Over the past few years, many people's apprehensions about climate change have decreased. In large part, that is a consequence of the global financial crisis, a matter of immediate concern that demanded immediate attention. In contrast, an environmental catastrophe appeared to be something that could be tackled sometime in the future. Time seemed an ally, not an adversary. Human nature being what it is, the turning of the economic tide has not changed that sentiment. It falls to updates such as that released this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to re-cultivate a sense of urgency.
It helps that this is a document that deals in the practicalities of what can be expected from climate change and what we can do about it. The prognosis for this country, if not as alarming as for many others, is, nonetheless, concerning. New Zealand, it says, is unprepared for sea-level rises of half a metre by the end of the century that could turn one-in-100-year flooding events into annual occurrences. The country was already witnessing climate change in the form of extreme weather events, and could expect more frequent and more intense storms and damage to coastal development, especially between Northland and the Bay of Plenty, as a result of rising oceans.
This, said Victoria University's Professor Tim Naish, one of the report's lead authors, represented "a wake-up call for New Zealand to take its head out of the sand, to take a longer-term view". His language reflects the frustrations that climate scientists feel about the widespread apathy. Another expert, Judy Lawrence, of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, said there was a "significant adaptation deficit" in the country. Most of the planning to cope with climate change was only conceptual, she said. To adapt to sea-level rise and flooding risk, New Zealand had to be ready to relocate people, invest in flood protection and control land use in risk areas.
In response, the Climate Change Minister, Tim Groser, was considerably more sanguine. Having described the massive IPCC document, signed off by 2500 experts, as a "useful contribution", he said this country had legislation and policy measures that dealt with different aspects of adaptation. Local councils were, he said, best placed to assess the risk and plan for climate change. Maybe so, but a nudge from central government would help to remedy the slumberous state of many local authorities. Further, said Mr Groser, New Zealand could even benefit from reduced energy demands because of warmer winters and some regions could see increases in spring pasture growth.
Two assumptions underline the minister's thinking. One is that we can adapt. But it is not known whether we have crossed a line that makes this impossible. Indeed, it is not known if adaptation is the least expensive option. Secondly, the assumed silver lining does not represent a profitable avenue. The report makes it clear that, worldwide, any benefits, such as a new ability to grow some crops, are dwarfed by the huge challenges of a warmer and more stressed world. These include a greatly increased number of floods and droughts, hundreds of millions of coastal dwellers having to flee their homes and falling yields from major crops.
The apathy that has enveloped the world in the past few years was abetted by the failure of the climate change summit at Copenhagen in 2009. This has meant attempts to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions have, if anything, progressed even less than plans for adaptation. Inaction on both means the repercussions later will be exacerbated. Only a much heightened sense of urgency in this country and around the world will deliver the necessary response.
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