I distinctly remember being 8 years old and driving up the Thames Coast Road to my primary school, Te Puru, with my dad discussing how the road we were on was likely to be underwater by the end of the century.
That’s when the idea of climate change became real to me. I realised that my beautiful beachside school would be inundated with 1m of sea level rise. That thought scared me.
My dad, being one of the kindest people I know, realised that making an 8 year old depressed about the future of the world probably wasn’t the best idea. So he reassured me that humans can be an incredibly intelligent species and would work to prevent and adapt to changing world. From an early age both my parents instilled a notion that solutions to social and environmental problems wouldn’t only prevent degradation, but could make the world a far better place for everyone to live in.
Eight years later, I was 16 and part of the largest climate march in Copenhagen in 2009 during the infamous “COP15” UN negotiations—there was an air of hope. This was the make or break moment. I had spent a week getting to know other young people from some of the poorest nations in the world who were already suffering the harsh realities of climate change. This was no longer an academic scientific debate—the survival of entire island nations was pinned on a decent deal being achieved. We put faith in our political leaders to deliver that. Obama flew into town on a wave of hope. The 12 hour accord was struck with compromise and the global climate movement left in despair.
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Our world leaders had failed us.
But the optimism that my parents had instilled in me prevailed. Alongside a number of other young kiwis ranging from policy wonks to science geeks to activists, I went to the following year’s negotiations in Cancun, Mexico. We bought over a giant basketball court-sized cloth fern made up of messages from hundreds of young people from around Aotearoa, in the hope that it would force our official delegation to take notice.
Instead, Minister Nick Smith seemed more interested in joking about how funny the business round table would find a photo of Minister Tim Groser riding a bike around negotiating centre.
Needless to say, we came home somewhat disenfranchised by the UN process. Some of our delegation went off and started Generation Zero, some put their energy into 350.org, others into more radical actions. I started my first year at Vic studying Geophysics, Environmental Science and Politics, with the hope to help bridge the gap between science and policy while spending my spare time helping organise the largest youth climate summit in New Zealand, Powershift.
I got into student politics and ran for VUWSA as I saw it as a place that had an established reputation and the scale to make a meaningful difference. I knew that the common narrative of “change your lightbulbs—every bit makes a difference” was not enough to prevent the largest issue facing our generation.
We needed large institutions, like Victoria, to take a lead. That’s why I was so pleased when our Vice Chancellor announced the plans to divest the university’s investments from fossil fuel industries last year. It sent shockwaves through the government and industries that were used to New Zealand universities being passive. Suddenly we were being true to a core purpose of universities—being the critic and conscience of society. We were actually putting our research into practice.
But I’ve been even more inspired by the accounting lecturer Pala Molisa. From his perspective, we must challenge the systems of power that have caused emissions to continue to grow at accelerating rates. We need a more structural approach to solve the super wicked policy problem. Pala has this unique capability to express this incredibly important narrative from an accounting perspective that effectively negates the idea that this issue is only relevant to hippies and conspiracy theorists.
In a couple of months, another major climate change negotiations will be held in Paris. New Zealand is heading over with shameful commitments. Obama, on the other hand, is heading there with a desire to make a difference.
No matter what happens at Paris, we need to contribute to solving the climate crisis at all levels of society. We have an ever shortening window to prevent huge geophysical feedback loops from running away on us. As a university we can contribute, as a city we must be putting our climate plans into action, and as a society we must pressure our world leaders to do their job and lead.
Rick Zwaan is a man of many faces. President. Drinker. Babe. He can be found around campus, lurking beneath a tea cosy.