Sally Webster discovers reaching school pupils with positivity is the best antidote to climate change

Earlier this month, somewhere in the Vatican, Pope Francis was handed a DVD of Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival 2015 finalist, Thin Ice. The work is a Victoria University of Wellington and Oxford University co-lab about New Zealand scientists exploring climate change through a story told by layers of ice buried deep in Antarctica.

The possibility of His Holiness reading it made an amusing anecdote by executive-producer Peter Barrett at the Thin Ice Academy premiere in Auckland this month. He said he’d really only popped into Rome as an aside on the way somewhere else, then caught up with a kiwi he knew to be of high catholic ranking who, as it turned out, had the pope’s ear.

It sounds like an elaborate way of getting a DVD in front of one of the most popular climate change influencers to date. But, as climate modellers in the film tell us, we need to think creatively to encourage behaviour change fast. Getting people to change their carbon-productive behaviour is not easy – it involves inconvenience, as so eloquently framed by Al Gore in 2006.

If there is anyone who should be supporting a film on why ice caps are melting and swallowing countries it is the writer of the this year’s Laudato Si’, the encyclical His Holiness penned himself, subtitled Care for our Common Home.

The 184 page document lambasts humans’ destructive-to-laissez-faire attitude to Mother Earth and condemns the behaviour we have inflicted on the planet: ‘This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).’

Thin Ice was actually launched in 2012, appeared on over 200 cinema screens worldwide, was translated into six languages for DVD and streaming, won multiple international film festival awards and three months ago the content was edited down for the mainstream palette of American Public Television. Since then it has aired on more than 150 stations in the United States and screened at a number of highly regarded film festivals, picking up numerous awards.

In New Zealand, the work’s original home, it aired on the news for a few minutes one weekday evening.

But it was at this moment, event organiser Simon Kemp- Roberts was struck by the film’s relevance, not to mention the lack of coverage here.

“I just caught the clip on Thin Ice winning awards in U.S and wondered why I hadn’t heard more about it elsewhere. I was so impressed and it made me think about how I could use my skills to work with subjects that really matter. It’s great putting on entertainment, but recently I’ve reflected more and more that it seems ridiculous to be on this planet and not do some something good towards it as well.”

He picked up the phone and set about organising the Thin Ice road show pilot that has taken the film as well as some of the cast and crew into Auckland schools.

This project has just finished a two week stretch showing senior students (and in some cases their wider school community) the factual basis for climate-behaviour change. The 90 minute event consisted of the film followed by panel discussion and teaching resources written by Onslow College in Wellington, a school involved with Thin Ice from the outset.

Waitakere College, King’s College, Michael Park, Long Bay College, Kaipara College, Baradene College, Botany Downs all took part in the programme. Tracey Butchers, Careers Administrator at King’s College, said the show elicited some probing questions – specifically, boys asked what they could do to effect change.

“Our student liaison already had a relationship with Victoria University and knew about the film and [roadshow opportunity.] The Head of Geography thought it sounded interesting and because the Year 10 students were studying climate change it seemed a good fit. Some Year 13 science and geography students also watched the film. Even though in parts there was a lot of scientific detail, they grasped the overall concept; they all understood that climate change is real, it’s proven, it’s happening now and it’s going to keep happening.”

Panel members suggested they talk with their dollars, for instance, they could pressure large organisations like Auckland Council to use service providers with a clean green footprint.

Discussion at the Academy’s premiere – the official NZ re-package and kick-off for the roadshow – revealed similar requests for advice. The panel included actress and activist Lucy Lawless, Radio New Zealand science reporter Veronika Meduna, Generation Zero’s Nico Elsen, co-director Simon Lamb, Ecostore founder Malcolm Rands and Sustainable Coastlines chief executive Sam Judd.

Members of the audience provided some valuable input: one woman said we need to write to businesses and tell them why we are not buying their CO2 infused product or service.

Sam Judd said finding ways to get school children to care about their natural environment was the key to societal behaviour change:

“Access to nature helps people care about nature.”

A teacher in the audience agreed, saying, “Today kids are so overtly tech-aware that they have no idea what is out there in the environment.” A Year 13 geography student said she saw gaps in what they were being taught – sciences such as climate change needed to be far more prevalent if adults of the future are to understand its significance.

Later, Case Basket spoke to Camden Howitt, Sustainable Coastline’s General Manager and Communications Director who confirmed a positive link is essential in effecting change with their school programmes.

“Being exposed to nature is a positive experience. This is far more valuable than telling people what to do – it is better to give them a positive experience to associate nature with.

“In fact, we are re-branding how we do this by not using words like ‘green’ ‘environmental’ and ‘sustainability’, except for in our name, because we would rather create a fun/ light-hearted association with nature. Messages also need to be locally contextual and easily actionable.

Howitt added that sure, the polar ice caps might be melting away but the sense of urgency in a classroom full of Auckland pupils is not going to feel as acute as it would for pupils on the Franz Joseph Glacier.

“So in Auckland for instance, you might bring up the issue of Tamaki Drive becoming increasingly flooded because of the polar ice caps melting. Student questions then might be, will this affect mum picking me up from sports practice after school? It all comes back to local relationships.”

This ties neatly in with work released yesterday from 28 international researchers in the scientific journal, Nature Climate Change. According to a release from Victoria University of Wellington, ‘their research examined which factors are most likely to result in people taking action. It was led by Dr Paul Bain from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, and co-ordinated by Dr Taciano Milfont from Victoria University of Wellington and Professor Yoshihisa Kashima from the University of Melbourne.’

In Dr Bain’s words, “the traditional approach to convincing people to care about climate change by emphasising its devastating consequences has so far failed…Governments and individuals have not yet taken widespread meaningful action, so we wanted to find alternative ways to encourage people to make a difference.”

Victoria’s Dr Taciano Milfont, from the Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research and School of Psychology, says the team’s work is highly promising.

“The findings have implications not only for communicating climate change initiatives, but also for designing climate change policies. It provides guidance for creating policies that not only address climate change, but which also produce the social benefits that people want.”

While the Vatican hasn’t yet confirmed if His Holiness has watched Thin Ice, Kemp-Roberts says the schools have expressed a strong demand for building the roadshow into their senior science curriculum next year. Victoria University are now reviewing the pilot and will come to decision about further shows by the end of this year.

Featured image courtesy Carlow Kilkenny Energy Agency fighting Climate Change