Assessing the reasons for change

Image: Jenna Packer
Image: Jenna Packer


The first National Climate Change Risk Assessment has been released by the Climate Change Minister and the scale of the challenge is intimidating, writes Scott Willis.

Scott Willis
Scott Willis

Remember Jaws, the star of the 1975 thriller? When the police chief tasked with hunting the great white finally catches a glimpse of it, he says "you’re gonna need a bigger boat". He’s awed, but not panic-stricken. As movie-goers, when we finally see the shark for the first time, and see the scale of the problem, it’s satisfying. We know now what to expect, more or less. (Less, as it turns out).

We finally saw the size of the shark this week when the first National Climate Change Risk Assessment was released by Climate Change Minister James Shaw. The scale of the challenge is intimidating, that’s obvious. As Assoc Prof Janet Stephenson says, the report "doesn’t pull punches on the serious impacts that New Zealand faces from the impacts of unmitigated climate change ... We have to prepare for the worst and plan for a significantly impacted future."

At the media briefing on August 3, Shaw acknowledged it was a relief to have the risks finally laid out in detail even if it revealed the pace of adaptation preparation and mitigation is simply too slow. The Minister is not the only one with concerns. Community frustration at the lack of action on climate change was the catalyst for a community workshop I and others organised way back in 2006. Out of that was born the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust and since then many other communities have developed capacity to take action on climate.

Jeanette Fitzsimons, my friend and mentor who sadly died earlier this year, was a great believer in the power of community action. As she said "Communities are where people live, communities are where people work together, communities are where people know each other". She believed in the power of our community to drive the transition. The trick has always been how to get our "team of five million" to take notice of the slow but extremely significant threat of climate breakdown. Each geographical community is a diverse bunch of individuals, families and interests. Too often immediate issues crowd out discussion of, planning for and adaptation to climate impacts.

Yet already insurance premiums are rising in some areas, and some people are finding that they can no longer get insurance at all. Next time disaster hits, they’re on their own. Finance, particularly in our Covid economy may also add pressure. For example, a bank’s decision to require higher deposits and shorter mortgage periods for flood-prone houses may have more impact than a local council’s attempt to constrain development in hazardous locations by recording sea-level rise in a district plan, says Belinda Story, managing director at Climate Sigma.

Meanwhile, the expert panel that has been reviewing our outdated Resource Management Act has made a recommendation to Government to create a "Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act" or law and fund "to support climate change adaptation and reducing risks from natural hazards". No decision will be made before Parliament is dissolved on August 13 so it will be up to the next Government to implement, or not, this recommendation.

Working to create climate solutions has been my work over the past 12 years and when people talk of managed retreat I want to talk about community-led adaptation. We need to involve everyone, as far as possible, in this journey. A better resourced and informed community sector is the bigger boat and capable crew we need to tackle the threats. Covid has given us a practice run, now let's get to work!

The assessment

The National Climate Change Risk Assessment identifies 43 risks that could have a major or extreme consequence to New Zealand.

Of these, there are 10 risks the reports says require urgent action in the next six years.

The 10 most significant risks identified are:

•To coastal ecosystems due to sea level rise and extreme weather events

•To indigenous ecosystems and species from the enhanced spread of invasive species

•To social cohesion and community wellbeing from displacement

•Of exacerbating existing social inequities and creating new ones due to unequal distribution of climate change impacts

•To governments from economic costs associated with lost productivity, disaster relief expenditure and unfunded contingent liabilities.

•To the financial system from instability due to extreme weather events and ongoing, gradual changes.

•To portable water supplies, both availability and quality, due to changes in rainfall, temperatures, drought, extreme weather events and ongoing sea level rise.

•To buildings due to extreme weather events, drought, increased fire weather and ongoing sea level rise.

•Of maladaptation due to the application of practices, process and tools that do not account for uncertainty and change over long timeframes.

•That climate change impacts will be exacerbated because current institutional arrangements are not fit for climate change adaptation.

The Government is required to respond with a National Adaptation Plan within two years of the publication of each climate change risk assessment.

For more go to

Scott Willis is general manager at Blueskin Energy Ltd.


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