The ruinous rainstorms that gatecrashed summer, and returned this week to cause a winter emergency, might be shifting the dial on how Kiwis are thinking about the response to climate challenges.
In the immediate aftermath of the unprecedented rains that hit the country in January and February, it was clear there would be long-lasting consequences.
Dealing with the heartbreak and launching a massive clean-up operation was just the start of it. Essential services had to be restored, and then came government pledges of billions of dollars to rebuild and to improve resilience.
Now there is another effect emerging.
There are signs that the storms are bringing a sharper focus to the mitigation vs adaptation debate. That is, how much emphasis do we put on tackling the root causes of climate change, versus making the changes that will reduce our vulnerability to the impacts of more intense storms?
Of course, it will be necessary to both mitigate and adapt. Greenhouse gas emissions must be greatly reduced if we’re to get anywhere near the net-zero target, and more needs to be done to make ourselves resilient to the effects of increasingly violent weather.
But there are signs that New Zealanders’ attitudes might be shifting in the wake of the storms, and that preparing for the inevitable natural disasters is now seen as being more pressing than going full-bore to meet our international climate commitments.
Cost-of-living pressures are probably reinforcing this attitudinal shift.
With budgets already under stress, a question being asked around the focus group tables is whether we should be imposing climate policy-related costs on families and businesses, including farmers, when the focus must be on planning and preparing for more highly volatile weather.
Make no mistake, the research shows New Zealanders continue to be deeply troubled about climate change, and want something done about it. There are plenty who believe that reluctant politicians are never doing enough to mitigate the threat it poses.
While there are pockets of denialism, we overwhelmingly believe that climate change is happening and that human activity is the cause of it. Only 15 per cent now disagree with that proposition - a figure that has steadily shrunk in recent times.
Last year Kiwis were apparently more worried than citizens from any of the other 32 countries surveyed on climate change by the global market research firm Ipsos. They found that 81 per cent of Kiwis had concerns about the impacts of climate change that are being seen in other countries.
But now, that climate-related devastation we had witnessed happening elsewhere in the world has arrived on our doorstep.
It is understandable that the catastrophic floods have got people thinking about climate resilience.
In addition to the fatalities, thousands had their lives disrupted as floodwaters surged through neighbourhoods, wrecked roads and bridges, caused silt-laden rivers to spill into fields and vineyards, and left forestry debris piled high on riverbanks and beaches.
The television pictures of the destruction are seared into the national consciousness. It has made many people anxious about what might be coming next, and whether we’re prepared.
So the Government’s spend-up on rebuilding and protecting the country from increasingly severe weather is striking a chord with focus groups.
The thinking seems to go something like this: driving an EV might be a good and desirable thing to do for the future health of the planet, but it won’t do anything to prevent the next cyclone.
There is a growing realisation that destructive weather events will happen, no matter what we do to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. And that means doing more to prepare for future weather shocks.
This is not to say that New Zealanders won’t stop demanding action to meet our climate goals, whether that be better public transport options, more renewable energy projects, speeding up the decarbonisation of industry, accelerating the uptake of electric vehicles or cracking the whip on bringing agriculture emissions into the ETS.
An interesting consideration then becomes the extent to which climate concerns will influence voting intentions in this year’s election.
When pollsters ask people to name the issues they are most concerned about, climate change is invariably among the first mentioned.
But when respondents – staunch Green voters aside, probably – are asked to rank issues in order of their importance, climate is further down the list, behind the usual economic and social bugbears like the cost of living, inequality, law and order, housing and health.
So it remains to be seen whether climate will be a critical factor at the ballot box. If it transpires that it is, then the Green Party, as the standard-bearers for more ambitious climate action, would arguably have the most to gain.
But what is clear is that as destructive storms become more common, the link will continue to be made with the climate crisis. And that will keep the subject at the forefront of voters’ minds.
We can argue all we like about mitigation and adaptation. To deal with climate change and its destructive effects, we are clearly going to need both.
As the boss of Britain’s Environment Agency put it, mitigation might save our rapidly warming planet, but it is adaptation that will save lives and livelihoods in the meantime.
- Mike Munro is a former chief of staff for Jacinda Ardern and was chief press secretary for Helen Clark.