With unprecedented global warming, wealth disparities and peak everything, there is no question that we need to act now to meet the power, heating and transportation needs of growing populations, and to do so sustainably, equitably and democratically. What are the obstacles? What are the possible solutions? How do we build resilient communities? Maria Armoudian discusses these questions with Steve Matthewman, Prue Taylor, Julie MacArthur, and Manuel Vallee.

This panel discussion was held at the University of Auckland.

Steve Matthewman is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in the sociology of energy and disasters and is the author of Disasters, Risks and Revelation: Making Sense of our Times.

Julie MacArthur is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in environmental politics and policy and is the author of Empowering Electricity Cooperatives: Sustainability and Power Sector Reform in Canada.

Prue Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental and Planning Law at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in environmental law and is the author of An Ecological Approach to International Law: Responding to Challenges of Climate Change.

Manuel Vallee is a Lecturer in Environmental Sociology at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in environmental sociology and is the co-author of Resilience, Environmental Justice and the City.




Discussion Transcript 

Let’s start with the problem itself – what is the big picture in terms of climate, energy, disaster and resilience?

Steve Matthewman: Quite clearly the evidence is incontrovertible that we are living in an era in which disasters are increasing in scale, scope, frequency, cost and severity, and I don’t think anyone is going to deny that. So we are faced with massive problems, and we’ve also been talking about maybe moving out of the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene. This will take us into historically uncharted territory that as a species we are now having a geological impact on the planet. So I think the problems are massive, and they’re real. And some of the problem is that people in political power are denying that those problems are there or real, and so we’ve got a lot of climate change denial. However, even if you wanted to deny climate change, and I think that’s at the forefront of considerations, what’s driving that in the main is fossil fuel usage. Fossil fuels are non-renewable, and they pollute when they’re used. And there’s no one denying that even if they want to deny climate change. So my interest is very similar to Julie’s, that we’re interested in getting to the heart of the problem as we see it, which is transitioning from fossil fuels to an economy based on renewables.

Julie MacArthur: Last year, 2016 was the hottest year on record since record-keeping began, by 1.3 degrees hotter. And this keeps happening year after year. So I keep reading these articles about how to deal with the news and not become depressed. We have a global scale collective action problem basically, where we have all of these different nation states and people contributing to activities that are heating up the planet, that are causing increasing droughts and storms and cyclones and all of these other things, and at the same time we’ve had twenty years of solid evidence being built and such a failure in terms of political and policy action. Now one of the challenges, as I see it, is that this is not uniform across countries, so some countries obviously are doing better than others at this. So one of the challenges is to identify the places where it is working and the mechanisms that are actually working to decarbonise our transport and power systems. In a place like New Zealand, you can’t talk about climate change without talking about agriculture and agricultural emissions. The OECD just had a report on New Zealand’s environment that came out, just a couple of weeks ago, saying New Zealand is now the highest emitter when it comes to the percentage of emissions that come from agriculture. Ireland is number two, it’s almost half the emissions. So there’s this global level challenge around the planet heating up and the climate effects of that and the disasters, which that is provoking for people in flooded areas or drought-ridden areas. How many actual sectors of the economy does this effect? This is transport, this is food, this is agriculture, this is housing, this is energy, this is so much of our system that we have to transform, and I think just the scale of that is overwhelming.

Prue Taylor: From my perspective as a lawyer, and I’ve been working on climate change now for thirty years, when I look at the problem a few things come to mind. One is deep, deep uncertainty. There is a lot of uncertainty that we have to confront when we’re trying to analyse what is ahead of us. And it’s very, very difficult when you are trying to analyse problems and then respond to problems to actually get a grip of the magnitude of uncertainty that we’re dealing with. So for example, when talking to scientists dealing with climate change adaptation, they’ve been working for a very long time, some of them on one-metre sea level rise over the next 50-100 years. Well, now they are realising that the magnitude of uncertainty in what we are facing, it could be anything from one meter to six meters, so how do you develop responses when you’re dealing with that deep, deep uncertainty? And no matter what you do, you probably feel that it’s inadequate. It’s not coping with elements that you haven’t thought about, so it creates a lot of anxiety in people – what do we know is going to happen? How do we respond to it?

