Newshub had to do some tactful filming of the School Strike 4 Climate protests in 2019 when one of their anchors abruptly – and against work policy – hopped into the front line with his then-teenage daughter, who was one of the co-organisers.
It was around this time in his journalism career that Mike McRoberts reckons climate change really popped onto the concern radar of the general New Zealand public.
“The sight of thousands of kids passionately demonstrating made a lot of us sit up and think, it certainly grabbed my attention,” he says, “I actually felt quite ashamed of what we hadn’t done as a generation, over the last 20 or 30 years.
“My daughter was front and centre holding a banner, and stuck me next to her. I thought about how it wouldn’t play well with work for about five seconds. And then I looked at her and thought, why the hell not? I support her, and I support what she’s doing.”
* Tips for eating vegetarian in Auckland, New Zealand’s plant-based capital
* Why Ron Swanson would care about the climate, according to Lucy Lawless
* Not just a phase: How Gen Z is changing climate politics
* Anger, guilt and optimism: young farmers’ complicated relationship with climate change
Journalists have an obligation to be impartial, but this subject is one of those things that McRoberts says is hard to keep quiet about.
“If it’s happening, it’s happening. I got sick of climate change sceptics being interviewed for stories because there is really no need to hear their opinion.”
The first step in his journey to a greener personal life was entirely inadvertent. He used to do a lot of running and endurance sports that left him with a debilitating knee injury.
He had undergone a number of ineffectual procedures, but happened to be in Japan for a story and realised that his knee was feeling really good, the best it had done in a long time.
He wasn’t eating a lot of meat before then, but had been on a diet of standard Japanese fare like noodles, miso and seafood.
“I worked out it was probably because I wasn’t having dairy. I thought, well, I’ll give this vegan thing a go and haven’t looked back.”
One in ten New Zealanders are vegetarian, and more of us than ever are embracing entirely plant-based diets, for myriad reasons such as price, preference and moral beliefs.
That means plant-based food options are more becoming widely available and understood. But they almost always pale in comparison to the meaty canapés served at events or restaurants, McRoberts says, and are underwhelming or non-existent at petrol stations and rural roadside stops.
On the road to Whakatāne to report on the Whakaari White Island tragedy, he recalls going into a couple of restaurants and asking if they had anything vegan: “I was met with stares of ‘uh, no’ – almost like I was accusing them of something,” he jokes.
“And then I said, well have you got avocado?
“Well can I have avocado on toast?”
In 2019, the proportion of New Zealanders eating “meat free” jumped to 15 per cent, according to the Colmar Brunton Better Futures report. In 2018, that number was 10 per cent, and the year before, just 7 per cent.
Auckland was also recently named the 13th most vegetarian-friendly city in the world, but as little as three years ago, vegans were much more likely to be publicly loathed and ridiculed than dubbed ‘trendy’.
“I was at supermarket last year and some guy decided to check out what I had in my trolley, and then accused me of being a traitor,” the Newshub anchor says, possibly in reference to his longstanding association with dairy farmers that includes MC’ing the NZ Dairy Industry Awards for seven consecutive years.
“I told him produce farmers are farmers too, mate.”
Otago University researchers developed a New Zealand-specific food database in 2020, showing emissions associated with different products (taking into account everything from production to transport and refrigeration).
Their study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, found if every adult in New Zealand adopted a vegan diet and minimised food waste, the emissions saved would equal about 60 per cent of emissions from cars and vans.
The emissions associated with the “typical New Zealand adult’s diet” amounted to about 6.6 kilograms of carbon-dioxide equivalent a day – with more than a third of this coming from meat, seafood and eggs.
At a minimum, if every adult followed Ministry of Health dietary guidelines, there would be a 4 per cent reduction in diet-related emissions, through to a 42 per cent annual reduction for the waste-free vegan diet. This would save the health system anywhere between $14 billion to $20b over our average lifetime.
Primary Industries Minister Damien O’Connor says veganism poses both risks and opportunities for New Zealand: “There is a huge market for pasture fed, high quality, hormone free meat that’s raised in an ethical way and that’s where we need to be positioning ourselves.”
McRoberts agrees: “I think we have to start farming differently and better, and make it high end.”
