Climate change – is New Zealand prepared?

by Ruth Laugesen / 22 September, 2012
Change Catastrophic climate change is looming closer – can it still be averted, and if not, how should New Zealand prepare?
Climate change - Antarctica

From their seafront home in Paekakariki, Don Polly and Allie Webber look out across a narrow road onto rolling waves and the blue-green hulk of Kapiti Island. In 50 years’ time, according to a hazard map just issued by the Kapiti District Council, the waves will cover the road in front of the house. In 100 years, the house itself will be inundated. Their home is among 1800 high-value homes up and down the Kapiti Coast expected to face erosion and flooding as a result of rising seas and storm surges from climate change. A thousand of them are expected to be at risk within 50 years. Polly is not surprised, but he is saddened. “The house is really what Allie and I have,” he says. He is 76; she is younger and still working. He fears if they want to sell it to release funds in coming years, its value will have plunged because of the council hazard map.

On the Kapiti Coast and elsewhere, the long-anticipated leviathan of climate change is lumbering closer into view. At the far end of the globe, the polar ice cap has melted to its smallest ever size this northern summer, in grim confirmation of scientists’ predictions of a warming climate. Early next year at the supermarket checkout we will catch another glimpse of the disruptive potential of climate change as food prices spike in the wake of the massive US drought affecting more than 60% of that country and cutting crop production. Is there any hope left of averting extreme climate change through an agreement to cut global emissions? And if not, should New Zealand be preparing itself to become self-sufficient and a safe haven for refugees from catastrophic climate change, as one report suggests?

The New Zealander with perhaps the best idea of whether there is still hope of averting the worst extremes of climate change is Climate Change Issues Minister Tim Groser, who has sat through hundreds of hours of negotiations aimed at an international agreement on cutting greenhouse gases and other emissions: “The honest answer is the foundations for a positive answer are there, but you’d have to be a supreme optimist to say that implies we’re going to get there.”


The state of the play is that countries have agreed to try to draw up a broad agreement to cut emissions that cause climate change, to be settled by 2015 and in force by 2020. It’s a timetable many scientists and activists consider dangerously slow. On the upside, says Groser, all the major polluting nations are “on the bus”. In contrast, the only countries that agreed to cut their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol were developed ones responsible for just 15%, leaving big emitters such as India and China to carry on regardless. Even worse, the US, although it signed the protocol just months after New Zealand, never ratified it, meaning it never agreed to curb its emissions. Groser finds it “astonishing” that some are still lamenting the failure of talks at Durban at Christmas to extend the Kyoto Protocol, given it failed to do anything about 85% of the pollution. But surely this is all too late?

Even action by 2020 may be too late to limit rising temperatures to 2°C. Groser is impatient with this argument. Activists “look at the extreme scenarios out there and say, ‘That’s not good enough.’ Well, they’re right, if those scenarios are correct. But there’s no other way to deal with this other than to get everybody on the mitigation bus; otherwise we’re completely wasting our time.” And even achieving that will be very slow and difficult. He calls the negotiation timetable “massively ambitious … If the international community does succeed in building by 2015 – which is just two and a half years away – a full legally binding agreement covering China, the United States, Russia, Japan, India and all the developing countries, it will be the first time in international negotiating history that a major international agreement has ever kept to a timetable.”

His big concern is that in the meantime, many countries are sitting on their hands instead of developing their own carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes, thus failing to prepare for a new world where they have to limit emissions. But surely he’s in no position to preach on this one? The Government has indefinitely postponed key stages of the Emissions Trading Scheme, including bringing agriculture into the scheme, rendering the scheme “almost toothless”, in the view of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright. Not at all, says Groser – New Zealand has a “Rolls-Royce” emissions trading scheme that can be ramped up quickly to be much tougher to keep pace with any international changes. He argues there is little point in including agriculture when at present the only way to cut emissions from agriculture is to produce less, because we lack technologies that would significantly cut animal emissions.


Meanwhile, greenhouse-gas-emitting life in our towns and cities goes on much as normal, despite the Emissions Trading Scheme. Air New Zealand recently touted $49 plane fares, and SUVs have become the largest segment of the car market. Groser agrees not much is changing in transport. But he thinks a carbon price would have to be extremely high to change behaviour on that front. “What carbon price would you need? You might end up bankrupting families and firms.” Instead, he is optimistic that technological leaps, such as much greater fuel efficiency in cars, will allow New Zealand to piggyback on progress elsewhere. President Barack Obama, for example, has just issued new fuel economy rules that by 2025 will require auto manufacturers to increase the average for new cars and trucks to 45.3 miles per gallon, up from the current 23.8.

