By Lynley Hargreaves 23/07/2015

Professor Richard Bedford
Professor Richard Bedford

Sea level will rise, mosquitoes will likely carry dengue fever and malaria, and drought may damage dairy farming.

But climate change is not going to be as devastating in New Zealand as in other parts of the world, says Auckland University of Technology’s Professor Richard Bedford. The first social scientist to lead the Royal Society of New Zealand in 75 years, Professor Bedford here talks about climate-induced and other population trends – New Zealanders in Australia, Pacific Islanders in New Zealand, and how everybody isn’t moving to Auckland.

Isn’t everybody moving to Auckland?

Sixty-six percent of New Zealand’s population does not live in Auckland. We hear an awful lot about the concentration of problems in Auckland, problems of rising property prices and so on. But don’t forget that the great majority of New Zealanders live in other parts of the country. Even in Statistics New Zealand’s latest population projections out to 2043, sixty percent of New Zealanders are still likely to be living in places other than the Auckland region in 30 years time. Population growth in many parts of New Zealand won’t be rapid. But as a geographer who has an interest in place and where people live, I am very aware that the rest of New Zealand won’t become completely depopulated in the foreseeable future. The projections do include quite a wide range of possible populations and while we can estimate death rates with reasonable confidence, birth rates are a little more difficult to assess, and migration has fluctuated enormously over the last 40-50 years. In the last 35 years net migration has ranged from a record loss of around 40,000 people in the late 1970s, when the early baby boom generations were all heading off overseas to look for work during a recession, to record gains this year with far fewer New Zealanders heading off overseas and large numbers of overseas migrants seeking education and temporary work in New Zealand. A lot of these temporary migrants do end up living in Auckland for a number of years, but the rest of the country also attracts immigrants and returning New Zealanders.

Do you think the ‘brain drain’ to Australia has reversed?

While there’s been a significant increase in the number of New Zealanders coming back from Australia after a stay away of 12 months or more, we tend to exaggerate the importance of the return flow. The biggest thing that’s happened recently is that far fewer kiwis are leaving New Zealand for lengthy absences overseas, especially in Australia. The main reason for this is the job market in Australia, but it’s also because increasing numbers of New Zealanders are realising that unless they go through Australia’s immigration programme they’re not entitled to a range of social welfare provisions no matter how long they stay in the country. Twenty three million Australians have the right to New Zealand unemployment benefits and health care. All other migrants to Australia are entitled to these things if they become residents, but New Zealanders – while privileged in having access to the Australian job market without needing a visa entitling them to work in the country – are discriminated against when it comes to access to a number of other entitlements for long-term residents. Australians moving to New Zealand for lengthy periods are eligible for the same social welfare entitlements as New Zealanders after the usual stand-down period for any new migrant to the country.

Will climate change have an impact on the Australia-New Zealand migration corridor?

We’re already seeing that New Zealand is a very attractive destination for people from all around the world – especially people who have a reasonable amount of money. If you don’t want to live in a great big city, if you want to live in a place that is safe, clean and comparatively peaceful, then New Zealand is a good place to be. Climate change in New Zealand is not going to be as devastating as in other parts of the world. We will not have the extremes that Australia will face and is already facing. They’re going to have an even bigger area that is dry and hot and this is going to increase problems of water supply, especially in densely populated parts of Australia. There are parts of Australia that will get wetter, and in the last few weeks the Australian Government released a white paper foreshadowing major development in Northern Australia where water supply is not such a problem.

New Zealand will definitely see changes in its climate, particularly an increase in El Nino conditions – a set of atmospheric and sea surface conditions that will cause more drought in parts of New Zealand. These conditions also cause increases in cyclonic activity so we’re likely to see more category five cyclones in the western Pacific and they are absolutely devastating. The low pressure at the eye of the cyclone sucks up the sea surface and brings with it an enormous storm surge. I’ve seen evidence in Kiribati and Tuvalu of storm surges and what they call “king tides” rising higher and causing damage to causeways and coastal settlements.

Will New Zealand see a lot more Pacific Islanders moving here, as sea levels rise?

It’s not that easy for people in the Pacific to get residency in New Zealand and Australia. It was easier in the 1950s-60s when cheap labour was very heavily in demand. Many came in as visitors or on temporary work permits, overstayed and eventually got residency through amnesties. Those who got approval to stay as residents in these amnesties usually had good jobs, and kids in schools. Today there is no prospect of amnesty, and, while we have special arrangements with some island countries allowing for quotas of residence approvals, the numbers tend to be small. The only way really that Pacific Islanders can get residency at present is through our skilled migrant programme. Increasingly, many do have the skills, but this is one of the real challenges for Pacific Islanders because to get in this way you need a suitable job offer. We tend have more Fijian Indians coming in via the skilled migration route and many have job offers from Fijian Indian businesses in New Zealand. We should also keep in mind that a lot of Pacific Islanders are migrating to the United States, and there are increasing numbers living in Europe. Samoans, for example, are living in about 160 countries around the world.

As a social scientist, will you lead the Royal Society of New Zealand in a new way?

I don’t want to give an impression that I’m going to shift the focus, but I’m very keen to get a more recognition for the humanities. Some people include the social sciences under the broad umbrella of “science”. But the humanities and technology are not included. There’s also a general scepticism about the contributions that social sciences and the humanities make. That’s something that I’ve been grappling with over the years, and that all social scientists have to deal with.

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

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