The next big report from the United Nations’ climate change arm will produce a chapter on cities. A Canterbury academic tells David Williams about the IPCC’s step into the unknown.

Bronwyn Hayward is researching some of the biggest issues facing humanity – how governments respond to climate change, sustainable development, what cities can do about the influx of people and the issues facing young people today. But for the University of Canterbury political scientist it’s the human stories that resonate.

Take the CYCLES project, studying the lives of young people in seven cities across the world, including Christchurch – research being led by a University of Canterbury research team and funded by Britain’s Economic & Social Research Council. Hayward is struck by the work of researcher Mohammad Mehedi Hasan, who has found that in middle-class communities of Dhaka, Bangladesh, most young women are spending almost all of their time inside.

She was also shocked at how, in middle-class Christchurch homes, her team came across the expression for a night the heating remains off: “Tonight is a puffer-jacket night.”

On a recent sabbatical to England’s Oxford University, she met several chief executives of high-powered boards (who she wouldn’t name). She was impressed by how much sway their children and grandchildren had on their thinking. “And you think, gosh, there is a culture change happening, even when we don’t see it.”

The central theme of Hayward’s research has been kids and young people and their quality of life. She’s an associate professor of political science and international relations at University of Canterbury and the director of its Sustainable Citizenship and Civic Imagination: Hei Puāwaitanga research group.

So what’s a social scientist doing leading a chapter on the next big report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?

Next big climate challenges are social

In the sixth assessment report, to be published in stages in 2021 and 2022, Hayward is a coordinating lead author for a chapter on cities, settlements and key infrastructure, alongside Dr David Dodman and Professor Mark Pelling of the United Kingdom. The trio will coordinate a team of about 20 expert lead authors from 20 nations, and another 15 contributing authors, to review research on the climate change effects on cities and the findings.

It’s the first time the IPCC, best-known for modelling the physical effects of climate change to help governments develop climate policies, has focused on cities. Stepping into urban areas takes the IPCC beyond predictable biological and physical systems and into the messier realm of history, economics and politics, with all the accompanying social and cultural issues.

Speaking personally, Hayward, an international expert on sustainable development and author, says climate science is well-established. And while there’s still much to learn about the world’s physical changes, the next big climate challenges are social ones, she says. People are not just asking what can be done about climate change, by cutting emissions or adapting, they want to know about the underlying drivers of climate change.

“How have our social and economic systems, the way we use land, generated wealth and jobs and livelihoods, also driven climate change and how can we change this? These are deeply political questions, that confront us with big choices about what do we value and how should we organise ourselves to deal with the problems.”

In revised United Nations figures published last week, it’s predicted that by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population – or 6.7 billion people – will live in urban areas.

Cities are under huge pressure. By some estimates, cities across the world are expanding by an estimated three million people every one or two weeks, creating headaches for local governments and the people who live there. That speed of growth means cities would have expanded by hundreds of millions of people by the time the IPCC’s report is released.

In revised United Nations figures published last week, it’s predicted that by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population – or 6.7 billion people, including 75 percent of people under the age of 18 – will live in urban areas, adding to existing slums, and issues of safety and sanitation.

Big cities, huge energy users and greenhouse gas emitters, are getting bigger. The number of megacities, those with populations of more than 10 million people, are expected to rise from today’s 33 to 43 by 2050.

The vast majority of cities are also coastal, leaving them vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise.

Hayward says that raises huge issues in New Zealand – issues that are too costly for individual councils to tackle alone. Questions include where do councils allow new houses to be built, how will houses in vulnerable areas be insured and, in some cases, how are communities built in the “wrong” place compensated?

Westport, on the South Island’s West Coast, Christchurch’s suburb of South Shore and South Dunedin are mentioned by Hayward as potential problem areas. There are hard decisions to be made, she says, but they’ll be made harder if people aren’t considered.

“That’s the other experience of living in Christchurch – you know how much it matters that you take the community with you, and that’s really hard to do.”

Useful research

For the sixth assessment report, Hayward was one of 721 experts from 90 countries to be invited to participate – along with a swag of Kiwi scientists, including coordinating lead authors James Renwick (water) and Judy Lawrence (Australasia), both of Victoria University of Wellington. Hayward is also a lead author for an IPCC special report for the impacts of global warming of 1.5ºC, which will be finalised later this year.

(Tangentially, at least, Hayward has personally felt some public criticism of climate science. She was working at the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre when the so-called ‘climategate’ emails were released in 2009. While many say the IPCC is quite conservative, she says it’s amazing to go through the organisation’s “brutal” rounds of reviews for reports. “I’ve been really surprised how it comes together and how powerful it becomes when there are lots of people [working together].”)

Training and working in New Zealand is useful background for IPCC work, Hayward says. That’s because academics in this country have limited resources and often collaborate with people who don’t see the world through a New Zealand lens. They’re always having to consider how other people think. That comes in handy when leading a team of researchers.

Hayward says she feels privileged and daunted by the years of work ahead. “I hope we’re able to deliver something that’s a bit useful. The reporting and the witnessing change is one thing, but it would be really great if we can deliver a few things that are actually useful for local councils that I know, or communities that I think about in both our international studies and our local work.”

For Hayward, though, it always seems to come back to young people. “I wish we had done the same thing as we’ve done in IPCC with things like inequality. Because I think if we’d had a way in which we could coordinate all of the world’s thinking around what are ways that we could tackle poverty or tackle inequality, it would have made such a difference.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment