Today hundreds of thousands of school students in more than 1,500 towns and cities in more than 100 countries including New Zealand will strike for climate action.

Many intend to keep striking every Friday until their communities, governments, businesses and all other organisations in their nations get serious about climate change.

Imagine our enormous power to change if every Friday we all focused on our responsibilities and responses to the climate. Whatever the subjects in school timetables, the routine tasks in business, the minutiae of politics and government or the humdrum necessities of everyday life we have crucial climate lessons to learn together and useful actions to take together.

Just as students worldwide are inspired by a lone Swedish teenager, so are many older people. On Friday August 20 last year Greta Thunberg, then 15, sat alone on the cobbled street outside the Swedish Parliament holding a simple placard she’d made: Skolstrejk för Klimatet. She has returned almost every Friday since, joined by swelling numbers of students and sparking a global change in the way people are encouraged to learn and engage on climate change.

Thunberg is a remarkable person in her message, her self, and her impact. One way of keeping track of the viral movement she has triggered is via Fridays for Future and its tally of student actions.

Wellington students with a sign quoting Greta Thunberg. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

As a small country with only a few degrees of separation between people we should be adept at constructive conversations that bring us together to act quickly on complex issues. But we aren’t. Like every other society we more often protect our vested interests rather than help solve our collective challenges.

Yet, on the rare occasions we come together to find common ground, we make good progress. The best example in recent years is the Land and Water Forum. The work was never easy. Beginning in August 2009, it took a year of intensive study and discussions by the diverse Forum members representing all types of water and land users to understand their shared interests and how they could work together to propose a legislative framework to government.

The Forum, modelled on the deliberative all-stakeholder processes that Scandinavian countries use to solve such complex issues, made considerable progress through its work and reports to government.

Thus informed, the Government fundamentally overhauled fresh water regulation. But that has fallen far short of what was needed and achievable because the Government picked what it wanted out of the Forum’s work rather than embrace the bigger, fuller suite of consensus proposals agreed by Forum members.

To respond to the vastly more complex issues of climate change, we will need such collaborative legislative processes. But they will need to be much bigger and more effective.

The core system will be laid out soon in the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill. This will establish our long-term climate goal – hopefully net zero carbon on balance across all climate change gases by 2050 – and the mechanisms to guide us there. The key one is an independent climate commission to set successive five-year carbon budgets for the country, to evaluate government policies, business strategies and societal responses, and to measure our progress.

Such Government-led, top-down frameworks are entirely essential to guide our multitudinous efforts; but they are utterly inadequate in themselves. We the people have to get our heads and hearts around climate change. Then each of us will take our infinitely small actions. These will aggregate up across the country into dramatic progress. We will encourage each other to do more. We will give communities, business, the Government and civil society organisations the courage and ambition to tackle climate change and to reap the rewards from doing so.

The importance of finding common ground

Many initiatives and factors will motivate us. But by far the most important is for people to find their common ground, however disparate their interests appear to be. For example, major corporates could say (incorrectly) their pathways to a very low carbon economy were too difficult and too costly for them, so the burden of change should fall on farmers; and farmers could use the same incorrect argument for taking little action while leaving the heavy lifting to urban New Zealand.

But if one sector acts but the other doesn’t, the simple maths of emissions means we will fail to tackle climate change. We need both sectors to act decisively to achieve a low carbon, wealthy, competitive and sustainable nation. That simple fact applies to every nation, not just ours.

The tasks of the two halves of New Zealand are very different. Broadly speaking urban New Zealand has long-term technology pathways to run its vehicle fleets on renewable energy, to build very low energy, low maintenance, low carbon buildings and infrastructure and to generate 100 percent renewable electricity to power both. But the capital costs of adopting the new technologies are enormous.

Conversely, the pathways are still developing by which our farmers will achieve low emissions, regenerative agriculture and food production. That will allow land, water and biodiversity to recover, thereby making the biosphere healthier, more resilient and more productive. While large investment in science is needed, the capital cost of change will be far less than the capital costs faced by urban New Zealand.

Even more importantly, both halves of New Zealand can learn from and support each other on their journeys. For example, urban New Zealand can be a source of clean energy and other technologies to help reduce the emissions in post-farm processing. It can also be a test market for the rapid consumer shift to more sustainable foods. For their part, farmers will develop highly demanding new science and technologies for managing complex environmental challenges, which urban New Zealand can learn from and apply to their ecosystems.

In such ways vested interests, currently bulwarks of resistance, will become champions of change.

However, there is an even bigger barrier to any kind of change in society, not just on climate issues. Some people look forward to a better future but don’t have the resources and power to make change – typically they are under 30 years old. Other people look down at the known path in which they have heavily invested so they trudge doggedly on – typically they are between 30 and 60. Some people look back, mindful that what worked for them won’t work now for their grandchildren – typically they are over 60.

Of course, whether you look forward, down or backwards is a state of mind rather than a matter of age. So, the mightiest climate change challenge of all is to help everyone take responsibility for the climate damage we have caused, to gain confidence we can turn things around, and to take their own actions to help.

These are the conversations we need constantly among our families, friends, and colleagues, and particularly with people we might think of as having very different agendas on climate from us. If we talk, we will find our common ground for understanding and action.

We can start by listening to our young people, and by joining them on this and all Fridays for Future.

Rod Oram is a weekly columnist who covers climate, economics and politics.

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