When it comes to electricity, 77% of what we use is renewable (not generated using fossil fuel), as are 99% of new projects that have consent. In forestry, a small increase in reafforestation will soak up some of our greenhouse gases. Agricultural emissions, however, account for half New Zealand’s total and are still growing. With no firm sign yet of an international agreement that will cut emissions and avert extreme climate change, some are pressing for a plan on how New Zealand should adapt to the changes that are already under way. One startling addition was written in the final days of business think tank the New Zealand Institute, and completed after it merged with the Business Roundtable to form the New Zealand Initiative. Written by institute head Rick Boven, with Catherine Harland and Lillian Grace, “Navigating an Uncertain Future: Environmental Foundations for Long-Term Success” questions what it calls the paradigm of continual economic progress, based on limitless natural resources and consumerism.

It is a stinging critique of the logic of the free market, calling instead for an understanding of our ecological limits – an unexpected missive from a business organisation. Although the New Zealand Institute supported the research and gave permission to distribute it to its mailing list, the authors say the report cannot be attributed to the institute, as it was completed after the institute wound up.


Winds generate waves in Auckland’s Pt Chevalier

The report warns that environmental constraints and climate change threaten to produce an “overshoot crisis”, in which sudden ecosystem collapse means many countries will be less able to feed their people. “A global overshoot crisis would result in widespread famine, failed states, forced migrations, conflict and a declining standard of living for many people. If that happens, New Zealand might be a relatively good place to be. It is remote, has relatively benign climate change predicted, might be able to be self-sufficient in food and has a relatively skilled population, potentially able to work well together. “Those advantages are already being recognised by people who are conscious of the risks, so New Zealand is being recognised as a safe haven. If current trends persist, the safe-haven status is likely to develop further, increasing attractiveness to both investors and migrants.”

Refugees will want to come here to overcome water shortages, a lack of arable land and inundation from sea level rise and to flee from other migrating people. The report argues that although climate instability means New Zealand would benefit from rising global food prices, locals here would also have to pay more for food. Raised food prices could also increase instability in other parts of the world. For example, food price rises contributed to civil unrest in Libya last year, which disrupted oil supplies and helped push up the global oil price. And the report mounts an argument for limiting foreign ownership of farmland on the basis of ensuring future food security for this country. “Ownership of food production matters. If New Zealand owns food production, then it can choose to eat the food if circumstances become difficult. A foreign owner might choose to export instead to provide food for its own population.

“Currently New Zealand eats about half the food it produces, but with expected population growth, threats to productivity from climate change and input supply security risks, it would be prudent to maintain control of food production resources.” Sales of farmland to foreigners, then, is “acceptable at the margin”, but “sufficient food-producing land should be retained to protect New Zealanders’ long-term economic and food supply interests”. Boven, Harland and Grace say the Government should limit population growth to ensure New Zealand retains its advantage of being able to feed a small population. Over the past 20 years, New Zealand had the fifth-fastest growing population in the OECD. “More people are likely to want to come to New Zealand, including returning citizens, raising the question of how many and who should be accepted.”

The report also calls on the Government to ensure the country has secure long-term supply arrangements for vital materials such as chemicals, computers and spare parts for transmission networks and hydroelectric power. It says ensuring supply may become a feature of future trade agreements. Security and foreign policy should also be reviewed because conflict may increase in future as a result of competition for resources and a spillover from environmental events.


Businessman Rob Morrison, trustee of green business organisation Pure Advantage and chairman of Kiwibank, says the report is highly significant. “One of the key points that comes out of it is that New Zealand needs long-term strategic thinking. There is increased likelihood of rapid climate change and there are large-scale risks associated with that. “In the lead-up to the global financial crisis, the world was borrowing money in an unsustainable way. In the same way, the world is using resources in an unsustainable manner. I think there is an increasing likelihood of a Lehmans-style climate change event,” he said, in reference to the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment house that was a trigger for the global financial crisis. Labour’s environment spokesman, Grant Robertson, says the report is a significant contribution to the debate but “more catastrophic than it needs to be … It is a good reminder of the seriousness of these issues and the need to plan for the future.”

Groser says it is true that New Zealand may have relatively less severe effects from climate change than other countries and may be seen as attractive to investors and migrants. So, should New Zealand be preparing for the likelihood it will be seen as a “safe haven” – for example, by population planning? “At this point we do not have a specific policy focused on environmental migrants; however, it is a situation we shall continue to monitor, particularly with regards to potential future implications for immigration policy,” says Groser. What about the report’s argument that we should be looking to future security of supply of essential items and encouraging self-sufficiency? Groser says New Zealand is in a strong position already in responding to climate change and the security of essential items. “It is important for New Zealand to continue to be self-sufficient in the areas where we have strengths. To further mitigate supply-chain risks, we must also continue to maintain strong links with our trading partners.”