Another aspect of the problem that we are facing that I think a lot about is complexity, and as Julie was saying, the problem is incredibly complex. Therefore the solutions to it are very complex. And we have a tendency in society to try and boil things down into sort of simple ways of grappling with and understanding problems. That’s just not adequate. We have to learn to deal with complexity. We have to learn to not shy away from complexity, and we have to learn to talk to experts, and communities, and politicians, and people who don’t want to listen, and those that have very preconceived views. So when it comes to complexity, I think a lot about communication and how we communicate. My third thought when thinking about the problems that we face is soft denial, and that I would characterise as thinking we’re doing a whole lot, but actually we’re not really coming to grips with the urgency and the magnitude of the problem. And a classic example of that is New Zealand’s ETS. That is fiddling while Rome burns. And there are a lot of ETSes around the world that are really just soft forms of denial; they make us feel good that we’re doing something, and we essentially just continue what we’re doing but at an accelerated rate. So those would be my three ideas about the problem that we are facing.

Before we move on, you mentioned the ETS. For people who don’t know, could you just say what that is? 

PT: It’s an emissions trading scheme. It’s a cap and trade system where you basically buy a permit to emit a certain level of emissions, and then you can on-sell that, or you can return it, or you can buy it on the international market. There are lots of configurations, but actually at its most simple level, it is a license to pollute. I’ve heard it described as buying a pardon.

You were talking about the difference in potential sea level rise. What would be the impact if it was this much versus that much?

PT: I don’t think anybody really knows actually, because along with complexity there’s the interconnectedness of everything, so I think we have to acknowledge there is a hell of a lot we don’t know. Actually we’re confronted with a problem that’s designed for us not to solve, because it is so difficult to get our heads around. However, I think that we do have to start doing things. We can’t just wait until we feel that we know what we’re doing. We actually have to start moving and really, really rapidly, knowing that we’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way, but that’s the situation that we’re in.

Manuel Vallee: You’ve done a really great job of identifying a lot of the problems with the issue. I wish I had some slides. I think pictures are worth a thousand words, and last week in my environmental sociology class, I showed some slides to my students about the situation in the United States in a couple of places. My wife is from Louisiana, and it’s a low lying area. Thirty percent of the state is projected to be underwater within a few decades as a lot of people have heard. Miami, the south of Florida, they’ve also projected to be under water – pretty soon actually, a lot sooner than I thought. I just saw the latest forecast and between now, and by 2050, it is projected that most of South Florida is going to be gone. There are some patches of Miami that will remain in the best case scenario – if carbon-intensive carbon measures are taken on board now. The majority of Miami will be gone if none of those measures are adopted. At the moment they’re having storms – just regular storms – and they’re having buckets of water up to people’s ankles. They’re spending millions of dollars figuring out how to build barriers to protect the city from the rising sea levels, spending millions trying to raise the sidewalks to counterbalance the rising sea levels. And they’re not the only city.

New York is undergoing the same thing, and in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, there are actually engineers trying to adapt to the situation who are seriously talking about building a dam across the Golden Gate Bridge area and transforming the Bay Area into a lake, because there’s much prime real estate to be saved. So these are the kind of solutions they are willing to spend all this money on, as opposed to dealing with the source of the problem, which is part of the problem. The political intransigence is another big part of the problem. I have a friend who is in the solar industry, and yesterday he sent an email talking about a case in Nevada. Nevada has been a fast-growing area for the solar industry, and the governor was just elected. He’s an industry insider, and of course he gutted the regulations that were making the solar industry a profitable industry for Nevada, and the industry has just disappeared overnight. 

So we’ve got some major political problems, and then I think the other source of the problem, something I’ve been looking at more and more closely, is universities. What are we doing? There’s been a lot of talk about how we’re greening operations. That point is debatable about how much we’re actually greening the operations, but when it comes to the curriculum, we’re doing very little to actually provide environmental literacy to our graduates. And this is not just isolated here. In 2001 a survey was done of the United States North American tertiary institutions, and only eight percent required their students to take a course on environmental awareness or sustainability. There has been a rise in environmental courses and environmental degrees – those areas have boomed, but those are electives. If you have the majority of people graduating without a deep ecoliteracy it’s going to be that much harder to sway them to change behaviours, to support measures to bring about legislation that will help counter the problem. And for me, I think universities are the epicentre of the problem, they’re helping to reproduce, perpetuate the addiction to growth that is channelling, that is driving the problems.

