World champions: Five women working to save us from climate change disaster
THE HAZARD HUNTER
Judy Lawrence has spent about 30 years researching what could happen as a result of climate change. Now, she’s seeing what is happening because of it.
The effects are being felt today, she says, whether it’s in rural communities dealing with ever more frequent droughts or with lifestylers whose coastal homes are becoming uninhabitable.
Lawrence is interested in adaptation. She’s looking not just at why we need to be reducing our emissions, but how it will impact us if we don’t – and how it already is.
“What we’re seeing now is because of emissions that have already happened,” she says. “They’re in the atmosphere, and they’re cooking.
“We can’t do much other than adapt to those. But we can, through emission reduction, reduce the adaption burden for our futures.”
She’s the woman the Government goes to when it needs advice about how our lives will need to change as the climate changes. As of December, she is one of the first climate commissioners responsible for trying to keep the Government on track with its reduction commitments.
Her climate science journey really kicked off in 1992. After working as a public servant, exploring the hazards associated with sea-level rise and other issues, Lawrence joined a new Government programme set up after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“Of course, no one wanted to know about it back then. They denied it, or thought it wasn’t important,” she says.
They can’t say that any more.
Looking back at her career, Lawrence says she was and is a rule breaker. Working at Victoria University in Wellington, her time is spent researching and trying to uncover solutions to the problems that climate change brings for New Zealand.
It’s been a team effort to get the country to this point, she says. And women have formed a huge part of her team.
“Many women are working in this field, and three people have been really instrumental: Helen Hughes, the former commissioner for the environment, she brought the issue of climate change to the Ministry for the Environment,” she says.
“Helen Plume, she’s at the Ministry for the Environment… working on the international reporting side of this. And the other person who’s been instrumental is Shonagh Kenderdine, an ex Environment Court judge… Those are some of the people who have been a continuous presence in bringing the work to fruition.”
THE URBAN FARMER
In many ways, Fiona Stewart feels at home on the farm. She grew up on a sheep and beef farm started by her grandparents in South Canterbury, now run by her brother.
She has farms of her own now, too… but the similarities don’t go much further than that.
Stewart is a co-founder of the initiative Cultivate Christchurch. She has four farm sites across Christchurch, Christchurch the city itself, not Canterbury. One of the farms is nestled between a Wilson’s car park and a row of townhouses. This is an urban, organic, community-focused farming project, but what does that mean?
“We want to cut out the middleman,” she says. Cultivate Christchurch has managed to cut out almost every middleman and reduce emissions, as well. It delivers food direct to buyers nearby, often using electric bikes to make the deliveries.
It uses organic practices, meaning harmful fertilisers aren’t imported from across the globe. Instead, compost is made onsite thanks to food waste from restaurants. Again, electric bikes are used to collect that waste, up to 2 tonnes per week to start with.
And the food is fresh, often farmed and eaten by the same people in the same day.
This isn’t a money-making project. It’s about community.
“I naturally have had a lot of experiences where people will come to me to ask for help,” Stewart says.
She remembers many occasions when people have opened up to her, at parties or elsewhere, and that got her thinking about how to help more people. She decided a farm would be the best way.
“I really wanted to work with young people who have learning and behavioural challenges. I thought the best environment for that would be a farm. People learn where their food comes from, they become connected to the land. And through that, you build stronger connections with people and space,” she explains.
“It’s levelling, everyone’s planting the same plants and no one’s more important than another. On the farm, you work as a team.”
Scientists have been warning us about issues with importing food, wasting fuel and polluting the environment through transport, refrigeration and fertilisation, for a long time. These convoluted supply chains can also be risky, potentially leaving cities cut off if the chain breaks.
The UN and sustainable development experts have been encouraging the growth of local and urban food production. They say growing and selling locally is good for the environment and people.
THE ARCTIC EXPLORER
As we talk, Ruzica Dadic is trapped in a German hotel room. She’s been there for just under two weeks, spending her days in quarantine solitude on the other side of the world from her family living in Karori, Wellington.
Dadic is a scientist whose specialties include the structure and effects of snow. It doesn’t snow much in Karori, and when it does – in “once in a decade” weather events – the snow doesn’t settle. Rain is the enemy of snow. It rains a lot in places like Wellington.
The bad news is, it’s recently started raining more in places like Antarctica. Obviously, when it rains, the snow melts – but what happens after that? What happens to the ice which sits beneath the snow, what happens to us?
Those are the questions which keep Dadic working. They’re part of the reason she’s embarked on a huge expedition across the world, right in the middle of a global pandemic. She talks to Sunday from her hotel in Germany, from where she will start her expedition to join an ice-breaker ship sitting in the Arctic.
She’ll call the research ship, the RV Polarstern, home for two months. It’s the first Antarctic or Arctic expedition she’s been on since before the birth of her eldest child, now 7 years old, and it’s a big one.
