Q&A with Sea Rotmann, on climate change, Antarctica and leadership

20 October 2015

Dr Sea Rotmann is a marine biologist, energy efficiency expert and SBN Board member, who has been selected to go on an all-female-scientists expedition to Antarctica to develop the leadership skills to help women smash through the glass ceiling.

In this Q&A Sea talks about the upcoming Antarctica expedition, the realities of climate change and why we, as New Zealanders, need to lessen our impact on the environment.

What is the purpose of your expedition to Antarctica?

Well, Fabian Dattner, the woman who’s pulled together this team of 78 global women scientists, is an Australian leadership expert who knows that women  can be highly successful in leadership positions, but despairs over the fact that there are way too few of them. The reason she chose Antarctica for an expedition, called ‘Homeward Bound’, is because it’s such a life-changing experience and she wanted us to be in a really special place where we could experience it together and really connect with each other. Here is more information on the trip: http://homewardboundprojects.com.au

We’re basically going to be taught strategic leadership by some of the world’s top leadership strategists and coaches. There will be a lot of work on climate change and the massive importance of Antarctica in the world’s climate. Dr Justine Shaw (University of Queensland), Dr Mary-Anne Lea (Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania) and Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas (Australian Antarctic Division) will coordinate and deliver a cutting-edge science programme to participants, incorporating the most up-to-date and relevant research about the state and functioning of our planet. This will be made into a feature film and studied by the University of Tasmania so we’ll be followed as research subjects to see if we formed strong bonds with each other and learnt the right tools to demonstrate the leadership we need to change the world for the better.

Antarctica is the driving force of the world’s climate in a lot of ways – the presence of the high ice sheet and the polar location make Antarctica a powerful heat sink that strongly affects the climate of the whole Earth. Find out more here.

We still know very little about the Antarctic compared with other regions, including the Arctic, and scientists are particularly worried about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the rapid shrinkage of which pretty much forms the greatest threat to the inhabited world as it could raise sea levels by more than 60m.

What are some of the threats that Antarctica, New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands face from climate change? 

I lived in Australia for nine years and I’ve studied coral reefs so I’ve been aware since the mid 1990s about the danger to coral reefs from ocean acidification and rising sea levels (both related to climate change).

I did research in Papua New Guinea on the coral bleaching events during El Niño periods. I saw what happens to coral reefs during these events and I know it’s going to happen again this year and they may not be able to bounce back like they did last time. Sea level temperature has risen up to five degrees in some spots this year because of El Niño. One of the things that’s scariest is that in my life time corals could disappear after they’ve been around for 450 million years. Knowing we’re responsible for that is kind of the worst thing I can think of.

This is also important for New Zealand even though we’re in this little paradise that may, in the short term, be less affected than Australia and some of our Pacific neighbours. But climate change will impact on our farming sector, as well as many others, and New Zealand will bear a lot of the brunt of climate refugees down the track. There may even be some Australians among them.

Do we need to be shocking people into understanding how everyday life affects climate change?

There are different ideas around that. I do not shy away from being very blunt and personal. We scientists who are being ‘alarmist’, and the state of the world is alarmist, see the value in that but psychologists say that if you’re too alarmist it causes people to put their heads in the ground even further and become more anti-climate change, which is what you see with Republicans and Conservatives in the United States.

I think it’s very important that people and scientists tell their personal stories. There is a term coined for scientists working in climate change called ‘Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ and it’s the fact that we know what’s coming and we’re shit scared but everyone is carrying on as if nothing is happening.  There seems to be no one here to help us deal with that stuff. But it is something we should talk about, rather than burying it in the ground.

Whats the solution?

We should talk about the great benefits of transitioning our energy system to renewables. Technologically it’s entirely doable and with the new generation Tesla batteries we will be able to store solar much more efficiently. We’ll also be able to share solar energy across the community or we could sell it to our neighbours.

We have more renewable energy resources than pretty much any other country on the planet. We could take our country and our transport system to 100 per cent renewable in 20 years. New Zealand needs to step up and the politicians need to step up. If they won’t do it, we need to and we need to start asking for it. We can’t think: it’s just a few of us, we can’t do anything. Every one of us has the power to change things.

Ultimately there’s not one thing that each person in New Zealand can’t do that’s not going to have a positive impact. This whole idea that it’s ‘just me’ or ‘New Zealand is only responsible for 0.2 per cent of emissions’ is absolutely redundant. If New Zealand can’t do it, then no one can. We have the ability to be leaders, we’re a small, nimble country that isn’t bogged down by tradition and too much bureaucracy. There are only 4 million of us and we’re a people who have shown we can be flexible and change quickly. This is the time to step up again and show that leadership.