Manuel, there was a phrase that you used in your book that I thought would be important to talk about because it deals with who’s actually going to be affected more than others. And the phrase you used was ‘climate injustice’. How would you explain that for us?

MV: If you look at what happened with Hurricane Katrina with New Orleans, not everyone was equally affected by that hurricane. It was disproportionately lower class, working class people and people of colour who are living in the Ninth Ward, the lower lying areas. The rich people in New Orleans, they live on the high ground, and they were protected. So the issues of rising sea level will not impact everyone the same, and so there’s some massive climate injustices at play. And there are some cities who are developing climate adaptation plans, but those have to be seen through an environmental justice lens because those plans don’t help everyone equally.

SM: I’ll pick up on some of the points. Obviously we are dealing with fundamentally political problems. As I see it, there is obviously a temporal problem, and that is that we are dealing with creatures called politicians. And they can think for three years, but it’s very difficult for politicians to think beyond an electoral cycle, so I think we have to put some pretty strong pressure on them. I think there’s also a spatial dimension to the political problem as well, which is that by definition, environmental problems do not respect political boundaries. So we are dealing with things that drift across borders and entire regions, and so then we have to think about global political cooperation. I think it is specifically a neoliberal problem. I mean, we can define neoliberalism in lots of different ways, but I think a defining element of neoliberalism is that the state is subservient to the corporation. And there are some deep problems with that. One is that the corporation is the ultimate externalising machine, so any cost it can externalise, it will. And so it will treat things like air and water as free goods and pollute at will. Also, if we monetise those and look at the full costs, then a lot of the industries that are doing the gravest damage to our environment right now–and I’m thinking about things like big coal–make no money. They make money for big coal, but when you do the full cost accounting on it, they typically in order of magnitude are more expensive than they are profitable. However, they don’t pay the costs. Human beings pay the costs: families, communities, environments, insurers, health care systems, states, and the federal government. So if you look at full cost accounting of big coal in the coal states in America, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it in a straight economic sense. But we do our accountancy in very strange ways so all those costs are put on other people.

It is, I think, at some level also a personal problem, and that’s that climate change forces on us a very strange politics, that most politics is coming together and agitating for more and more resources, and more gains, and more recognition and all of these things. Julie and others have made the point that these issues are very unevenly distributed, it’s absolutely true. So to take a specific energy example, I’m interested in electrical energy: the Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium on game day uses more electricity than all of Liberia. So should we be telling Liberians you need to consume less? No. Should we be thinking we should consume less? Yes. So that’s a bit of an issue there. And also just to reinforce Manuel’s point, because my main background is in disaster studies, I don’t think anyone in disaster studies believes in the concept of a natural disaster, they believe in natural hazards, there are earthquakes, there are floods, there are hurricanes, but whether hazards then lead to full-blown disasters is simply a matter of how society is structured and arranged. There’s over a century of the sociology of disasters and the empirical evidence is clear and consistent that it’s the young, the elderly, the weak, the poor, the marginal that get hammered first. So it’s very convenient that Manuel fully knows this in terms of Hurricane Katrina. It was a category five hurricane but it wasn’t coastal inundation; it wasn’t the hurricane that flooded, it was a collapse of the levee system and the order of repair of that levee system was index-linked to the value of the people, and more importantly the property behind it. So the areas that flooded were where the urban African-American poor people lived.

One of the things that you write about is these blackouts that we’re going to be dealing with and you suggest they’re going to get much worse?

SM: Well, I think in a business as usual model they will, because we live with the myth of infinite energy and infinite resources. Manuel gave the university example; when I started at university we wrote everything by hand, we didn’t have computers, we sent letters to each other, and we had an internal mail system. Now we read on tablets, we send emails, everything’s organised electronically so we have more and more plug-in devices. As wealth rises there are more and more consumer goods, and a typical issue we have is that luxuries become necessities. The first house I ever had, had a meat safe in it because people didn’t have fridges. And one of the problems is, yes, we get more energy efficient with our little technologies, but people didn’t used to have any fridges and now we have two or three. We are upping our consumption of things.

