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Source: Massey University

Our oceans have become more acidic, they’ve warmed, their usual patterns of circulation have changed, and sea levels have risen.

Produced in partnership with The Spinoff, the new episode of Conversations That Count – Ngā Kōrero Whai Take looks at how our oceans are being affected by climate change – and whose voices we should be prioritising in our response. We asked Dr Libby Liggins to share her thoughts.

As the Covid pandemic slowly loosens its grip on our way of life in Aotearoa, we can reflect on how we have changed and what we may have gained during our response to this confronting global issue. In the latest episode of the Conversations That Count – Ngā Kōrero Whai Take podcast series, I spoke with host Stacey Morrison and Kera Sherwood-O’Regan about the urgency we must now take in turning our attention to tackling climate change, and the important role that each and every member of our team of five million will have in that fight.

Aotearoa has not suffered the same magnitude of climate change impacts as some other nations. Our oceans have been buffering us, absorbing a quarter of our annual carbon dioxide emissions and 90% of the excess heat energy that we’ve produced over the last half century. But our ocean climate has been impacted. Our oceans have become more acidic, they’ve warmed, their usual patterns of circulation have changed, and sea levels have risen. And the evidence suggests that these trends are set to continue. Because of past inaction to address climate change, New Zealanders’ livelihoods and wellbeing will suffer impacts – and these impacts, as is so often the case, will be distributed inequitably across our society. 

But Covid-19 has demonstrated that, when the situation demands it, our government is capable of moving nimbly and that New Zealanders are capable of mobilising as a society. I believe that we can apply lessons from that response to our ongoing efforts in the climate change crisis, and that in doing so we can each take a role in safeguarding our livelihoods and our well-being.

As a delegate to multiple United Nations climate conferences, Kera has implored the UN assembly to prioritise Indigenous and disabled perspectives in their action to address and mitigate the root causes of climate change. My own research at Massey University and Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira (supported by the Royal Society Te Apārangi) focuses on the impact climate change will have on marine species around our coastlines. 

These may seem like disparate fields, but they’re grounded in a common idea of sustainability – that the oceanic biodiversity impacts of climate change are immediately relevant to countless lifestyles and livelihoods, with those who depend upon locally available marine species or a thriving local marine ecosystem the most immediately and severely affected by these. And although not everyone’s understanding comes from academia, as we discuss in this kōrero I firmly believe that as humans we’re all innately scientists; we’re born to be curious and to try and better understand our world. 

Stacey Morrison, Kera Sherwood-O’Regan and Dr Libby Liggins.

The discourse about local and social impacts of climate change is limited in Aotearoa, but we need only look to our Pacific neighbours, or across the Tasman, to gain evidence that there will be impacts on our marine taonga, kaimoana, and fisheries stocks, and therefore on our livelihoods, vitality and cultural practices (such as mahinga kai). As scientists we model and predict that several marine species will disappear from certain regions and will establish in different parts of our coastline. We also expect that many non-native species will make their way into our coastal waters – these species could threaten the survival of local native species, but they could also present new opportunities for recreational and commercial harvest. 

I’ve examined the DNA of species we expect are being influenced by local climate change, tracing their whakapapa, and looking for genetic signatures of population increase, decrease, or adaptation. But there are other ways of knowing. Among the first witnesses of local climate change impacts are members of our society that are not necessarily formally trained scientists but are attuned to the moana – as Kera says in our kōrero, “When we start to recognise climate change as not only an environmental issue or a scientific issue but as a social issue, I think there’s a lot more space for our communities to really lead in terms of the knowledge they already have.”

In the research that PhD student and Niwa scientist Irene Middleton and I have conducted, we’ve attempted to steward the knowledge of these New Zealanders to describe changes in the distributional range of marine fishes over recent decades, providing some of the first tangible, and locally-relevant examples for how climate change will impact the value we draw from our marine environment.

Just as we turned up during the Covid-19 pandemic to get tested, just as we adjusted to the process of scanning in at shops, and now as we vaccinate, Kera, Stacey and I discuss the important role that ‘the team’ will have to play in sharing knowledge and mātauranga to describe local impacts and find solutions. Conversations about meaningful impacts of climate change are needed to increase our grasp on the challenges we face, and only by having these kōrero can we share and accumulate the knowledge required to mount solutions to these problems. Our short term solutions may not halt climate change, and may only temper the impacts on our marine species, but only by building these foundations can we make our society more prepared for – and resilient to – the local and global impacts of climate change.