Weekly column by Kāpiti Mayor K Gurunathan.
It's a sizzling 26C in sunny Ōtaki as I write. In fact, the past six years have seen the planet hit consecutive records as the hottest. New research from Niwa shows extreme events in New Zealand have occurred four to five times more frequently during the past 10 years.
Sure, last year when we saw the Climate Change Summit COP26 held in Scotland, organisers were, based on new pledges made by global politicians, at pain to trumpet its progress. "Blah, blah, blah" responded climate change activist Greta Thunberg. She was backed by Climate Change Tracker, the voice of an alliance of climate change-related think-tanks from around the world. It tracked the new pledges of 140 governments and concluded that despite these pledges, the world was actually headed towards a 2.4C warming, significantly higher than the 1.5C needed to save the world from catastrophe. Others have pointed out that even the new pledges were unreliable, given the growing state of economic nationalism and global power politics.
Last week, we heard three climate change scholars state a call for an end to more research on the unfolding climate change. Professor Tim Smith, of Sunshine Coast University, Professor Ian White, of Waikato University, and Professor Bruce Glavovic, of Massey University, were basically saying that science had already proved that climate change was happening and accelerating, but the politicians were ignoring it and the act of investing in more research without action was merely peddling false hope. They argued for a moratorium on IPCC climate change research "which does little more than document global warming and maladaptation". They advocate a focus, and action, on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.
It may be useful here to go back to 2019, and look at the argument raised by Local Government NZ. In March 28, LGNZ president, the late Dave Cull, presented this reality check. "A stark truth we have to accept is that NZ is a climate taker not a climate maker. While we have a clear duty to reduce our carbon emissions, NZ accounts for less than 0.2 per cent of global emissions, which means whatever our efforts in the mitigation space, we will not move the dial in any meaningful way." He raised this point to highlight the lack of focus on adaptation to the climate change that is already happening and accelerating. He wanted an equal focus on adaptation (managing the impact of climate change) as the government was putting on mitigation (reducing emissions that caused climate change).
Whenever I have raised this argument I always get the moral imperative as response, that even if our national emission levels were low from a global perspective we had a moral responsibility. My response has been to always accept this responsibility, especially in representing the smaller Pacific nations. But there is also a moral imperative to invest in the welfare of those bearing the brunt of the impact of climate change now. The amount of emissions accumulated in the atmosphere is already creating environmental, social, economic and cultural havoc. What about our moral responsibility to those at the coalface of this?
A clear example of this one-eyed world is worth mentioning here. In May 2019, a motion was moved for Kāpiti to declare a Climate Change Emergency. In rationalising this move it was noted that while the declaration did not carry statutory weight, it provided a legal framework for council's existing work stream on its climate change and adaptation strategy: "The declaration recognises that our communities are facing an iceberg of significant costs now, and increasingly over the coming decades , from coastal erosion and floods".
This was backed by a series of costly coastal protection projects and the threat to about 1800 coastal properties worth an estimated $1.6 billion. And the 6000 inland properties in flood-prone zones where council had identified 300 stormwater projects over 60 years costing $250m.
That same meeting saw another motion moved under urgency backed by members of climate change activist group called Low Carbon Kāpiti. The motion supported a council commitment "to pursuing the goal of carbon neutrality by 2025". As this was moved as a matter of urgency it was debated and voted on first. It was unanimously passed and immediately the large contingent of supporters sitting in the public gallery burst out in applause and then promptly left the meeting. They did not bother waiting for the debate and vote on the motion to declare a climate change emergency. One could only surmise that for them mitigation was the only game in town. But I must mention that when the emergency declaration was unanimously passed a sole member of the public, community activist Mike Alexander, gave a standing ovation.