As part of the global Covering Climate Now initiative, the Herald is dedicating a week of coverage to the issues surrounding the climate crisis. In the final of a series of in-depth interviews with leading experts on key policy areas, Herald science reporter Jamie Morton speaks with Waikato University environmental planning professor Iain White about climate impacts facing our communities.
When it comes to climate threats to our towns and cities, we tend to think of rising oceans sweeping into seaside homes and roads. But what do the risks to our urban centres look like?
A good way to think about this is the increasing likelihood, and rising costs, of various types of extreme weather events and how these may cause disruption.
Both directly by themselves and also indirectly as the infrastructure or services we rely on are affected.
Broadly speaking, we should see more heatwaves, droughts, and storms, but a key risk for towns and cities in particular will be legacy infrastructure having to deal with more extreme rainfall events, more frequently, and failing more often.
There is often talk in parts of the media of the one-in-a-100 year type precipitation events in the wake of severe storms, but the term should have really been retired a long time ago.
Drawing on historic data we have captured many decades in the past to consider the present or future is not only inaccurate, it's a poor communication of risk.
Can you give an overview of what that current threat looks like? What centres or areas can we expect will see - and indeed are seeing - some of the first major impacts of climate change?
Its tricky to be specific as there will be significant regional variation, but generally speaking, if we continue the example of flash flooding we are lucky to have a pretty temperate climate here in New Zealand, and over the decades we have largely designed our infrastructure - like our our pipes, defences and drains - around that idea of a stable climate.
In simple terms, in many places our existing infrastructure will have to deal with more of those huge downpours that all of us have seen in recent years - what scientists call high intensity rainfall events - and we can expect more drainage failures, localised flash flooding, and disruption.
It is possible to build bigger pipes or store water to mitigate this, but bigger pipes tend to cost more money.
So, all things remaining equal, to keep the same level of performance, more ratepayer cash will have to go into infrastructure.
Or, we might have to plan better to ensure that if we do get more nuisance flooding it is not as disruptive and we can live with temporary excesses of water better.
Do you feel most Kiwis are aware or familiar with these dangers?
You know, I think they are getting more familiar.
It is one thing to produce the science on climate and impacts, and we also have some great science communicators and journalists in New Zealand to get the message out, but I also think the lived experience is important.
People are seeing extreme events now and they notice them.
We had an event in Hamilton about a month ago that was like a tropical monsoon for 20 minutes, then it was over.
The end of the street was flooded two feet deep as the drainage capacity was just not designed for that.
Luckily, the houses there were just above the water level and did not flood, but the neighbours were out on the street and we were talking about it.
But even though it still feels quite unusual we all said it's not the first time it's happened recently.
More generally, the polling backs this up too.
For example, climate change came through very strongly in what kinds of a Covid-19 economic recovery would people like to see.
What are some of the biggest policy questions now before us, surrounding the myriad issues around planning, regulation and funding support for councils negotiating this enormous risk?
This is an important point as the climate crisis is not our only crisis.
While we recently saw taxation and demand side measures in the news as a means to address our terrible housing affordability crisis, the debate over the supply of new housing has long been gathering pace.
We are now seeing significant reform of planning policy and a more sophisticated discussion of the costs and barriers to supply-side solutions.
Funding is key here.
For instance, the infrastructure required to release land for new housing development costs a huge amount of money and many councils are struggling to raise the funds and there is a fear that developers may need to pass costs on.
So, the key questions that are on the minds of many in the planning field:
How do we address multiple crisis at once?
How do we grow in a way that current and future generations will thank us for?
How can we be smart at funding growth at the same time as shifting urban form to reduce emissions or adapting to climate change?
In simple terms, this is essentially about shifting the scale and time of planning, so less short-term reactive focus on the site scale, and more long-term proactive focus on the city scale, where you can better understand the trade-offs and complexities.
But there are huge issues about legacy development, funding, and creating a future vision that resonates with current generations.
The Government has taken some clear steps already - namely in mapping out the risk with its recent nationwide assessment, which it will follow up with an adaptation plan, and moving to create dedicated legislation in its Resource Management Act (RMA) reforms. Are we going hard and fast enough?
It is definitely overdue, but there is also no doubt that we are seeing a flurry of policy work going on behind the scenes right now.
The Climate Change Commission produced its draft advice recently.
