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Uni scientists: Why we’re marching for climate action

Young people all over the world are gathering this week for the Global Climate Strike and this time the invite has been extended to adults.

Thousands will be marching in towns and cities around New Zealand today, each with their own worries about what might happen to the things they care about if the effects of climate change come as soon as scientists predict. Maybe it is despair at the idea of species becoming extinct, of glaciers disappearing, of the Great Barrier Reef becoming bleached and lifeless.

While it is assumed scientists focus on understanding complex climate research and its implications, they have the same emotions as the rest of us. So what worries them the most? What are the climate scenarios that keep them awake at night?

We asked five University of Auckland scientists from a range of disciplines to tell us why they are joining the march and what resonates most for them personally in the face of relentlessly bad news on how rapidly our climate appears to be changing.

Professor Quentin Atkinson from the School of Psychology studies the evolution of language and human cultures. He has contributed to a book on how New Zealanders can tackle climate change and is founder of climate action group Claxon

What troubles me most about the climate crisis is the profligate insanity of the whole thing. The stakes could not be higher. Livelihoods lost. Lives lost. Species gone forever. Real threats to our planet’s life support systems. Positive feedback loops like dieback of the Amazon rainforest or methane released from thawing permafrost causing truly scary runaway climate change. And these warnings are coming not from some lunatic or charlatan, but from hundreds of scientists, the best minds in the world, paid to question every assumption and temper every conclusion. Indeed, climate change is hitting sooner and harder than they initially predicted. And the truly insane bit is that, if we take action now, the things we must do to avoid risking everything hold the promise of a better world – cleaner air, more liveable cities, new jobs and technologies, healthy ecosystems, healthier happier people, and a world our children see as a gift, rather than a curse. That’s why I will be marching for climate action on Friday.

Dr Brendon Dunphy from the School of Biological Sciences studies the metabolic strategies animals employ to adapt to environmental change and potential effects of climate change on seabirds, fish and invertebrates

It’s a struggle to capture the complexity of what I feel as I fluctuate daily between outright despondency to a more pragmatic “Right, let’s get on with solving it”. However, it is one unimpressive number that really captures me…3mm. A small number, but 3mm is the annual sea level rise attributed to climate change we are currently seeing. As I drive along the Manukau Harbour on my way to work, I realise this small number is inexorably pushing up the freshwater tables. Each coastal park will become progressively boggier, marshlike; each seawall is getting slowly undercut, or topped with each King tide. It’s a slow march. From talking with people, I get a sense that the thinking is one day we simply won’t wake up, that we will have undergone a cataclysm that sterilizes the planet of life. But it won’t be like that. It will occur slowly, but surely, in increments of 3mm per year. The struggle I have as a parent is trying to alleviate the anxiety my children have for their future. However, I remain positive that we will respond…there’s no other choice.

Professor Shaun Hendy from the Department of Physics is a physicist and science commentator whose book #NoFly: Walking the Talk on Climate Change will be published next month. He is director of the centre for research excellence, Te Pūnaha Matatini

The discovery that fossil fuel emissions are heating the planet is one of science’s greatest achievements. The scientific detective work that led to this discovery was a collective effort, built on the inquiry and insight of many minds, over many decades. For the first time in human history perhaps, we are not only able to see centuries into our future, we also know how our actions will shape that future. Despite this we have struggled mightily to decide how to use this knowledge. While we must each take responsibility for reducing our own carbon footprints as best we are able, it is only by acting together that we will avoid dangerous climate change. This is why I will be in Aotea Square with the School Strike for Climate on Friday.

Professor Niki Harre from the School of Psychology studies the human drive to participate in the common good. Her books The Infinite Game: How to Live Well Together and Psychology for a Better World: Working with People to Save the Planet, were published in 2018

For well over a decade I’ve been aware the climate change threat is my problem. Along with other citizens of industrialised nations, I live within social systems damaging to the ecology of our planet and it is up to us to change those systems. I am marching to show I will accept whatever is required for an effective response. This includes more limited, expensive travel options; government-backed insurance for people with homes vulnerable to sea level rise; creating employment for those whose income-stream is not viable in a climate friendly society. I am not asking others to bear the cost of these changes, I am also prepared for a significant rise in my taxes to support transition that protects the wellbeing of all. I am not afraid of reduced access to material goods and consumer experiences. I am afraid of a world where people are pitted against one another in a scramble to survive in a harsh environment. I want to live in a world that brings out the best in us – pulling together and focusing on what really matters.

Professor Richard Easther is Head of the Department of Physics and a leading theoretical cosmologist who is a regular commentator on science issues and science research

Our nervous systems respond quickly to clear and present danger — the clench in the gut if we see a child at risk of harm and our instant response. As a physicist and astronomer I know why carbon dioxide traps heat, and why we can’t blame the sun for increasing temperatures: I can follow the math and appreciate the complexity of the data. But it is still more head than heart. For most adults, climate adaptation is like saving for retirement — present desires often take priority. But if the detached perspective of adulthood is “mature”, the flipside is that kids do a better job of appreciating the urgency climate change deserves. The students I interact with are smart, articulate, thoughtful, committed and passionate – and my strongest emotional response is admiration for the commitment and composure of the kids participating in the climate strikes. And that’s why I’ll be marching.

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