It’s described by many as the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. So where do we even start with tackling the seemingly impossible problem of climate change and its flow-on impacts?

A Victoria University of Wellington academic who is rising to the challenge is sociologist Jonathan Oosterman, who’s researching the kinds of radical adjustments New Zealand society needs to make to deal with the wider effects of climate change.

Oosterman, a Teaching Fellow in the School of Social and Cultural Studies, specialises in the social aspects of responding to the climate crisis.

He will be joining School Strike 4 Climate national co-ordinator Sophie Handford, RNZ National Mediawatch presenter Colin Peacock and fellow Victoria University of Wellington speakers for the panel discussion ‘A climate of social action’ during the University’s  Toitū te Ao—Sustainability Week, 9–13 September, five days of free public events offering fresh thinking for a more sustainable world.

Oosterman’s latest research is about the process of a ‘just transition’ – that is, the changes required to move New Zealand to a zero emissions economy while ensuring fairness and social justice are prioritised.

“I’m interested in the economic issues the climate crisis raises – we already know there’s a moral case for a just transition to ensure everyone affected by the climate crisis is looked after, but it’s also important to look at the strategic case,” he says.

“If we don’t address strategic issues around inequality at the same time as we address the climate crisis, we are not going to adequately respond to the climate problem. It’s not one or the other – they are interwoven.”

If people don’t believe they’re going to be protected in the future as we respond to the climate crisis, they’re not going to get on side with doing anything about it.

Oosterman says this approach will require additional work on eco-social policy, combining climate concerns with the normal pillars of social policy, such as welfare, housing and health.

“If people don’t believe they’re going to be protected in the future as we respond to the climate crisis, they’re not going to get on side with doing anything about it. To change everything, we need everyone,” he says. “To get enough people onside, they have to know they will be cared for and they also have to be resourced so they can play a productive role in this transition.”

Existing policies on just transition tend to be focused on looking after workers in the fossil fuel industry, which Oosterman says is too narrow.

“There’s an obvious need to offer a just transition for dairy and tourism workers too, because they are both industries where cuts will have to be made. It’s not something either industry wants to hear and there’ll be resistance, but if we can at least start talking about how we can look after dairy and tourism workers into the future then that’s a good thing.”

Oosterman says it’s not an easy message to deliver, but the sooner we start talking about it as a country the better.

“In order to mobilise people to support this vision and to address big picture stuff, we will need a shift towards a fairer taxation system and more generous social welfare. It’s certainly not straightforward, and it’s urgent – we don’t have long to do this.”

Another aspect of Oosterman’s current research is the sociology of emotion in the context of the climate crisis.

“Emotion plays a huge role in the climate crisis,” he says. “There’s a kind of double reality where we’re terrified about what’s going to happen at the same time as ignoring the problem completely.”

Oosterman has studied the work of Kari Norgaard, an American scholar on the sociology of climate change, and this week gave a lecture about her work. “She has developed a theory about the social organisation of denial and the way emotion plays a role in inaction, and links it back to the political economy.”

Other emotional aspects of the climate crisis Oosterman has researched include themes of hope and hopelessness.

There’s a kind of double reality where we’re terrified about what’s going to happen at the same time as ignoring the problem completely.

“Climate despair, climate depression, eco anxiety – there are many different terms for the difficult emotions it brings about,” he says. “I’m particularly interested in the issues of trust – namely how the climate crisis challenges our trust in society – and hope. Hope is a tricky issue because in one sense it’s definitely positive, but we’ve also got to be careful not to have false hope in what’s achievable, because we are already committed to major climate impacts.”

As part of his 2016 Master’s thesis on the communication practices in the New Zealand climate movement, Oosterman extensively interviewed a selection of communicators, ranging from current and former MPs through to protesters and campaigners, farmer educators and people leading community-level sustainability projects. His aim was to document the ways in which climate communicators engage the public most effectively to make climate action relevant and meaningful.

“One thing that was common to all these practitioners was their desire to strike a balance in their messages between speaking the truth – really spelling out the devastation that climate change will cause – and meeting people where they’re at so the message doesn’t overwhelm them.”

He said the theme of hope regularly came up in his Master’s research, too. “The communicators I interviewed spoke of a need to balance fear and hope in their messaging – providing a connection to solutions so that people could feel like they could make a difference, because if it’s all too scary people will just switch off completely.”

In terms of his own motivation, Oosterman has had a long interest in sustainability issues, with a background on the front lines of environmental protests, including the Save Happy Valley campaign (which fought a proposed open-cast coal mine on the South Island’s West Coast).

“I was heavily involved in climate activism and lived it for 24 hours a day for a long time,” he says. “I was giving public meetings up and down the country, doing media interviews, and I even got arrested, but I ended up getting really burnt out.”

Oosterman pulled back from a lot of his climate activism work, but his passion for the issue hasn’t waned – he still attends climate events and protests, but in a supporting capacity rather than a leadership one.

He says his current focus on researching and teaching about the climate crisis is immensely satisfying and something he hopes has enormous value, too.

“Hundreds of millions of lives, and the wellbeing of everyone on the planet, are at stake,” he says. “But we know that social movements are powerful. It’s time to take action together to care for our collective future, before it’s too late.”

Other events during Sustainability Week include Helen Clark in ConversationSustaining the economyMātauranga Māori and sustainabilityA climate of social action and a keynote lecture by climate expert and 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize recipient Professor James Renwick. Newsroom will be running reports from throughout the week.

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