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The climate change challenge


Monday 3 February 2014 1:47pm

Otago researchers from across the academic disciplines are working together to help tackle the ever-growing threat climate change poses for New Zealand and beyond.

There is no bigger problem facing New Zealand and the world than climate change, and universities are the perfect place to cope with it, says Professor Colin Campbell-Hunt from the Otago Climate Change Network (OCCNet).

OCCNet, which comprises Otago researchers from a range of disciplines, is working to raise awareness of climate change issues and foster collaborative, crossdisciplinary research projects.

"Climate change is a nasty problem – both the effects and how to grapple with it," says Campbell-Hunt. "A multidisciplinary effort is needed to deal with it and University of Otago is the perfect place because our research covers the span. We have world-class scholars."

Campbell-Hunt, who is also Head of the Department of Accountancy and Finance, founded the network with Associate Professor Bob Lloyd (Physics) in 2013, after climate change failed to make the National Science Challenges list. The list names the Government's top 10 science issues and includes topics such as ageing well, nutrition, biosecurity and resilience to nature's challenges.

"The trouble is that doing good science requires focus on tractable problems and those were the kind of problems that were selected for the National Science Challenges. But the effects and challenges presented by climate change are not focused. They will have consequences for social and economic systems as much as physical and biological.

"What's worse, it is often not enough to consider the effects of climate change in one area and ignore knock-on effects that have the potential to exacerbate the problem. For example, as Arctic ice melts, countries bordering on the Arctic Ocean are keen to extract more hydrocarbons and put even more carbon into the atmosphere.

"For us in New Zealand, there is no doubt that climate change is our number one challenge and one that the science community and this University should respond to with vigour."

"For us in New Zealand, there is no doubt that climate change is our number one challenge and one that the science community and this University should respond to with vigour."

The network has a long list of objectives, which includes bringing together Otago researchers who have an interest in climate change, creating a database of researchers and using the network, when possible, to assemble teams to bid for research funding into climate change issues.

It also aims to establish relationships with climate change research centres and networks throughout New Zealand and internationally, and to contribute to the University of Otago's commitment to sustainability.

As part of raising awareness, OCCNet holds a seminar series titled Conversations on Climate Change and also hosts speakers and visitors, such as United States climate change "evangelist" Bill McKibben, who spoke on tackling the fossil-fuel industry this year as part of his "Do The Maths'' tour.

The network is also currently looking to establish a 200-level paper looking at the broad-based consequences of climate change.

Campbell-Hunt believes that New Zealand needs its own version of the report economist Lord Nicholas Stern published in 2006, assessing the full range of effects climate change would have on Britain.

"Stern had a team of 12 people for three years. It cost £3 million. We hope to do a mini-Stern and do as much as we can."

The network has been awarded a University of Otago research grant to do an initial scoping study that will form the framework of the report. It will then seek more funding for the report itself.

"There's a view that says New Zealand is so small and anything we do won't make a difference, so let's do nothing," Campbell-Hunt says.

"In fact, it is small political systems like ours that must lead the charge on the climate change problem. Our size makes policy innovation so much easier, and New Zealand has a long tradition of leading social change from the enfranchisement of women to the market reforms of the 1980s. It will be difficult, but that's no excuse for not trying."

OCCNet members include:

Associate Professor Alison Cree (Zoology) is interested in how climate change will affect biological diversity. She is currently researching the role of temperature in the reintroduction and establishment of tuatara at Orokonui Ecosanctuary, and the possible long-term changes in pregnancy rates for live-bearing geckos at Macraes Flat.

Professor James Higham (Tourism) is currently working on a research programme titled Climate Change, Tourism and Emissions Reduction, which looks at how New Zealand tourism will respond to climate change. One of its major focuses is attitudes and behavioural responses to climate change in New Zealand's long-haul tourism markets.

Postdoctoral research fellow Dr Debbie Hopkins (Centre for Sustainability) is researching energy use in the transportation sector. She is also working with OCCNet colleagues to investigate academic perceptions of climate change and she hopes next year to bring together an OCCNet group of postgraduate researchers to encourage crossdisciplinary postgraduate research.

Dr Daniel Kingston (Geography) is interested in the physical science of climate change, with a particular focus on the likely impacts on freshwater resources – from evaporation to river flow and lake levels. Past studies have focused on major global rivers and he has supervised postgraduate research on the impacts of climate change on a number of New Zealand rivers, including the Clutha, and Lindsay Creek in Dunedin.

Associate Professor Bob Lloyd (Physics) is currently trying to understand how the world's dominant economic paradigm, neoliberal economics, has forced us into a situation whereby mitigation of climate change cannot be realistically anticipated by most countries. He has written papers on how a transition could be made from the world's carbon-emitting, finite fossil-fuel energy resources to sustainable renewable energy sources, in particular, solar PV.

Dr Chris Rosin (Centre for Sustainability) is leading the Agricultural Intensification and Climate Change project, which aims to identify policy triggers for encouraging forms of intensification that are more resilient in the context of a changing climate as well as other potential limiting factors such as peak oil.

Associate Professor Sarah Wakes (Applied Sciences) is currently using numerical modelling for two diverse applications: the behaviour of heating and ventilation in housing in New Zealand, as well as the effects climate change could have on coastal dune systems. She is also interested in how we can utilise New Zealand innovation in design, engineering and technology to change behaviour for adaptation to, or mitigation of, climate change and whether design, engineering and technology can bring a holistic view to climate change scenarios.

Senior lecturer Ceri Warnock (Law) believes that mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change pose huge challenges for the law, and that how the law deals with "risk" as a concept will help craft the response. Her present research focuses on risk assessment and management in environmental management.

Dr Ben Wooliscroft (Marketing) has published research focusing on sustainable business practice, in its widest sense, and ethical consumption as perceived by consumers. He is also researching transportation with a focus on improved efficiency and active transportation.