Why we're ignoring climate change

by Susan Strongman / 03 December, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - climate

Illustration: Lee Smith-Gibbons / RNZ

It's a dark cloud hanging over our civilisation, but there's still a chance to act. So why do we all have our heads in the sand?

Sophie Moskowitz was unsure whether or not to have a baby. Mainly because she was worried about the future. Not in terms of money, housing, or stability - she and her partner are fortunate.

They have a family home and full-time jobs; Moskowitz is a teacher, her partner a butcher.

The 31-year-old's concern rested on what the future would be like in a world uncertain about the effects of climate change: "I think it is a very serious, immediate issue. I think about it every day, multiple times a day.

"It's something that I've talked about with a lot of my friends. The idea of … do you really want to be bringing a child into this world?"

It's a good question. What will the future be like for our kids? Yet, it's a question few of us ask ourselves with any frequency. How is it that we're going on living our normal lives when climate change is a dark cloud hanging over our civilisation?

With the current rate of warming, the global average temperature will reach 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by about 2040.

With that temperature increase, sea levels in New Zealand are projected to rise by about 30cm in the next 40 years and a warmer climate could mean the establishment of disease-spreading mosquito populations here.

Coral reefs will decline by 70 to 90 per cent, and extreme weather events like droughts, fires, storms and floods will increase in frequency. None of this can be stopped.

We can, however, limit warming to 1.5° according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But doing this will require an unprecedented change in the next decade. Governments, companies, industries and stakeholders need to act now, and they need people's support.

Yet here in New Zealand, we are among the highest per person greenhouse gas emitters in the world. Nearly half of our emissions come from agriculture, 17 per cent come from transport and 14 per cent come from the energy industry. Car ownership in New Zealand is the highest in the OECD. The most popular new vehicle here right now is the Ford Ranger ute, and for every electric car we bought last year, we bought 64 fossil fuel powered double cab utes. Many of us forego cycling, walking or using public transport, choosing to drive instead and fly without a second thought. Only a few of us avoid eating meat and dairy (some of us were even outraged when Air New Zealand introduced a fake meat burger), while in the meantime we complain about petrol prices, buy, sell and build coastal properties, continue to have children and Instagram our breakfast while parts of the world literally burn.

How are we not in a state of panic? Why are we not buying bicycles and electric cars in droves and going vegan overnight? Is it that old adage, ignorance is bliss? Is climate change a problem too large and abstract, its solutions too uncertain for us to know how to act? Do we think someone else will solve it for us? How long can we continue to avoid thinking about the impact on the planet of every single decision we make?

Artist Joshua Baldwin* lives and works in a large studio, in a small North Island city. We're sitting on a too-soft couch in front of an open window. Heavy rain is forming shallow puddles in the asphalt car park outside, and somewhere a clock is chiming. There's a PlayStation on the floor and the room smells like cigarettes. Baldwin, 41, who wants to remain anonymous, says he doesn't think about climate change, though he is "aware of the idea of it."

I ask if he thinks it's real. "Don't know," he says. Why not? "I don't know if anything is real." But what about the storms and floods and droughts and wildfires? "I don't believe climate change is the cause. There's always gonna be storms and fires. Those things have happened forever… I suppose humans have an effect. Everything has an effect on the planet though, doesn't it? We may ruin it, who knows? But I think if it becomes a real problem, we'll fix it. Science will save us."

But Baldwin doesn't necessarily believe the scientists who say climate change is caused by humans? "I don't know what to believe."

He says he hasn't read much about climate change. So is he a denier? "No." Is he apathetic? "Yeah." He's not overly concerned about the impact of climate change on people, including himself, it seems, ("Who cares if you're not there anymore?") so he doesn't think about his carbon footprint. Does Baldwin care about anything? "Whales."

He also gets annoyed about excessive plastic packaging. Why? "Because it seems so wasteful. Bringing more shit into the world that isn't necessary." What does he think the effect of bringing more shit into the world is? "A more dirty place. I don't like seeing rubbish on the beach." What about bringing more stuff into the world via fossil fuel extraction, then? "Everything comes from somewhere. Everything comes from nature. On this planet, it already existed. We're just using it."

Baldwin's attitude might seem hypocritical. But even those of us who think about climate change every day are still willing to forget about it when we buy petrol-fuelled cars and book air travel.

William Morrison's Rangitikei sheep and beef farm has been in his family since 1864. It's a fairly big business; four owner-directors manage 1430ha of mostly hill country. Financially speaking, some years are better than others, and a good year is often dictated by the weather.

Morrison knows better than most that climate change is real - he sees it in the years when spring doesn't arrive, and in the droughts and the downpours that wreak havoc on his land. He's also aware of the fact that the agriculture sector is New Zealand's biggest greenhouse gas emitter.

Sheep and beef farmer William Morrison. Photo / John Cowpland

But climate change doesn't rule every decision Morrison makes, and it doesn't keep him awake at night. For him, it's just not that salient. It's one of the many challenges he faces on a daily basis - keeping his waterways clean, protecting the native biodiversity on his land, feeding his animals, paying his mortgage.

Morrison says he struggles to know what to do to combat climate change - a problem he sees as being large, complex, multifaceted and "intangible". "There's not a series of nice solutions... It's not as easy and as clear as that."

Ultimately, it's the collective impact of individuals' behaviour that drives climate change - and will drive mitigation too. But if people feel powerless as individuals to do so, research shows they are less likely to take action. Morrison is not the only person who struggles to see an easy path towards reducing his individual carbon footprint to help mitigate climate change. In 2014, a poll of New Zealanders by Horizon Research found less than half of participants thought their individual actions could make a difference to climate change. A more recent Horizon survey found that although 64 per cent of adults nationwide believe climate change is a problem, 32 per cent of all respondents would only act to mitigate it if it benefited them personally.

