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Fires burnt across the Tasman district in February (Photo: Evan Barnes/Getty Images)
Fires burnt across the Tasman district in February (Photo: Evan Barnes/Getty Images)

ScienceMarch 5, 2019

The Nelson fires are a climate change warning for New Zealand

Fires burnt across the Tasman district in February (Photo: Evan Barnes/Getty Images)
Fires burnt across the Tasman district in February (Photo: Evan Barnes/Getty Images)

If any more evidence was needed for the unavoidable impacts of climate change, the Tasman District fires were it, says Dr Judy Lawrence of Victoria University of Wellington.

This summer’s Tasman fires have been a wake-up call about our preparedness for more of the same as the climate changes in New Zealand. 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 during storms in Auckland, Tamaki Drive is underwater. Coastal properties on low lying roads are experiencing increasing flooding in Hawkes Bay, Wellington and the West Coast; so too are estuary margins in the Bay of Plenty and Coromandel. These events will become more intense. As the seas keep rising, flooding will be permanent in some areas and start to occur on sunny days too.

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 it take many in rapid succession to shake us out of our false sense of security that government will 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?

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 choose whether or not to heed. And we cannot rely on the government to fill the gap, especially as the EQC fund is under extreme pressure from earthquake claims.

The upshot: councils are becoming the ‘insurer’ of last resort through their planning instruments that control where we live. But are councils even able to exercise their mandate to avoid and reduce risk in exposed areas? Their licence to operate a precautionary mandate through district and regional plans has been challenged repeatedly around the country, hobbling councils as they try to catch up with the adaptation gap. Where councils have taken longer term approaches – such as in Hawke’s Bay where the coastal hazards strategy has been created in co-operation with iwi – there is cautious optimism that a flexible plan can be implemented, but only if the wider community is prepared to partly fund it through rates.

However, not every region has the wherewithal to undertake such cooperative processes, nor the funding base to support them. Worse, the effects of climate change will happen concurrently – they’ll compound and cascade across communities and the economy. Our future climate will be not be like the past, nor even like the last few summers. It will get worse, affecting all levels of society. As shown by the disruption created by the Tasman fire, impacts will combine to create ongoing disruption as emergency service capacity gets stretched and the residual risk (the bit we can’t plan or protect for) increases. The 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 and we need new options so we can transition to more sustainable places. We will be forced to fundamentally transform the way we make decisions, how we do business and where we locate ourselves. We are simply not properly 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 it won’t be enough simply to implement it and forget it. Leadership at all levels of government and the community will be necessary to make the plan effective, supported by good information and a clear sense of what can and should be funded. There will be equity considerations as well. For example, hard defences against the sea will have limited effectiveness as the seas rise. Seawalls raise tide levels in enclosed areas, take sediment away that can provide a temporary buffer and reduce community amenity. Worst of all, they ultimately fail to do the job. Instead of such short-term solutions, 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 rises.

While the government works out its plan to respond to climate change impacts, we need a transitional approach at the community level to avoid making the job harder. Councils across the country are still consenting in climate exposed locations. They regularly have to consider the replacement of infrastructure assets that will be in the ground for at least 100 years. So we need to get this right and not create a harmful legacy for future generations to fix.

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. The plans need to change quickly – and councils must bring their communities along with them. Councils already have available to them best practice examples that can be applied more widely to planning in coastal, flood-prone and drought-prone areas.

It is not as though we are dealing with unknowns here. Many of the effects we’re already experiencing will be the ones that will get worse. We have a good idea where the most at-risk areas are. Now we need to take our blinkers off and get on with the job.

New Zealand is a lucky country in many respects. We have room to move around our land and to change the way in which land is used. We have done it before, but not at the scale that will be needed now. Whatever we do to stop carbon emissions today will take time to show up among all the imminent impacts from past emissions. A joined-up approach can take us into the future with climate change, but let’s not delay any longer.

Let’s fix the legal constraints 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.

Judy Lawrence was co-chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working group that reported to government in December 2017 and May 2018 with a stocktake of adaptation action and recommendations on adapting to climate change.

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