Back on the Kapiti Coast, Don Polly accepts that the slow march of climate change is coming. But he says many in his community still find it hard to grasp. He finds people reacting to the new council hazard map fall into two broad groups – those who are furious with the council for issuing the map and therefore lowering property values, and those who believe the council should effectively remove the hazard lines by agreeing to defend the shoreline. “Climate change seems so far away they don’t really relate to it.”

Polar ice cap halved

It’s being called the goliath melting season. Each northern summer the gigantic Arctic ice cap begins its annual thaw, then refreezes again as the days get cooler, but this year has seen another record, following a series of exceptional years for ice loss. The pace of ice loss has been 50% faster than predicted under climate change modelling. By September 5, Arctic sea ice hit a new record low of four million square kilometres, 45% less than in September in the 1980s and 90s. The previous record low was in August 2007, when sea ice cover fell to 4.72 million square kilometres. Ice loss typically peaks at the beginning or in the middle of September, before the ice begins to refreeze as the days lengthen and cool. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that the rate of ice loss for August was the fastest yet observed over the 33-year period of satellite observations. Large losses of ice are likely to have been exacerbated by a strong cyclone in the area, although even after the cyclone ended, high ice losses continued.

How a disappearing ice cap will change climate is not fully known – the polar cap has been there for at least three million years. The difference in temperature between a cool pole and warm equator is a major influence on global climate, fuelling the northern jet stream and ocean currents. In this part of the world, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are thought to play an equally significant part in driving climate, but their role has been less studied and is poorly understood. Last month American philanthropist Julian Robertson, who spends much of his time in New Zealand, gifted $5.3 billion to establish a new institute for research on the Antarctic and Southern Ocean’s role in climate change.

US drought to hit New Zealand pockets

Climate change - an Illinois farmer checks out a “pond” he uses to water his cattle

Millions of hectares of pasture and cropland, from Nebraska to Texas, have been ravaged by drought this summer in the United States, sending ripples through the global food supply chain that will ultimately reach your wallet. With 63% of the US currently experiencing moderate to exceptional drought, crop yields in the country’s bread basket have been slashed. Production of corn, soybeans, hay and other crops is down, in turn affecting yields for livestock and poultry and global prices for food commodities. The US Government has predicted the drought will push up prices of food in 2013, including milk, beef, chicken and pork. Here, the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research has forecast higher food prices of 6-7% starting early next year. Although New Zealand farmers are expected to benefit from higher commodity prices, households will be stretched, as incomes have largely failed to keep pace with rising costs. Increased extreme weather events, including droughts and floods, are expected as a result of climate change.

The rise and rise of sea level predictions

Scientific consensus is hardening around a sea-level rise of one metre by 2100. But prominent US scientist James Hansen says it could be up to 5m. Who is right?

The last time the world’s top scientists thrashed out how much seas would rise as a result of a changing climate, the verdict came in at between 18cm and 59cm by 2100. That was the judgment of the United Nations’ 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with a further possible 20cm on top of that. Since then the field of climate science has exploded with activity, and much ink has been spilt in scientific journals. All that commotion is setting the scene for a new definitive consensus report from the IPCC, the first part of which is due in late 2013, which will form the bedrock of governments’ actions. Right now, the numbers are being crunched on an expert draft of the new report and are being circulated among the top scientific players. That report is still confidential, but according to Professor Tim Naish, director of Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre and a lead author on the next IPCC report, the current scientific consensus is that the sea level will rise a metre by 2100. That is significantly higher than the 2007 figures that policymakers and planners here are working to.

With our maritime climate, New Zealand will escape some of the worst excesses of temperature and drought that are predicted to affect countries with a continental climate. But as a coastal nation – 65% of our population and major infrastructure is within 5km of the sea – the country will still be heavily affected by sea level rise. Governments are waiting on the results of the next IPCC report to help them plan for climate change. However, one outspoken and influential voice on climate change believes that if we follow IPCC’s advice, we will be unprepared for what is coming. James Hansen, a physicist who heads the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies and lectured in New Zealand last year, has said the internationally agreed target to limit warming to 2°C is likely to be a “disaster scenario”.

In a 2011 paper he equated each degree of global warming with an eventual 20m rise in sea level. And it could happen faster than we expect. “This century we’re going to have sea level rise that can be measured in metres,” he says on the phone from New York. The West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have already started collapsing, and in the past “when ice sheets did begin to disintegrate, they went quite rapidly – sea level rise was as much as 5m in a century”.