The RMA reforms are huge and will be challenging to design, particularly in gaining alignment between the Natural and Built Environment Act, The Strategic Planning Act, and the Climate Change Adaptation Act.
Also as part of those reforms, the strong policy direction is also to densify our urban form, which has been a very welcome recent shift in terms of housing affordability, sustainability and the potential for reduced emissions.
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But we also need to remember that policy in itself will not save us.
There are always trade-offs. Different interpretations. Conflicting policy aims. Lack of funds to implement or monitor. New governments or mayors. Individual councillors who are worried about change.
Then there are ongoing discussions we need to have about who may pay, how fast should we act, or where do we prioritise?
This will involve some work in ensuring central and local government work in tandem and to make sure that the costs and benefits of both growth and climate adaptation are shared in a fair and sustainable way.
Science can provide increasing evidence on impacts but in reality, as climate change involves the future and choices about how to respond, there will still be significant uncertainties to be managed in politics and democracy more generally.
There are inevitable limits on the kinds of certainty that science can provide, which means climate change is a very, very political and value-laden space.
I'm hoping the new policies and guidance will provide clarity but we shouldn't overestimate their ability to solve the issues facing us.
Is it possible that market signals - notably insurers withdrawing cover to threatened homes - might prove just as powerful?
Absolutely, and this is one of the fears that people like me have.
Insurance is essentially risk transfer - you have my money, in exchange you protect me from various things that could happen.
It should be a win for both sides.
I have security and peace of mind, you have some income, and over a large population coverage you can run a successful business.
The difficulty for insurers is in accurately pricing a risk that is in motion due to climate change.
For example, historic patterns of rainfall, drought, storms, or previous distribution of claims, are less useful.
So what happens if certain types of risks happen more often?
We may see the cost of insurance rise, excesses rise, or even insurance withdrawal from these areas altogether if it becomes uneconomical.
This could greatly affect property prices, blight areas, or disadvantage already disadvantaged communities who have been subject to these extreme events.
It's hard to recover when there is no insurance. Inward investment stops.
Infrastructure is not renewed. Businesses may go elsewhere.
Some people may move, but what about those who can't or won't?
On the other hand, research suggests that, as yet, market signals have not responded sensitively to climate risk.
For instance, climate science or risk maps may get updated but property values continue to rise in coastal locations across the country.
This is due to varied issues such as risk perception and tolerances, the demographics of those buying properties, and their belief in climate change - but events can change that situation suddenly.
If fewer people are willing to take that risk on then demand could rapidly affect prices.
But in general, giving too much power to the whims of the market is a recipe for injustice.
Insurance withdrawal may well happen, but I'd rather we were proactive in anticipating this risk and taking steps to protect people before these events occur, or designing a new role for the State in advance of the withdrawal of any private insurance.
The EQC is a good example of a mechanism to protect people where private insurance is not viable.
What are the benefits that come with making our cities less exposed to climate risks?
A good way to think of this is in regard to mitigation (lower emissions) and adaptation (making sure we can cope with current and future effects).
For the former, the Climate Change Commission has recently released some challenging targets.
For urban areas the most challenging is regarding reducing emissions from transport.
In simple terms, this will involve new strategic planning and infrastructure investment that can deliver a greater share of trips either by walking or cycling, combined with a shift to electric vehicles.
Both will mitigate our emissions but there are so many gains to be made from using urban space more sustainably and efficiently by providing more options other than car travel, from the costs of infrastructure on taxpayers, to health, to increasing the viability of higher frequency public transport or light rail, to levering in more houses into the same development space and enabling more people to live in urban centres.
For adaptation, the benefits include a range of design features at the building and community scales.
For example, by increasing urban green space you can both make densification more attractive for people and, if designed properly, manage high intensity rainfall events by temporarily storing water and taking the load off drains.
Adaptation is also cost effective as it prevents disruption which means investors can invest with confidence, businesses can open, there are fewer costs on the taxpayer for recovery, and people can go about their daily lives safely.
As a last point, there are costs in mitigating and adapting to climate change, most notably for infrastructure, but there are even more significant costs in not doing so.
The key is providing a vision of a future town or city that seeks to improve on our current lifestyle and uses our scarce investment wisely.
You do this by working with citizens and planning a long program of investment to encourage the shifts in urban form and behaviour that can address multiple crises at once.
We are not alone in this task though, countries all around the world are grappling with it at the same time.