By Lynley Hargreaves 07/07/2016

Our ability to care for the environment depends, in part, on our ability to navigate risk. This issue looms large with climate change, says senior Landcare Research researcher Dr Alison Greenaway, who worked on the Royal Society of New Zealand report Climate Change Implications for New Zealand. We need climate-sensitive institutions, says Dr Greenaway, as well as environmental management that draws on a wide range of cultural resources.

What makes institutions climate sensitive?

Dr Alison Greenaway
Dr Alison Greenaway

It’s the ability to have adaptive ways of working; to consider issues for future generations; to understand risk and take actions without closing down too many options for the future (eg light rail, species restoration, or alternative cropping). The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment provides a useful model. In the 2015 report on sea level rise the PCE encourages local government, coastal residents and landowners, the insurance and banking industries, and infrastructure providers to consider the economic and fiscal risks of sea level rise, and include the forward liability into planning and investment decisions.

What would we be doing in an ideal world?

In an ideal world New Zealanders would be actively participating in the cultural shift to a low carbon future. We would all (from schools, to sports clubs, road authorities and power generators) be working with sophisticated understandings of risk, and wellbeing. This would support implementation of robust and future-proofed infrastructure development. We would be building resilient physical and social infrastructure so that everyone living in New Zealand is able to thrive, without diminishing opportunities for future generations. At the moment government agencies and industry bodies predominantly use very linear, static approaches to consider and plan for risk (eg when planning new bridges or coastal roads). This is limiting our development options.

Do you see similar themes played out in other environmental issues?

We have some really narrow, deeply-embedded ways of thinking about the environment and using natural resources. Thankfully we are at a time now when more culturally diverse ways of relating to the environment are being resourced and a much broader knowledge base is informing resource use decisions. My interest, working for Landcare Research, is what is our capacity as a country to care for the land and all that transverses it? Given that most New Zealanders do care for our environment, and that it is key to the growing tourism industry, do we have the right environmental management procedures in place (on the whole yes), are they being implemented (often not) and are we creating the lifestyles which enable people to care for their environments (yet to be determined).

My research approach is akin to bricolage – I work in a number of places, and am informed by a range of theories about how society changes and more specifically how our knowledge of what’s going on in our world shapes policy, planning and individual activities. I pay attention to things like how people have changed society in the past, how New Zealand society is changing, and the interfaces of science with the development of New Zealand.

Has the way New Zealanders talk about climate change changed?

I think so. My observation is that we have a cultural shift occurring with how we talk and think about climate change, as well as with the possibilities of how to respond. Climate change is becoming more connected with our sense of who we are as New Zealanders; our diverse visions of living in clean green New Zealand.

That in turn is shaping how New Zealand climate scientists are thinking and talking about climate change. I was fascinated to hear, working on this report, the way that the scientists were talking and the way they were imagining how the New Zealand public will engage with this work. I noted a big shift from the early 2000s. These days we have a more enriched climate change vocabulary to discuss the implications of climate change. One of the key things that I noted was that we weren’t just talking about the impacts. A lot of attention is now being given to how New Zealanders might respond. We don’t want readers of the report to get dismayed by the topic and feel like there are not options. So the report took steps towards resourcing people with concepts, stories of how others are responding and networks to connect with for more information or support.

But unfortunately what we haven’t done is tested the communication assumptions behind the report, what audience did it reach, did the infographics convey the information we thought they would, what other unpredicted responses did the report receive or inform? We need to learn whether the linguistic style of the report, the visual aids, and the content of the report has had an impact, and how the report is or is not resourcing various planning considerations.

Have you worked with any groups, to see how useful the report is?

I hosted a small gathering of Royal Society of New Zealand teacher fellows and other environmental educationalists here in the Auckland office of Landcare Research. I learnt that there is a network of environmental educators and teachers who are building their capacity to explore climate change through a range of subjects in both primary and secondary schools. Both the Royal Society of New Zealand climate change reports were useful for this group. I hope that the central concepts of risk, exposure and vulnerability, which need to be considered around climate change, will become core components across the New Zealand curriculum.

For example, what does it mean for New Zealand to be adaptive? How might risk be dealt with and what knowledge resources can inform more dynamic approaches to risk management? It would help high school students think about the future they’re going to be working in, if these core climate change concepts were supported in the curriculum. One topic for secondary students could be: ‘how do you conceive of an unknown future and how do you plan for it?’

I would like to see more curriculum resources developed to help student-led inquiry about significant issues New Zealand is currently facing such as coastal erosion, water quality and quantity, carbon storage and land management. It would be good for students to work through a topic, perhaps linking with community groups and scientists to create some climate-sensitive strategies for the places they live in. The Royal Society of New Zealand report was great, but what is required now is more targeted resources around specific issues.

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.