So how do we change this? Or can we work around the apathy?

Motu policy fellow Catherine Leining says systems need to change so people can easily make low-emission choices in their daily lives. "We really need both - that personal commitment to change and also adjusting the system to make it easier for individuals to change." If there are endless places to charge an electric car, then it will be much easier to choose to drive one. Leining says that more ambitious emission pricing under the country's emissions trading scheme (NZ ETS) will automatically help us make better choices. It will add to the cost of higher-emission goods and services and make climate-friendly alternatives more attractive to both consumers and producers.

Kaeden Watts (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) believes there is no issue more urgent or needing more attention than climate change, and as an individual, his voice is his most powerful tool. But climate change is not always an easy thing to talk about, especially with older people whose lifestyles may need to change dramatically. "It's a long conversation and it definitely doesn't click at once... It's two different generations' priorities clashing. Trying to convince them that their priorities might be putting them and us in danger is a big attack. But if we talk about it the right way and work through as a collective, a lot of that tension starts to go away."

Although the surveys tell us that people who think like 20-year-old Watts are an exception to the rule, there is hope that his generation is more conscious. People who deny human-induced climate change tend to be conservative white males, while those who believe climate change is human-induced tend to be younger, female, educated, politically liberal, belong to minority groups and believe they are able to influence environmental outcomes. And though some people choose not to have children, due to the environmental consequences of overpopulation, parents may have a stronger motivation to care about the planet's future, for the sake of their offspring. After all, a child born today could still be alive in 2100.

"It's important to keep in perspective that people, civilisations have probably always got some cloud hanging over them. This happens to be our cloud." I'm talking to Niki Harré, associate dean of sustainability at the University of Auckland's school of psychology, and author of Psychology for a Better World - working with people to save the planet. Harré forgoes the elevator, taking the stairs to her second-floor office on a sunny Friday afternoon.

"I always say to people 'you've still got to live'. It's not hard to understand how people still go about the business of living - including having children - under conditions of uncertainty, because that's what life is. If you look at human cultures over time, people just don't give up. It seems like we've got this optimism, this capacity to live, even when our lives are threatened."

Niki Harré, associate dean of sustainability at the University of Auckland’s school of psychology. Photo: RNZ / Susan Strongman

Harré cycles to work from her Pt Chevalier home each day, gets her coffee in a reusable cup, avoids driving, and agonises over the clothes she wears. She takes her own bags to the supermarket, and wouldn't dream of buying bottled water. She describes herself as an advocate for "stringent, immediate and radical action on climate change," yet earlier this month she flew to Christchurch and back for a day. "That to me is hypocritical," she says. "We're all on a continuum of hypocrisy."

Harré says people don't throw everything they have at mitigating climate change, because it's not necessarily salient to them; it's just one story among many - poverty, the housing crisis, gender and racial discrimination, domestic violence. "The general person doesn't have a clear way of knowing which are the real serious issues."

There's also the way that the message of climate change is being presented to us. If we are made to feel afraid of the impacts it will have on our way of life, we are likely to switch off, withdraw, and self-protect, especially if those impacts seem remote and out of our control.

In a recent interview with the Observer about the new BBC Dynasties documentary series, David Attenborough questioned how often he could sound the alarm about the impacts of climate change, habitat loss and pollution before people would turn off the television.

In her 2015 paper on attitudes towards climate change, Catherine Leining wrote that fear can trigger adherence to the status quo, rather than taking new risks. "When people feel overwhelmed by negative emotions and incapable of addressing their cause, it is tempting to escape from those feelings through avoidance, denial, rationalisation, blaming and fatalism."

To explain this thinking, Harré uses the example of a coastal homeowner. "Imagine if somebody said to you, 'In 10 years, your house is going to be flooded with sea level rise, but people don't know this yet, so if you can get out tomorrow and sell it, you'll be ok.' I reckon 99 per cent of people would sell their house. That's a solution for them because it protects them, but it's not a solution for anyone else. When people are fearful, but they have the capacity to look after themselves as an individual, that's what they do."

During our interview, after Joshua Baldwin has said he doesn't see climate change as a huge threat, he asks me to explain what a 1.5°C temperature increase could mean. I tell him about the coral reefs, the ocean acidification, the risk of vector-borne diseases, more extreme weather events and that some whales may die.

"That's all pretty bad," he says. But you don't think about it, do you? "I am now."

A day after our interview, I send him a message, asking if he's still thinking about it. "Yeah a little," he replies. "Trying not to though."

Sophie Moskowitz says having her daughter Margot Nixon is a way of having hope for the future. Photo / Susan Strongman
In a brick, two bedroom unit in Mt Albert,16-month-old Margot Nixon is sitting on the floor, her attention focused on a cardboard egg carton.

On a nearby shelf, a blue container holding four wooden pegs and an empty 'Eclipse' mint tin sits in a wicker basket beside a mason jar lid and half a coconut shell.

These are her favourite toys at the moment. Her parents avoid buying her (and themselves) anything unnecessary - especially plastic. While we chat, Sophie Moskowitz slides a white hair clip into Margot's hair, which her daughter immediately pulls out. Moskowitz patiently takes the clip and tries again. This tiny battle goes back and forth for a while.

Moskowitz decided it was okay to bring a child into this world after all.

"I think you can look at it from a selfish point of view and want to have a child no matter what and get your tunnel vision on - which I probably did to a certain extent, but tried to justify it.

For me, I've always felt like, going forward, we're still going to need people making positive changes. Hopefully, we can raise Margot to be aware and capable of making positive changes. It's a way of having hope about the future."

*Joshua Baldwin, not his real name, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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