to people who seem to be opposed to the concept on a deep-seated ideological level? Are there some people who are never going to agree?

Let's take the second part of your question first.

Yes, there are some people whose ideological beliefs mean that they are likely to remain climate deniers.

Such beliefs may include political conservatives who are staunch supporters of the current economic system as well as religious fundamentalists who may view the current state of the earth as reflecting god's will.

Drought will become more frequent under climate change. Photo / File
Drought will become more frequent under climate change. Photo / File

A counter question may be to ask whether we need everyone to believe in anthropogenic climate change before we act as a society?

We don't think so.

Firstly, as the realities of climate change - for example, increased frequency of extreme weather events and sea level rise - are experienced by people, those most affected, irrespective of belief in anthropogenic climate change, are most likely to be open to the need for climate adaptation.

Secondly, research from the US shows that there is a disconnect between climate change scepticism and climate mitigation behaviour, such as supporting the shift to renewable energies.

In other words, irrespective of beliefs, people may well support climate-friendly policies that also lead to jobs and economic security.

So, we need a multi-pronged approach to promoting understanding about the challenges of climate change and the necessary actions required for mitigation and adaptation.

Interestingly, one study showed most of its respondents were more concerned about the potential the effect of climate change on themselves (63 per cent) than on society (58 per cent). Is a big part of the battle therefore making climate change about the personal - and focusing the narrative on how it will affect themselves or their family rather than their country?

The personal connection is certainly important in helping people understand the significance and relevance of climate change.

Given the complexity of climate change - the scale of the problem and its vast social and economic implications - there is a danger that it can appear too abstract, too technical and too removed from the everyday realities of people.

So linking climate change to the personal may be useful in making it more concrete for many, which may make them more open and amenable to the need for fundamental changes.

It is hardly surprising that there is much greater awareness about climate change in poorer countries such as Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, Haiti, or the Philippines than in developed ones.

Alli Hewitt and Mike Joy take part in a march against climate change in Wellington, November 2015. Photo / File
Alli Hewitt and Mike Joy take part in a march against climate change in Wellington, November 2015. Photo / File

People in relatively impoverished areas physically feel the ravages of climatic changes and the resulting loss of the means of livelihood that they entail for individuals.

In richer parts of the world, individuals can delude themselves by believing it is somebody else's problem.

Yet, as we are beginning to see, climate impacts are creeping up on us.

Frequent storm surges are eroding our coastlines and flooding towns at the water's edge.

Just this week, two metres of coastline disappeared at Haumoana Beach in the Hawke's Bay as huge swells lashed beach-side homes and threatened access to Cape Kidnappers.

Up and down the coasts of both the North and the South Islands, homes are at risk.

Anything that happens on the coast will, of course, have a cascading effect elsewhere, especially if there is large-scale movement of people.

These changes thus are already beginning to reshape the narrative as climate change comes closer to home.

Is there also a problem that some people see climate change as too big - or feel that they won't be around when we see its most severe impacts?

Yes, some people do view climate change as too big an issue to tackle and, as we said in our response to the previous question, these people tend to gloss over it.

There are people - mistakenly, we might add - who think that climate change mitigation is beyond the scope of small, local, groups because that can only be done at a global level by large industrialised nations responsible for huge carbon emissions.

But there is now a much greater awareness that the world as we knew it is changing in front of our eyes.

Changing patterns of seasons are real.

While 2016 was the hottest year on record, some parts of the world such as Argentina and southwestern Australia experienced colder temperatures than usual.

In January this year, New Zealand experienced a major dumping of snow at the peak of the southern summer.

Even if mitigation seems too big, adaptation is a local issue and has to be dealt with by us all.

A recent paper by Motu as part of the Deep South National Science Challenge presents a clear picture of the challenges faced not only by the Government in New Zealand but also by homeowners, private insurers, and financial institutions.

No matter how big the issue is, each one of us has to face up to it.

