Labour and the Greens are urging the Government to take a more hands-on role in response to a major report which showed New Zealand was unprepared for a warmer climate, rising sea levels and an increase in extreme weather events.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report, released yesterday, found that New Zealand had a significant "adaptation deficit" in the face of human-influenced global warming of between 2C and 4C by 2100.
This level of warming was likely to raise the oceans around New Zealand's coast by at least half a metre before the end of the century, threatening low-lying communities and ecosystems.
Climate Change Minister Tim Groser said that while much of Government's focus was on international agreements to reduce emissions, the report showed the importance of adapting to a warmer world.
He said the effects of climate change would be different in each region and local councils were best placed to assess the risk and plan their response.
Labour's climate change spokeswoman Moana Mackey said leaving the response to local authorities resulted in piecemeal planning and decision-making.
"Central government has the resources required to assess where the greatest levels of risk lie, to give guidance on what the priorities should be, and to lay out the range of options available to help communities adapt to climate change.
"Regional authorities are also exposed to legal challenge, something which is highly likely given some of the difficult decisions that will need to be made. Endless litigation is in no one's best interest."
Kapiti Coast District Council attempted to introduce coastal hazard zones in its long-term planning documents but these were blocked by legal action from residents who felt their property values and insurance would be affected.
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Prime Minister John Key said National was attempting to deal with these complications in its Resource Management reforms.
"It's the Greens and others who are stopping us making those changes," he said.
Green Party climate change spokesman Kennedy Graham said leaving the climate response to councils was "a massive abdication of responsibility".
He said local authorities were desperate for guidance and direction from Government.
Councils were given guidelines by the Ministry for Environment for coastal development, but these were non-binding. The guidelines said planners should consider sea level rises of 50cm to 80cm by 2090, and 10cm for each following decade.
The national policy statement on coastlines required any seaside developments to have a timeframe of 100 years.
The IPCC's report said planning for sea level rise in Australia and New Zealand had developed considerably in the last two decades, but its implementation remained "piecemeal".
Mr Groser said that New Zealand had been lumped in with Australia in this analysis, which had given an inaccurate impression of New Zealand's preparedness.
The report also predicted that Maori would be acutely affected by climate change in New Zealand because the Maori economy was more dependent on climate-sensitive primary industries.
A large proportion of Maori-owned land was in areas which was vulnerable to heavy rainfall or drought.
Maori were also major stakeholders in fisheries and aquaculture, which faced significant risks from changes to ocean temperature and chemistry.
The IPCC authors said that some new economic opportunities may arise for Maori as a result of climate change, such as new forestry growth in cooler regions which previously did not receive enough rainfall or lacked soil nutrients.