A portent for things to come?

We need leadership at all levels of government and in the community to adapt to climate change impacts like the recent Tasman fires argues Dr Judy Lawrence, Senior Research Fellow at Victoria University of Wellington's Climate Change Research Institute

This summer the Tasman fires have been a wake-up call for our preparedness for more of the same across our dry areas of New Zealand as the climate changes. Last summer it was Cyclone Gita and a few months before that in 2017 the south of New Zealand experienced a very heavy rainfall event that stretched our resources. On each King tide and especially with storms in Auckland, Tamaki Drive is underwater and coastal properties in low lying roads are flooded at the coast in Hawkes Bay, Wellington and the West Coast. In Bay of Plenty and the Coromandel, estuary margins are increasingly being flooded. These events will become more intense and as the seas keep rising, flooding will be permanent in some areas and occur also on sunny days.

But how many more of these “events” do we need before we get organised to deal with the changing climate risk profile that confronts us as a nation? Will we need many in rapid succession to lull us out of our false sense of security that the authorities are there to pick up the pieces? Or knowing the consequences can we start acting now to avoid the worst of the inevitable damage and losses to come? Could the money we spend on clean-up be better spent on education or health?

As insurance companies increase premiums to cover the unknown but increasing risks, they are withdrawing from what are now foreseeable climate-related risks, those that we are already experiencing. Insurance however does not reduce the risk directly it only acts as a signal which we can adapt to or not. We cannot rely upon the government to pick up the gap as insurers withdraw and development loans become harder to get. And the EQC fund is under extreme pressure from earthquake claims. This means our councils become the ‘insurer’ of last resort through their planning instruments that control where we live. But are they exercising their mandates to avoid and reduce risk in exposed areas? Their license to operate a precautionary mandate through district and regional plans has been challenged repeatedly around the country, hobbling councils as they try and catch up with the adaptation gap.  Where councils have taken longer term approaches such as in Hawkes Bay through a co-operative coastal hazards strategy built by the three councils with three iwi groups, there is cautious optimism that a flexible plan can be implemented but only if the wider community is prepared to partly fund it through the rating system.

However, not all regions have the wherewithal to undertake such cooperative processes, nor the funding base to support them. And the problems will be occurring across New Zealand concurrently and be compounding and cascading across communities and the economy. The future will not be like what we have experienced in the past, nor like the last few summers. It will get worse, affecting all levels of society. We saw the disruption that the Tasman fire wrought. This will not be isolated with only local effects. Impacts will combine and create ongoing disruption as the capacity of the emergency services get stretched as the residual risk (the bit we can’t plan or protect for) increases. Councils will be further stressed in their ability to keep up with the impacts. Climate change impacts to come will dwarf the events we are witnessing already in New Zealand.

This means that our typical protective ‘hold the line’ ‘emergency’ and ‘build back better’ responses will not pass muster. In some cases we will have to build somewhere else than at the coast. We need new options so we can transition to more sustainable places. We will need to fundamentally transform the way we make decisions, how we go about our businesses and where we locate ourselves. We are just not well prepared for the climate change impacts that are emerging, nor do we have the funding base organised to sustain the responses to it.

So what do we do?

First we need leadership in the form of a National Adaptation Plan for climate change based on a national risk assessment and we need to monitor the Plan as it is implemented. However, this will not work by itself. We need leadership at all levels of government and the community to enable the Plan to be effective, supported by good information and a clear sense of what can and should be funded. There will be equity considerations as well. Funding hard defences against the sea will have limits to their effectiveness as the seas rise—seawalls raise tide levels in enclosed areas and in exposed coasts take sediment away that can provide temporary buffers. They reduce community amenity and will ultimately fail to do the job. We need to rethink where development is located and the underground and above ground utilities that service our lives. They will be the first to fail, long before the big scary sea-level rise projections.

While the Government works out its plan to respond to climate change impacts, we need a transitional approach at community level to avoid making the job harder. Councils nationally are still consenting in climate exposed locations. They face infrastructure replacement now for assets that will be in the ground for at least 100 years. So we need to get this right and not create a legacy for future generations to fix up. None of this will change until regional and district plans are changed in accordance with councils existing legal mandates to avoid and reduce climate risk. They need to change quickly and in doing so councils must bring their communities along with them. We have good examples of processes and practices available in guidance to councils that can be applied more widely to planning in coastal, flood prone and drought prone areas and that can be used by the private sector making their short- and long-term decisions.

It is not as though we are dealing with unknowns in the climate space. Many hazards already experienced will be the ones that will get worse and we have a good idea where the exposed areas are. We need to take our blinkers off and get on with the job while the institutions and capacity are built that can be more fleet of foot to deal with the rapidly changing risk profiles. New Zealand is a lucky country in many respects. We have room to move around our land and to change land uses. We have done it before, but not at the scale that will be needed. Whatever we do to stop carbon emissions today will take time to show up in the impacts that we haven’t yet experienced from all the past emissions. A joined up approach can take us into the future with climate change, but let’s not delay any longer.

Let’s get the legal constraints fixed that hobble local government and create an ongoing legacy of exposure. Let’s get effective and equitable funding mechanisms designed and in place without creating moral hazard. Let’s get communities and councils working together to plan the transition to a changing climate future. It can be done. Some councils have already started. Let’s learn from them while the national risk assessment and national adaptation plan and its monitoring arrangements are being developed.

This piece was originally published on The Spinoff.