Protesters march through the streets of Whanganui in November 2015. Photo / File
Protesters march through the streets of Whanganui in November 2015. Photo / File

In 2015, we saw Pope Francis encourage Catholics worldwide to be attentive to global climate change, something that was hugely influential. But at the same time we've seen US President Donald Trump, who has publicly called climate change a hoax, back out of the Paris Agreement. What impact can the actions of our leaders have on how we perceive climate change?

That's a very interesting question and it points to a nice study in contrast.

When Pope Francis issued his encyclical on climate change, it had an electrifying effect on the global discourse.

The most recent research on the effect of his championing of climate change action shows that in the US, it has had an impact on climate sceptics, more of whom were prepared to acknowledge that climate change was a moral issue and they were prepared to act on it.

In contrast, when President Trump backed out of the Paris Agreement, we saw an opposite impact.

Hundreds of cities, states and businesses, joined by numerous presidents and leaders of universities and colleges in the US responded by promising to meet the Paris Agreement emission targets.

Trump's action appears to have galvanised those committed to climate change mitigation, and is spurring climate activism not just in the US but elsewhere.

So clearly, leaders can have a significant impact on public perceptions of climate change, but this appears contingent on their ethical standing and the trust they invoke in the public.

You're going to be hosting a series of citizen panels with businesses and community groups around the country on how we can all better prepare for the future impacts of climate change. Have you targeted any particular sectors or communities in particular - and why are these important?

Every sector will bear the brunt of climate change - some are already in the firing line and others will be before long. We plan on engaging with a cross-section of the population and will especially seek to work with small and medium businesses, tourism operators, farmers, non-governmental organisations, relevant Maori groups, local councils, and youth organisations.

As mentioned earlier, all these sectors are vulnerable in different ways to a rapidly changing climate.

Climate change is expected to bring more intense storm surges to exposed coastal spots. Photo / File
Climate change is expected to bring more intense storm surges to exposed coastal spots. Photo / File

But they need to collaborate with each other to bring about a system change.

We want to redesign the future of risk management in New Zealand through our public engagement deliberations.

Finally, why is it so crucial that Kiwis make themselves aware of climate change and begin preparing for its impacts?

There is a general awareness of how vulnerable the Pacific Islands are to climate change.

Yet, there are many in New Zealand who don't seem to realise that this country too is a Pacific Island nation - actually a set of islands.

Two metres of coastline disappeared at Haumoana Beach in Hawke's Bay this week, as huge swells lashed beach-side homes and threatened access to Cape Kidnappers. Photo / File
Two metres of coastline disappeared at Haumoana Beach in Hawke's Bay this week, as huge swells lashed beach-side homes and threatened access to Cape Kidnappers. Photo / File

Sea levels are rising here and coastal areas are already under threat.

The country is already exposed to erratic weather patterns and increasing spells of droughts and floods.

The devastating floods that forced the evacuation of the entire town of Edgecumbe in the Bay of Plenty in May this year is just one of many red flags.

By the Ministry for the Environment's own reckoning, the country is moving headlong towards more episodes of flooding and higher average temperatures, both leading to infrastructure damage, stress on housing, and irreversible damage to biodiversity caused by the spread of pests and diseases.

The country's economic lifelines of dairy farming and tourism are most at risk as salt-water incursions, erosion, and degradation of the environment have the potential to change the landscape in unrecognisable ways.

This is not meant to create a dystopic vision.

On the contrary, this is a call to acknowledge that climate change is happening and for us to prepare to adapt to it through innovative and collective approaches so that we can leave an inhabitable land for future generations.

New Zealand and climate change

• Under present projections, the sea level around New Zealand is expected to rise between 30cm and 100cm this century, while temperatures could also increase by several degrees by 2100.

• Climate change would bring more floods (about two-thirds of Kiwis live in areas prone to flooding); make our freshwater problems worse and put more pressure on rivers and lakes; acidify our oceans; put even more species at risk and bring problems from the rest of the world.

• Climate change is also expected to result in more large storms compounding the effects of sea level rise.

• New Zealand, which reported a 23 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2014, has pledged to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels and 11 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.