Local doers must be enabled

Fiddlers Ferry powerstation in Warrington,United Kingdom. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
New Zealand’s first national climate change risk assessment makes for worrying reading about what may be a slowly unfolding national crisis.

Some of the 40-odd risks are well-known and have been taxing those long concerned about how our natural and built environments will cope in a rapidly changing world.

Its impact on potable water supplies, on regional infrastructure and on low-lying buildings are obvious inclusions on the shortlist of long-term problems. So, too, are the risks to ecosystems due to sea-level rise, extreme weather and from the spread of invasive species.

Other areas might not have been immediately obvious to anyone other than those who spend time understanding the knock-on effect of significant, costly change.

It identifies threats to social cohesion and community wellbeing from displacement, and of the exacerbation of inequity due to unequal distribution of climate change impacts. It also identifies the massive costs associated with lost productivity, disaster relief spending and unfunded contingent liabilities.

Even the financial system could be affected by the instability arising from extreme weather events and the costly impact of tackling ongoing, gradual changes.

The list worsens as one reads on, as does the sense we are struggling to meet the risks head-on.

The assessment says there is a risk of maladaptation due to the application of practices, process and tools that do not account for uncertainty and change over long timeframes.

Climate change’s impacts, it says, will be exacerbated because current institutional arrangements are not fit for climate change adaptation.

The assessment challenges the Government but this does not mean the Government will — or can — provide the silver-bullet solutions the crisis may well need.

After all, the Government does not form all floodwalls or stopbanks. It does not plan subdivisions, urban water systems or stormwater drains. It leaves the doing to others:

regional, city and district councils are at the pointed end of the response.

Councils are in charge of the emergency responses and policy directions that have the most obvious, immediate and long-lasting effects on the local impacts of climate change.

They each make their own decisions as to how their districts should develop in light of climate change, and how they and their communities should respond to its most pressing effects.

They have their own policy frameworks which they develop in response to local concerns. They are helped by science and shared guidelines, but their policies are up to them.

Over the past five years, there has been a sense our towns and regions have been left to tackle the local effects of climate change on their own. Inconsistency has been a result.

The Dunedin City Council has a climate change adaptation plan and Mayor Aaron Hawkins has been clear in the need for climate change to factor in its decision-making.

Meanwhile, West Coast Regional Council chairman Allan Birchfield said climate change was a "rort" as his council digested a summary of the many hazards its region faced.

Such "political inconsistency" is par for the course in a democracy but having the tools to fathom what might seem unfathomable can minimise the risk this might pose.

Local Government New Zealand president Dave Cull says central government must now provide a framework enabling councils to increase their response to the "hyper-local" but, cumulatively, nationally significant threats that come with climate change.

The Resource Management Act does not explicitly allow for climate change adaptation. The Act may be replaced, and it is hoped climate change-ready policy will be quickly developed in its place. Until then, councils will continue to do as best they can, with the tools they have, in lieu of a unified policy response to local examples of a national — global — problem.



Where about can Dunedin’s plan be found? If its anything like the ‘plan’ for George St or the one-way system, we’ll be heading back to the start of the 19th century.

Future impacts from climate change are way beyond the capabilities of local government to deal with. The report is right to highlight threats to social cohesion. A recent study published in Natures Scientific Reports gives a 90% chance that civilization will colapase within decades! Climate change is a global problem and while the current pandemic has highlighted how fortunate and resilient NZ is in a global crisis it can not remain totally isolated. It will not matter how many buses Dunedin has on the roads when the economies and food systems have collapsed in other overly populated countries and billions of people are displaced. They will look to our shores with envy and desperation and I don't think our cycle lanes will help to keep them at bay!

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