JM: So there is a whole literature emerging – Manuel was mentioning environmental justice or climate justice. Even narrowing it down to just energy justice and energy democracy, Ben Sovacool just wrote, and he’s one of the people that people cite a lot on this, that people are starting to unpack what that actually means.

So one of the issues is not everyone’s affected equally, not everyone has access to power and we need to think about that power in terms of electrical power, but then there’s also a procedural side of justice: like who has access to control what systems get built, not just does it work when you turn the light on, but do you have control over that system? And that is something that people are starting to research more into so who are the decision makers? How representative are they? Are there mechanisms for people to control what happens in their local area and this gets more to the resilience discussion right when things go wrong. Because if it is people who are disproportionately benefiting and are not climate-exposed in the same way, they are going to be making very different policy decisions than people who are not necessarily not as literate or not as energy literate. But there are wide disparities in resources and knowledge and power in the sector that are really important. 

I also wanted to pick up on what Prue was talking about with this soft denial, which I think is incredibly important. So some of the research I have been doing has been looking at New Zealand’s energy policy dynamics over the last forty-fifty years and one of the things I found in my research over and over again is that in New Zealand there’s this attitude that New Zealand’s already clean and green when it comes to the electricity sector specifically. Eighty percent renewables, this is trumpeted so we don’t have a lot to do in this sector. One of the things that strikes me as really problematic is that this has allowed a significant decrease in policy action, action in terms of electrifying the vehicle fleets, action in terms of road transport and public transport innovations that reduce the massive increase in transport emissions in this country. So the soft denial side is coming from this idea that we’re generally okay, we’re one of the good ones whereas I think New Zealand has the second highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the OECD. Now a lot of that is agriculture-based, but there’s other sectors – not just the percentage of renewables but the other things that need to be changed.

So a very, very fuel efficient fleet here in terms of private vehicles and the trucks and all of this, which need to be electrified, would then require a massive build-up of new infrastructure, new generation infrastructure, new battery storage technology, new transmission which requires financing, policy support. I mean the scale of the challenge is very high, but is certainly not impossible and other places are doing it. The last point I wanted to make is when you’re doing long-term research, often we assume what is has always been. Not necessarily social scientists, but sometimes people from other fields. And when I was looking at OECD data for a number of different countries starting in 1960, New Zealand actually had a higher percentage of renewable electricity generation in 1960 than it does today. It was at 85% back then largely due to massive public works spending to build hydro infrastructure. And as the policy regime has changed, now we don’t want the government to be in the business of actively building things, we want to leave that to the market, we have a very different profile. So a reduction in the share of hydro, a build-out of geothermal, but basically it has gone down if you look far enough back. 

When you trace that back can you actually note what the factors were driving it? And I know we’ve been talking about this sort of neoliberal regime, was there a particular shift in the government at a certain point when it started to make the trend in the wrong direction?

JM: Yes, one of the big changes I found is actually post-2009, in the policy scenario. So there was a big change in terms of the kinds of policies that shifted to more voluntarist policies, so the government not saying you have to do it this way but we’re going to encourage activity by providing information, less financial support that’s directly targeted to building capacity for new infrastructure and things like that. Generally speaking, New Zealand was not alone in this, actually having a smaller share of renewables post-1960, countries like Canada and others shifting to other fuels. So after the 1970s and 1980s a lot of countries developed new fossil fuel generation resources that displaced earlier old style wind turbines – in Denmark then they developed again in the late 80s. So it was development of other cheaper resources coming in that we’re not taking into account – the full costs of those resources, this idea of paying what it actually cost society for the health impacts, the environmental impacts wasn’t there, so big development of coal generation and natural gas generation changed those balances. 

And those were subsidised, so it’s not like they were cheaper at the beginning either? 

JM: Yep, through the 70s and 80s, and one of the other big things that comes into this discussion is the development of nuclear power. That also took off, so some people put that in the low carbon-emitting but not necessarily renewable, so there’s a debate about where nuclear sits, but things have definitely changed, so what can be developed can also be broken down and dismantled and I think that’s very important from a social science and law perspective to think that things are not on some onward march towards more green, or efficient, or resilient.