But Hansen’s is an extreme view, says Naish. He says the IPCC consensus figures take into account a range of higher and lower projections. “If you look at the spread of the models for the contribution of Antarctic ice loss to future sea level rise, they’re all over the place,” says Naish. There are two main types of models used to predict future sea level rise. Process-based models take into account all the expected contributions to sea level rise in a warming climate – from thermal expansion of the oceans, melting of the mid- to low-latitude glaciers, changes in water storage and melting of the polar ice sheets – and calculate the net result. A recent analysis of all the different process-based models comes up with an estimate for sea level rise by 2100 of 80cm. “My view is that this is a conservative estimate,” says Naish. The other type of models are semi-empirical models, which use the known relationship between past Earth surface temperature and sea level to estimate future sea level. This is because the higher the planet’s temperature, the more the ocean expands and less water is stored as ice. These models produce “up to 2m higher sea level by the end of 2100”, says Naish.

Naish’s own work focuses on how polar ice sheets have responded to climate changes in the past. “We know from geological records that the last time the big ice sheets melted or retreated, we had sea level rise of up to 4m a century. So we know the system is capable of the sort of thing that Jim Hansen talks about. “But we don’t know how valid those scenarios are for the future, because we don’t have a large unstable ice sheet in the Northern Hemisphere any more. We do know that the average rate of sea level rise, when you’re going from a past ice age to a warm period such as we have today, is about a metre per century, and I wouldn’t want to rule out higher numbers.”

During the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago, global temperatures were about 2°C higher than they are now and the sea level was 6-9m higher. The uncertainty is over how fast the sea level will rise. “You can pretty much bank on a metre per century, but with sustained warmth it’s really a metre per century with some acceleration over time,” says Naish.


a fisherman sails on the Ice Fjord of Ilulissat in Greenland

In the five years since the last IPCC report, scientists have focused on polar ice sheet modelling and oceanography. In 2007, members of an international collaboration began deploying Argo floats throughout the oceans. Now, more than 3000 drifting robotic oceanic probes report back on temperature and salinity in the top 2km of the oceans, providing valuable information about the heat storage of the oceans. “The ocean has taken up 80% of the heat from global warming,” says Naish. Much of the heat uptake has been in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, “and that’s why we haven’t seen the increase in surface air temperature that we might have expected to see from all the CO2 we’ve put in the atmosphere”.

This month, the extent of the Arctic sea ice hit a record low. But most of the planet’s ice is found in Antarctica. The main way Antarctic ice is melting is by warmer ocean water getting under the floating parts of the ice sheet and attacking them from below. A warmer ocean therefore commits us to a certain amount of ice sheet melting, even if we find a way to stabilise air temperature, because the ocean takes a long time to cool. “We call this the ‘climate change commitment’,” says Naish. “We’re already seeing changes that we can’t stop. We’re committed to a certain amount of ice sheet loss, both in Greenland and Antarctica.”

But it’s not too late to avoid irreversible climate impacts like the total disintegration of ice sheets. “Stabilisation of greenhouse gas emissions at a level that would limit warming to 2°C could prevent the meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet, but it’s unclear if the parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that currently sit below sea level can be saved,” says Naish. However the 2°C target is going to be a big challenge. If we continue business as usual for another 10-15 years, we can still achieve it, but we would then need a reduction to zero CO2 emissions by 2100.


Current Ministry for the Environment guidance to local authorities is to plan for a base sea level rise of 0.5m by 2100, but to consider a 0.8m rise and further rises beyond that. In practice, local authorities tend to stick to the bottom end of that range. A spokesperson for Climate Change Issues Minister Tim Groser says the Government will wait for more information from the IPCC before deciding whether to instruct local authorities to plan for a higher rate of sea level rise. Whatever the next IPCC report says, it’s likely to be conservative. “I think one metre is what we should be planning for. And we can’t rule out two metres,” says Naish.

Whether it’s one, two or five metres, none of the options are good. “We’re arguing between a rock and a hard place,” says Andy Reisinger, deputy director of the New Zealand agricultural greenhouse gas research centre and one of the co-ordinating lead authors on the next IPCC report. “Anything more than 20 or 30cm causes major problems for large parts of the world’s coastlines. It’s possible to protect many coastlines against, say, 50-70cm of sea level rise, but it becomes increasingly hard as you go above one metre.” And however much the sea rises by 2100, it’s not going to stop there. Says Naish, “Sea level will continue to rise for centuries if we do not take measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”

Rebecca Priestly
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