We are in awe of the discoveries in outer space but sceptical about climate change, with good reason.

Science is amazing. Nine years ago, it sent a little spacecraft on a trip to the edge of our solar system, the edge of our consciousness, really. We can see in the night sky that there is vastly more to the universe, but it's the planets we like to find.

Venus in the early evening, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn possibly. The rest are away out there at distances I hadn't realised until the Herald presented them graphically this week. Saturn is nearly 10 times further from the sun than we are, and Uranus is more than twice as far again. Pluto is twice as far as Uranus, nearly 40 times further from the sun than us, as far as I can imagine.

That little spacecraft has been travelling at 50,000km every hour - the fastest one has flown - for nine years to hurtle past Pluto on Wednesday and send back pictures.

It passed so close, I heard a scientist say, that were it passing Earth, "we would have seen your house".


If that was amazing, so was the knowledge that scientists drew instantly from a landscape so far away. Pluto and its companion, Charon, had mountains, canyons, a geology that might have been formed by tectonic forces, like ours, or rock-hard ice. Water normally raises the possibility of organic life but surely not out there, in the unimaginable cold.

It's exciting to await what scientists might learn from all the data transmitted by New Horizons before it flew on, into a belt of asteroids that also orbits the sun.

Whatever science says about Pluto's physical and chemical environment we will believe without doubt. So why don't we entirely accept what science says about subjects closer to home?

When nutritionists go on about obesity and suggest taxes on fat, salt, sugar, why don't we elect government that will do it? When climate scientists tells us greenhouse gases are warming the atmosphere to a catastrophic degree why don't we believe it enough to demand remedies?

A psychologist grappled with this question in the Herald on Thursday. Marc Wilson, associate dean of psychology at Victoria University, estimated that only 50 to 60 per cent of New Zealanders believe climate change is real and human industry has been a cause of it.

I suspect the remaining 40 to 50 per cent do accept what the scientists say but can't see how it could be catastrophic. I'm with them.

Nevertheless, the psychology is interesting. Wilson said scepticism was found in people at all levels of wealth and education to much the same degree, but there was a marked difference between the sexes. Women were about three times more likely than men to accept the scientific consensus.

The same was true of many social and human rights issues, including animal rights, he said.


Social scientists called these issues "hierarchy attenuating", which meant they "involve challenging the implicit, and sometimes explicit, idea that the world should be organised with important things at the top and less important things at the bottom". In other words, climate change might not be as important as other things but some people, especially women, don't make decisions that way.

He said it, not me. I find it hard to believe anybody lacks a mental hierarchy of values that tells them which is more important, the environment or the economy for example, on any given issue. But social science says they do and I should accept it. It helps explain Metiria Turei, but not what she would do if she had to make government decisions. Most decisions mean trading something of value for something of more value, and I seriously doubt that only 40 to 50 per cent of us think this way.

Climate change went well down the world's agenda after the global financial crisis because economic problems were more important. The subject is coming back now as governments prepare for a December conference in Paris that will attempt to set new targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. A capped emissions market is an efficient precaution. I think New Zealand could bear a cap more respectable than the Government plans to take to Paris.

But if the worst that can happen is a rise of a metre in sea levels and a few degrees in mean temperatures over a century, I think we'll cope.

The climate does seem to be changing. Auckland's past two summers have been unusually long and lovely, this winter is unusually cold. Droughts and floods we can handle.

Science says otherwise, but not the sort of science that sends a probe to Pluto. Climate science is on a political mission.

That may be more exciting, more lucrative possibly, but I find all sciences more credible when their mission is the endless one into the unknown.