Listener gets serious about sea level

By Bryan Walker 15/05/2011

As I walked past the magazine stand at the supermarket this week my eye was caught by the front cover of the this week’s Listener (on sale last week). ’Rising sea levels & extreme weather — why NZ needs to get serious,’ it said. A cautious peek inside suggested Ruth Laugeson’s article might deserve a comment on Hot Topic so I parted with four dollars and brought it home to look more closely.  It does indeed deserve mention here if only because it’s the sort of straightforward treatment of climate change that we should be able to expect of serious journalism. Laugeson has been reading Mark Hertsgaard’s book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, which I reviewed a few weeks back on Hot Topic. Hertsgaard argues that we must plan adaptation to the now unavoidable changes at the same time as working to avoid much worse and likely unmanageable change.

Laugeson has enquired about how local government is faring in New Zealand with its adaptation planning, discussing the question with Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule. His overall feeling is that there’s something of a vacuum nationally. Some councils are working hard, but progress is patchy. There are vocal mayors who say that climate change is a lot of rubbish and local bodies shouldn’t be drawn into it. Work that is being done by some councils includes mapping coastal hazard zones likely to be at risk from inundation and storm surges over the next 50 to 100 years, and Laugeson provides interesting examples of outcomes such as restriction of new developments or requirements for new housing to be relocatable.  Difficult times lie ahead over decisions as to when to defend the coastline and when to let the sea come in. Developers use the Environment Court to fight councils who put obstacles in the way of development in vulnerable areas.

What support is central government giving the local councils? Not a lot, by the sound of it. The Ministry for the Environment has given a baseline guidance of 0.5m sea level rise by 2100, with the advice to consider higher rises. (Reported here two years ago on Hot Topic.) But Yule thinks central government should make a ruling on what level councils should plan for, revising it as necessary as new scientific data becomes available. The environment minister Nick Smith appeared to agree in 2009 that a National Environmental Standard on sea-level rise should be prepared, which would give legislative backing to councils when defending their policies in the Environment Court. But work has stopped on that, and Smith claims that the current guidance does not need revision — it is ’fair, balanced advice relative to the uncertainties and long time horizon.’

Laugeson’s narrative is much fuller than this brief outline. She also includes some sidebars. One looks at the question of how high the sea will go; it identifies the difficulty of estimating how the ice caps are going to behave in response to the global warming and provides a list of recent scientific predictions, all of them higher than that of the 2007 IPCC report on which the Ministry for the Environment bases its guidance. Another sidebar takes a quick look at what we’re doing to cut emissions, noting that today’s forestry credits are tomorrow’s forestry debits when the trees are cut down, and concluding that it needs optimism to think that we will meet our 2020 emissions reduction target. A third lengthy box covers the thinking of James Hansen and gives information about his NZ tour.

There was a time when journalists writing articles on themes such as this would have felt obliged to ring up someone from the denialist Climate Science Coalition and duly report that some scientists consider that predictions of sea level rise are greatly exaggerated. (The habit dies hard: I notice the Herald report on James Hansen’s arrival gratuitously introduced the observation ’While he has been criticised as an alarmist…’) It’s good therefore to see a lengthy and well-written article in a major magazine simply accepting the mainstream science and focusing on the adequacy of the political response to it. More such reporting would surely see more of the public understanding that human-caused climate change is real and thinking seriously about how we address it.