She was meant to join the ship in March, but Covid-19 got in the way. A member of the flight team, responsible for ferrying people and equipment to and from the ice-encrusted ship, tested positive for Covid-19 in March and the entire flight crew were isolated.
It takes more than a week to reach the ship, which has been – until recently – looking out of place surrounded by stretches of sea ice on all sides. Dadic joins the ship on its final leg, as the ice moves out, carrying the ship with it, to warmer summer seas where the ice will break.
She’s making the trip to find out how snow preserves sea ice. It’s important because snow, unlike water or ice, is highly reflective.
“It reflects about 90 per cent of solar energy back into space – that means all that energy isn’t absorbed by the Earth. Snow is like a fridge,” she explains.
It’s like when you wear a black shirt in summer, Dadic says. You’ll heat up, it won’t be nice. Sea ice and glaciers like a nice white coat of snow to stay intact for longer.
It gets a bit complicated from there. Snow might be helping keep the atmosphere cooler, which means there’ll be more snowfall instead of rainfall. If this is disrupted, then the worst-case scenario sees a spiral of less ice and snow with hotter temperatures contributing to rougher and fuller seas. The melting ice, unprotected by snow, will mean sea-level rise.
Dadic wants to know the intricacies of the snow, to see how it can protect the ice, and therefore the climate and us.
“I specialise in looking at the microstructure of snow. The question I’m asking is, how does snow affect the sea ice, ecosystem and atmosphere? We don’t understand snow and sea ice very well. Snow is quite complicated,” she says.
That question will see Dadic almost completely cut off from the rest of the world, and her family back in Wellington, for the next few months. The ship has only limited access to data, and most of it is needed to feed scientific information out to the world. Video calls home won’t be possible, for this glaciologist trying to seek urgent answers about the future of snow.
THE PACIFIC CLIMATE WARRIOR
At 11 years old, Brianna Fruean decided to try to make a difference in her community. Living in Apia, Samoa, the burgeoning activist was instrumental in making the voices of her classmates heard.
They started small, as primary school activists do, looking around their homes and neighbourhoods. They raised awareness, teaching others about climate change, and built systems to organise car pooling. With so much at stake if the worst effects of climate change are realised, Fruean thought they should do everything possible to reduce carbon emissions.
Her advocacy led the Samoan government to pledge to plant 1 million trees. Again, in 2017, the government pledged to double its effort with a second campaign to plant 2 million trees.
Now studying international relations in Auckland, Fruean says her attention’s turning towards governments whose inaction will cost the Pacific dearly.
And she’s worried about the people who are left to make the decisions. Even vocal supporters of climate action often can’t see the full picture, she says.
Climate activists and supporters in the West have tended to be mainly “Pākehā and vegan,” she says.
A lack of diversity is a major issue, Fruean says, because climate change is a global issue and if only one group is looking for solutions, they might miss better solutions elsewhere.
“I want to continue doing work on how we can make our communities look more colourful when we’re trying to save a world full of colour. If you lack diversity in response to any issues, you will not have all the solutions that you should.”
For Fruean, it’s a constant question of where best to spend her time. There’s plenty to be done with community projects, or organising climate strikes… there are even international and United Nations-run meetings to attend. It’s a lot to handle, especially at 22 years old, but it’s something Fruean is used to.
THE MONEY TREE CEO
There are plenty of charities and people willing and waiting to do good work for the environment. It’s just an issue of money.
Money is something Adele Fitzpatrick understands. With a background in business and communications, Fitzpatrick now finds herself the chief executive of a charity called Project Crimson. You may know it from the ads on television for a project called Trees That Count – Te Rahi o Tāne.
In short, Fitzpatrick has found a way to make money for trees.
These are trees that will return no profit, they’re no good for forestry. Neither will they be sold as “carbon offsets” to make you feel better about the climate toll of your holidays. They will most probably grow very slowly.
These are native trees, and they’ve planted 520,000 of them since 2016.
Fitzpatrick says people are lining up to have native trees on their land – the issue is funding. That’s where she comes in.
“I’m very business, all business,” she says. Her background is in marketing, communications and management. Working for Project Crimson is her first foray in the charity sector, after being asked to join and bring her business expertise to help the ecologists behind the project.
“I run the charity like it’s a commercial organisation or business. We went from having five part-time contractors, and a bunch of volunteer trustees, to now being an organisation of 20 and operating quite commercially,” she says.
What’s the secret? They make it seem like they’re selling something, she says.
“People feel like they’re getting something when they donate to us, because we talk about trees… We tell them where the trees are… Trees are our currency, native trees.”
Often, their donors or customers are getting something. Companies get to add it to their green credentials. Money talks.
Fitzpatrick says her new line of work is “good for the soul”. She’s doing the same sort of work, negotiating with businesses and marketing a product, but this time for trees. Simple, yet vital, trees.
By Glenn McConnell