We've become familiar, perhaps too much so, with scientists' increasingly ominous warnings about climate change.

But a United Nations report released this week, running to hundreds of pages of fresh scientific data and findings, still should have delivered a shock.


Stopping global warming from rising past 1.5C – as it was tracking to at some point between 2030 and 2052 – would spare up to 10 million people, not to mention tens of thousands of species, some of the worst impacts that a 2C scenario would.

Turning around the oil tanker that is the world's emissions would demand "unprecedented effort" – we'd need to halve what we currently pump into the atmosphere, and within just 12 years.

One respected New Zealand scientist said that simply wasn't realistic, given the lack of infrastructure and carbon removal capability needed right now.

All the same, doing nothing wasn't an option.

At the current rate, the planet is warming by 0.2C each decade.

We've already polluted enough to push sea levels half a metre higher by the end of the century - that now can't be avoided.

But allowing the trajectory to climb on its path toward 3C and beyond would mean our descendants inherit a hell of wildfires, killer heatwaves, extreme drought and storms, dead coral reefs, acidified oceans, food and water scarcity, and all of the war, famine and instability that came with it.

In the face of this, many of us gaze at climate change as a mega-problem simply too big to solve.


This wasn't to say we didn't want our leaders to step up – a recent IAG-commissioned poll found most Kiwis thought we should act, even if other countries failed to.

But the same survey showed few thought the world would do what was needed to avert the catastrophe of a climate at least 3C warmer.

Scientists rightly call climate change a "wicked problem", as science itself couldn't overcome it.

It is up to all of us - but effecting change isn't easy.

The media 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.

On top of that is the oft-made argument that New Zealand's role is but a drop in the rising ocean.

It's true we are responsible for only 0.17 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Compare that, we're constantly reminded, with the 29.5 per cent that China contributes, or the 14.3 per cent from the United States, whose President, an on-the-record climate denier, barely acknowledged this week's report.

It is also true, however, that small countries like ours are collectively the third-largest emitter in the world.

As Forest & Bird's Adelia Hallett has pointed out: "No one ever says we're too small to make a difference on the rugby field, or the battlefield, or on international poverty or on nuclear policies."

Far from being a clean and green leader, New Zealand embarrassingly had one of the highest per capita rates of emissions in the world – even without taking agricultural emissions into account.

"So we have a moral obligation, as well as a practical one, to pull our weight."

The question, then, is what can each of us do?

Individual actions, like changing how we travel, how we eat, and how we use electricity really do matter.

A decade ago, WWF-New Zealand worked with Landcare Research to see what would happen if every Kiwi didn't drive one day a week, switched off their appliances at the wall, and switched to low-energy lightbulbs.

These three simple actions were enough to save 386,500 tonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases per year – or around a twentieth of New Zealand's total emissions.

For those of us unable to walk, bike or take public transport to work, or afford a low carbon car, simply driving smoothly, avoiding traffic jams and ensuring tyres are properly inflated could make a difference.

Rather than flying to an overseas conference, a Skype call from the dining room table is much more comfortable than 12 hours in cattle class – itself a greener option than business class if making the trip is essential.

Likewise, a family holiday in Disneyland could be replaced with a cash-saving stay-cation.

Not eating too much red meat is good for the planet, as well as our bodies.

A scientific review published this year found a shift from high meat to more plant-based diets would boost sustainability - meat production resulted in more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy - while slashing global mortality rates by up to 10 per cent.

If there was anything more important than how we changed our lifestyles, WWF-New Zealand's David Tong said, it was how we used our voices.

"People like you and me can use our voices to help shift businesses, politicians, and communities."

Victoria University of Wellington climate scientist Professor James Renwick couldn't echo that point more strongly.

"Make sure everyone you know understands the situation. Then, talk to your political and business leaders.

"Let them know that you are really concerned and want to see action at the highest levels.

"Political and social change comes from this kind of grassroots pressure."

At the very least, we could challenge mates on Facebook, or around the barbecue.

While we might be frogs in climate change's pot, there is still time to turn the burner down.