Adapting for the future

The urgent need for carbon emission reductions and better adaptation tools is what drives Dr Judy Lawrence, Senior Research Fellow at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Climate Change Research Institute.

Dr Judy Lawrence stands in front of the windows of Te Toki a Rata.

Dr Lawrence has spent the last 20 years working on climate change policy and research, first in the public service and then as a researcher at the University.

“New Zealand is seen by my international colleagues as a place where we can try out new approaches due to the good science we do here,” Dr Lawrence says. “Being outside the policy system has also helped when implementing new ideas because we are seen as independent.”

When she worked in the public service, it became obvious to her that policy on climate change was polarised by party politics and wouldn’t be resolved any time soon.  “Any benefits New Zealand’s policies could have had were severely delayed because of challenges by advisors and politicians. Meanwhile New Zealand’s emissions are soaring, especially considering the size of our country and our ‘clean and green’ image.

“I had always intended to return to university to complete a PhD, so I took the opportunity to undertake further study and see how we could create policies that would enact real change in the climate change adaptation space.”

Dr Lawrence completed her PhD in Wellington, studying the ability of decision-making frameworks and institutions to implement adaptation with the goal of making climate change policy more effective and practical.

“So long as the mandate and rules and laws around climate change are fragmented, uncoordinated, and subject to the power of special interests, action is stymied at every turn—as we have seen over the last 30 years,” Dr Lawrence says.

While environmental activism can call decision-makers to account and raise the profile of the issue, she says academics have the head-space to examine the nature and implications of policy decisions. She says policy makers and those in local government don’t have that space, largely because of the short-term nature of the political cycles and political coalitions that influence decision making at the national and local levels in New Zealand.

Dr Lawrence started researching how policy and adaptation action could anticipate the risks ahead, rather than reacting to extreme events as they occur. Adaptation is especially important, Dr Lawrence says, with the increasing frequency and accelerating magnitude of extreme events like drought, ex-tropical cyclone damage, or the emerging impacts of sea level rise like coastal sunny day flooding and rising water tables.

“Adaptation is important because of the large costs in dollars, human health and wellbeing, resource and ecosystems losses that lie ahead and that could be avoided or minimised by anticipatory actions today.”

Several aspects of Dr Lawrence’s work have led to practical decision-making tools that help with climate change adaptation.

“A highlight of my work to date has been working with Dr Marjolijn Haasnoot, a Dutch researcher who developed the Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways Tool,” Dr Lawrence says. “This connection led me to work with experts globally on decision-making under uncertainty and changing climate conditions and gave me access to new tools which I have helped introduce into government guidance, planning, and engineering along with colleagues in Crown Research Institutes and local government.”

Dr Lawrence’s experience also led to her appointment as co-Chair of the Adaptation Technical Advisory Group, whose recommendations have been incorporated into the Zero Carbon Act and into government policy programmes. She is also a Coordinating Lead Author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report, leading the chapter on the key risks Australia and New Zealand will face due to climate change and how they can adapt to these risks. The IPCC assessment reports inform global and national policy implementation on climate change.

Another highlight of Dr Lawrence’s career has been working with colleague Professor Jonathan Boston on adaptation funding issues. Their work led to a proposed ‘Adaptation Fund’ and other complementary funding mechanisms based on similar principles to the New Zealand Super Fund to support the needs of current and future generations in adapting to climate change.

Dr Lawrence says her work with the IPCC, advising government, and working with researchers around the world to advance adaptation strategies is extremely rewarding. She hopes to continue this work, focusing in the immediate future on how the statutes that govern climate change adaptation by local government can be better aligned and an equitable funding mechanism to pay for adaptation advanced.

“I am motivated to continue this work as part of the generation on whose watch we were unable to stem the flow of emissions, leaving an urgent problem for generations to come,” Dr Lawrence says. “I feel a responsibility to use my knowledge to work with communities and decision makers to make a difference.”

“A big step up is needed for both emissions reduction and adaptation around the world and nationally here in New Zealand. Every country has their part to play, and all organisations need to do as much as possible to reduce their emissions by building incentives into their systems and processes.

We stand to lose a lot from the impacts of climate change, and more and more research is showing that this is an urgent problem. We must all act now to avert an even larger and more unmanageable crisis.”