Prue Taylor, in your book you wrote about how law is actually a problem here, especially with what Steve Matthewman was just talking about in terms of international law. How would you help us understand that?

PT: Maybe telling a story is a really good way of talking about it. At the end of last year I spent a couple of months in London at the Grantham Institute for Environment and Climate Change at the London School of Economics, and it’s considered one of the world’s preeminent climate change policy institutes. And I was there just after everybody came back from the Marrakesh negotiations, which were big treaty negotiations that followed from Paris, so we’re talking about the ongoing treaty negotiations for climate change responses. And when I was listening to the presentations made by people, many of these people had been going to these climate change negotiations for fifteen years, so they were absolute experts. They had been to the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 which collapsed, and then everybody kind of worked themselves up for more successful negotiations and the Paris Agreement was supposed to be the apex of aren’t we all wonderful, we can all agree and we can save the world together.

But what they were saying when they came back from Marrakesh was a lot of the good intention that sat behind the legal framework that is the Paris Agreement had evaporated by the time they got to Marrakesh. You know you hear a lot in the corridors actually and then you shoulder tap people, ‘like what’s really going on?’ And they said to me they had basically been imbued with the idea that the international community and all of those people who go to the climate change negotiations, the state representatives, the policy people, the whole entourage there’s kind of an agreement between them all now that anything is a good outcome. In other words they cannot leave negotiations now with a failure of the scale of Copenhagen. So it’s almost as if everybody agrees that no matter what happens at these negotiations it has to be presented as successful. And when I heard that I was completely gobsmacked, because there is no way to fudge this: there is a global carbon budget and there are deep inequities and inequalities in the way we are currently using that carbon budget and the science of what we face when we go beyond 1.5 or 2 degrees is certain.

So how can it be that legions of intelligent people who are spending their lives developing this policy can have this tacit agreement between them that they won’t talk about what really is the reality? That the Paris Agreement really has no hard binding legal requirements in it, now there’s lots of discussion about is it a top-down or bottom-up. Ultimately the central element is that every state has to come up with what is called an NDC, which is a nationally determined contribution, not commitment to what they want to achieve on climate change mitigation. They just have to do one and they kind of have to generally say this is my bid for what I as a country will do to keep within this warming limit, but beyond that they don’t actually have to achieve it, there’s no outcome if they don’t achieve it. Equally, they don’t have to prove to us how their contribution is a fair contribution to keeping within 1.5 or 2 degrees. They can just pick a figure and base that on what their economy will wear, so they don’t actually have to link it to that target. And worse still, they don’t have to establish how it is that their commitment is fair and equitable.

There is no ethics requirement there, there’s no justice requirement there that’s legally binding. And so when states often talk about their nationally determined contributions, they do it through an economic rationality that obscures the fact that there are huge justice issues. And they do that quite deliberately, it’s sort of a distraction that then we all start to talk as society and as politically active people or as communities, we start to talk about what can the economy wear, we start arguing the counterfactual when actually we should be arguing what are the values here, what are the ethics, we should have open discussions about that and also what is economically realistic and what is the transition. That’s a little bit of a stray, but it really comes back to a very basic fact about nation states that we all know that they are completely free in our international legal system to negotiate what they will do or what they won’t do on the basis of their national self-interest.

So perhaps we should end by looking at solutions, looking at resilience. Where do we go from here Manuel?

MV: Following up on what I mentioned earlier, I think universities are a key point. Universities are not just impactful with their ecological footprint, but they exert an incredible ideological impact; they’re training the next generation, they’re giving belief systems, the rituals, the practices, the behaviours, the value systems that are going to be moving forward in the future generations. And so for me, one of the things that needs to change is that universities have to step it up. Right now they’re greening their operations, but their curriculum is still brown and we’re not doing enough, not nearly enough. And of course a political economy frame would say that makes sense, they’re willing to actually decrease their cost of operations through greening, because there is a business case to be made for greening their operations. However, when it comes to curriculum, Marx said the dominant ideology in any area can be the ideology of the ruling class. We’re in a capitalist political economy so that needs to change. 