“This intensive farming that we have now is not good for the environment, and it’s actually not that great for farmers on the breadline. We have the best meat and dairy produce, so our farmers should be getting the best prices.”
McRoberts has gone through a few vegan phases. He started eating a lot of meat alternatives, like the Beyond Beef burger patties: “But I was having two or three burgers a week, which I would never have done beforehand. I tend more towards wholefoods now.”
One of his favourite meals is just lentils and mushrooms, which costs about three bucks.
“I’ve devised a lentil, potato and carrot casserole that has gone all around Newshub. It’s a hearty winter dish, and you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything.
“Although, my good friend Ryan Bridge said it’d be perfect if it had a bit of lamb in it.”
When McRoberts isn’t in the studio, he can be found at the Avondale markets on a Sunday morning. He estimates he used to spend $400-$500 on groceries for a household of four, but now it’s more like $250, including the odd bit of meat for his adult son.
He reckons he hasn’t fallen off the wagon, although he’s not strict about traces of egg or butter in things when he’s out at events: “You’ve still got to eat”.
“The things I really miss are fish and eggs because I used to eat a lot of eggs.”
His weekend brekkie is a “Tex-Mex vegan version of scrambled eggs”: Tofu scramble cooked in turmeric, for the anti inflammation properties, with some mushroom and tomato chucked in, spinach, hemp hearts, and some fresh red chilli on top.
While it’s tempting to talk about waste and overlook food and travel when talking about our climate impact, food and travel’s impact is typically bigger than what goes in a red-topped bin. McRoberts is tackling all three, though he admits he’s taken his share of planes.
“I used to travel a lot, and a lot of it would be by plane. I’ve got a hybrid Lexus car, which is fantastic. Eventually I’d like to get an electric car like my greenie co-host Sam, but they’re quite expensive.
“For my 55th birthday in March I splurged and bought my partner and myself e-mountain bikes. They’re great for the hills out West.”
Riding the bike to work would be an option, he says, if the cycle lanes that run along Auckland’s North Western motorway didn’t abruptly end where Great North Road goes West.
In 2009, Oxfam invited a group of international journalists to Uganda for the release of a massive climate change document, a report card on where the world was.
McRoberts wasn’t immune to the irony of making the carbon-intensive trip.
This was at the time when whether climate change existed was being heavily debated, “and New Zealand was probably a bit arrogant in how we thought we were doing,” McRoberts says.
The group took the journalists to Moroto, a 12-hour drive north of the capital city Kampala to visit the tribal Karamojongan people, who rely on herding cattle and crop farming.
“The effect of climate change there was incredible.
“The rainy season had reduced to two weeks. Rivers weren’t being filled. Crops were failing. Cattle had nothing to graze on, so the farmers were chopping down what trees there were to salvage charcoal, exacerbating the problem.
“The fact that we’d travelled 30,000km to show that wasn’t lost on me, but probably worth it.”
The one area of his personal life that McRoberts admits is “shocking” in terms of its climate impact is his wardrobe. He hadn’t quite noticed how pronounced his online retail therapy habit was until he moved house last year, and was confronted with bags and bags of garments.
“There is the work clothes, the suits and jackets and ties. But there is also pants and jackets and jerseys and shirts and shoes. I had bought one well-fitting jersey in five different colours. How many times a year do you even wear a jersey in Auckland?”
He made the decision last month not to buy any more clothes for one year. And so far, so good.
“My partner Heidi buys a lot of her clothes secondhand and so does my daughter. I’m embarrassed to say it’s never something I’ve thought about.
“One nice perk of going vegan is that I dropped a few pounds and fit a few old things. Whereas normally I’d go, this is the perfect opportunity to get a new wardrobe.”
For New Zealand, a lot of the personal contributions we can make to combat climate change are, “going back to the future,” McRoberts says.
“We moved away from things like paper bags and glass-bottle milk deliveries for convenience.
“We need to almost go back to what we used to do.
“Because it’s going to be even more inconvenient if the world doesn’t have a bloody future.”
“I went vegan for a particular reason, which was health. But when you make an effort to play your small part, you start picking up on all the other elements involved with that decision – and they become quite critical to whom you want to be.
“And when more individuals embark on their own green journey, the Government will need to come to table and address some of the bigger issues.”