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Urgency sparks action for PMs Science Communication winner

As public concern about climate change has intensified and more people have sought understandable information on what to do about it, so has the availability and impact of the winner of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize.

James Renwick, a Professor in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington, receives the $100,000 Prize for his outstanding communication about the science behind our changing climate and how it will affect the future.

In the past five years, Professor Renwick has been involved in more than 100 public presentations about climate change, given more than 200 media interviews in New Zealand and internationally and presented at numerous conferences focused on climate change and how to mitigate its effects. This includes leading the organising committee for the 2016 and 2018 Pacific Climate Change Conferences.

Professor Renwick, whose research focus is on climate variability, climate change and weather and climate prediction, also contributes to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which informs global agreements on climate change action. He is currently a convening lead author for the next IPCC Assessment Report, due in 2021.

“I try to accept every invitation that comes my way. I do feel a sense of duty to tell the world about the science behind climate change, how I see the consequences unfolding, and the need for action, which is urgent.

“The more opportunities people have to understand what is going on the better, as it is only when enough of us demand action that we are going to get it.

“It’s not about finger pointing, it’s about helping people understand what’s at stake, how little time we have and how they can best leverage their concern to influence those who make decisions.”

This year’s judges described Professor Renwick as communicating with warmth, humour and positivity, while always being clear about the seriousness of the issue. His public engagement is often done in his own time and sometimes using his own funds.

Professor Renwick began his career as a weather forecaster for the Meteorological Service, later transferring to NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) before joining Victoria University of Wellington in 2012.

Although Professor Renwick says he is “pretty shy and retiring by nature”, he discovered early in his career that he had a knack for putting across scientific ideas in a way that people can understand.

While he has been undertaking public engagement for around 20 years, Professor Renwick says demand for his contribution has grown significantly in the past three or four years as people become increasingly concerned about climate change.

“It’s a combination of all the things that are going on—the IPCC reports, what groups like Generation Zero and Greenpeace are doing, and more extreme weather events that people can see happening.

“The most common question I get is ‘what can I do?’. The answer I give is that if everybody does the small things, like reduce the amount they drive and their consumption of meat, it will add up. But I also say it shouldn’t be just down to individuals. People need to tell their political representatives that they want change. If enough people speak up, the message will get through.”

Professor Renwick says winning the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Communication has multiple benefits.

“Additional resources mean more communication activity can happen in the future and it is welcome recognition for the public engagement I have done. But the strongest element for me is the platform it provides to raise awareness about climate change even further.”

Some of the prize funds will be used by Professor Renwick to build collaborations on climate change between artists and scientists. He recently took part in a national speaking tour for the Track Zero Charitable Trust, which brings climate scientists and local artists together in communities around the country.

“The Trust sees artistic expression is a way of connecting with people’s emotions, with the heart rather than the head, so a partnership between science and the arts is another way of reaching new audiences and inspiring people to take action.”

Strengthening links with tangata whenua will be another focus.

“I think the Māori world view really is what we should be aiming for, that sense that we are part of the earth, we don’t have control over it and if we don’t look after our environment it won’t look after us.”

Professor Renwick has recently been invited to become Climate Advisor to the Māori Leaders Forum. In 2018, he was also presented with a Victoria University of Wellington Staff Excellence award for engagement.

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