Having said that, there is a lot of hope for change. In terms of just that particular issue I have been looking at curriculum greening for chemistry and in Oregon they’re one of the leaders in curriculum greening for chemistry. And there was initially some opposition when one of the people I interviewed for my research project, he was one of the four runners and he decided to pilot one of his classes with green chemistry and out of the sixteen tutorials they picked one that was going to have a green chemistry component for the lab. And at first they were completely opposed to it because they were worried about this was going to impact their ability to do well on the MCAT, the medical exams, because a lot of pre-med students were taking them and so there was massive opposition. And then it took them two weeks where the lecturer had to go into the tutorial and said look you guys are actually benefiting, you’re getting cutting-edge chemistry, and after two weeks they got on board, the students understood it and then word spread and the next semester everybody wanted to be in the green chemistry lab. So students can be a driver for change and I got an email from the University of Vermont, they’re one of the few public schools where they require their students to pass some sustainability course and it wasn’t the administrators who pushed it through, it wasn’t the academic staff, it was the students.

I think also, in terms of governance, one of the problems is most of the democratic systems are with a small d when we show up at the polls once every three or four years and we think that’s our political action. In countries with a big d democracy, participatory democracy, the casting of the ballot is the end point of the political cycle. The start of the political cycle is actually organising with people and having discussions and coming out with putting pressure on politicians and so on and so forth. And you have some models, you look at Switzerland, as opposed to other countries that have a hard time deciding what they’re going to do over the next twelve months. Switzerland they’ve got five, ten, twenty-five, fifty, one hundred year plans where they take into consideration what’s going to be the impact of our decisions for the future generations.

You have Porto Alegre where they have a participatory democracy model where you have the citizens who are organised by communities and every community or neighbourhood is required every year to meet together to come up with a wish list of the things that they want changed in their city. They then submit that wish list to the mayor, the mayor has to respect the order of the request, they can’t fund all of it, but he or she has to respect the order and then that budget is not ratified until it goes back to all the communities and they put their stamp of approval on it. So there are different systems of governance that we could be using that would give the people much more impact in the decisions being made. Not just the decisions that are going to impact us, but the future generations.

Julie, I think this is the place where we should bring you in because you’ve been studying what communities actually do to develop their own co-op energy. What have you seen in Canada? What do you see here?

JM: Yeah, I’ve been studying Canada historically and now moving to New Zealand and then the UK and Denmark. And when I started this blurb on what’s wrong, it is really important to recognise that there are lots of places where really exciting activity is taking place. So for example in Canada there are more than 200 – 250 cooperatives, so people who have joined together, who have decided to build their own wind turbines or solar arrays when they found that the government wasn’t actually moving quickly enough in this. I started this research looking for community action independent of government, and then as I progressed in the research found that the most successful places where this is not just some tiny little niche of local actors doing their own thing is where there’s actual policy support for it. So there are some provinces, the province of Ontario in Canada for example (which in response to learning that took place from Canadians after they travelled to Germany and Denmark) passed policies that said if local people democratically own and invest in these projects and make decisions about where things are sited, that means they’re likely to actually be built rather than just proposed – then they don’t end up being financed, or there’s a lot of opposition – and they will get an extra payment in terms of cents per kilowatt hour. And what that means is local economic redevelopment, it means that the people who are proximate to the project are actually interested in succeeding and there’s a whole amount of energy literacy and learning that takes place.

However, this was prompted to go back one level in Germany and Denmark. In the 1970s their district heating system was developed based on a law that the government passed to say heating systems are going to be developed on a non-profit basis. This is not an area of activity, it’s too important and we want to make sure that this is not a place where people’s rates are through the roof to enrich a particular organisation or other group. District heating by the way is where if you have a lot of intensive development in Auckland let’s say, you would have a system of recirculating the heat from building to building. There’s an island off the coast of Denmark called Samso and they are one of the kind of 100% renewable energy islands they talk about. However, one of the things that they are doing with even cows and dairy when the milk comes out of the cows, and I immediately thought this would be amazing for New Zealand it’s quite warm, and in order to process it they need to reduce the temperature of the milk coming out. So they put the milk through a heat exchange which takes the heat from the milk out and saves it in a hot water boiler that then gets recirculated to heat the floors of buildings. And in New Zealand we have serious issues with heating buildings, energy-efficient buildings.

There are so many different interventions that communities have been at the forefront of, but those communities need to be doing that together. This can’t just be ok there are a bunch of upper middle class people in a town that is well resourced that are building things so that they’re resilient. This has to be about far more than that. So that’s where the research is progressing, to see how much we can scale up these initiatives and how we can get policies and governments on board with a more democratic, more resilient sector. It is a really significant challenge, but there are lots of places where this is starting to take place now and it is actually pretty exciting.

SM: I agree with all of that as well – there’s plenty of resources for hope in this country and internationally. Specifically around renewable energy we are blessed with natural capital; we have the best wind energy resources in the world; it’s usually sunny somewhere at any point in time; we were, as far as I can tell, one hundred percent renewable at one point. So we are unique in terms of across time we’ve got less renewable, but we can be hundred percent renewable again pretty quickly with existing technology. We don’t need to invent new-fangled technology to save us from what will come from the future, it’s here now. So we can do this and it’s a question of political will obviously, but like the history of energy transition shows us this again, it’s not resource depletion that forces change, it’s political action. So you know the steam age didn’t end because we ran out of steam, and I don’t think the fossil age will end because we run out of fossil fuels, and you know battery storage technologies are coming on in leaps and bounds, wind turbine technology, everything. I would also say that international cooperation is not impossible: the hole in the ozone layer is closing, and that’s a great international cooperation story.

Also, often we denigrate things like slacktivism, which I suspect is just a shorthand way of picking on young people, you know they are lazy, they stay home, they do nothing. Well, firstly that’s not true, but the other thing is clicking on web links works. I got invited to click on something the other day and I did – asking Auckland City Council to divest from fossil fuels – and thought, ‘Wow, maybe I should do more about that.’ By that afternoon it was saying ‘Congratulations, thanks to you Auckland City Council is divesting in fossil fuels.’ And so what these things show very clearly is if you get enough people together we can do anything. And I think the history of the world shows us that in empirical abundance, that lots of people come together with a will and a purpose and a single target and good things happen.

PT: I would agree with everything that’s been said, except that I would say ozone depletion is a very, very different global problem. A lot of people point to ozone depletion and suggest that it’s a success and as a precedent for responding to climate change, but these are very, very different problems. With ozone depletion there were very quick and easy solutions to it through changing the chemical composition of a whole lot of appliances that really actually wasn’t really a big deal to respond to ozone depletion. A global cooperation is absolutely possible and it has to happen, I mean I wouldn’t suggest that we abandon any hope of that, but it’s not going to happen with nation states, with us allowing nation states to continue to behave the way they are, that’s quite clear. I think we’ve gone backwards not forwards in recent years on that.

In terms of solutions, one thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – having been working on climate change for such a long time and sometimes even abandoning it myself because I get so depressed – I just think nothing’s happening and then I go away and work on the law of the sea and then I come back to climate change. One thing I have been pondering a lot is how is it that after all of these years we still don’t have a massive social movement around climate change? And in fact in more recent years climate change has become more and more technical, more and more the domain of experts to talk about, almost less and less relatable to people’s lives in many ways, and so I think a solution lies in us grappling with that and finding ways of dealing with that. So why is it that last night I had a conversation with a policy analyst from Wellington who said New Zealanders don’t care about climate change? Look at the fact that none of the key political parties are really addressing climate change very prominently through their platforms and their policies. So he was arguing that New Zealanders don’t care about climate change and I was saying well, actually all the polls show that New Zealanders really do care about climate change, and so we were having this really silly yo-yo argument about well if they really did why don’t New Zealanders do something about it? And that caused me to reflect on why it is that we are allowing the current situation to remain.

In very simple terms, we currently have a government that has centralised control over policy and law and responses on mitigation. They control it, local government can do very little directly on climate change mitigation yet local government and therefore communities have to bear all of the risk of climate change adaptation, so we’ve got this massive disjunct. So I think looking for solutions we have to confront those kinds of disjuncts. 

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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