If this week's abnormal heat has shown us anything, it's that much of New Zealand's built environment isn't prepared for a warmer world. A major report released by Local Government New Zealand today also warned as much as $14 billion worth of council infrastructure was at risk of another major impact of climate change: rising seas. Science reporter Jamie Morton spoke with Iain White, a professor of environmental planning at the University of Waikato.
What we've been experiencing this week is a taste of what's projected for later this century. Are our towns and cities ready for it?
With regard to heatwaves, it's not really the preparedness of the built environment per se, it's about how the built environment creates feedback on human behaviour.
It highlights adaptation will occur regardless: the technical phrase here is autonomous adaptation.
A good term to use is human comfort, because once our range is exceeded, then we adapt.
So it's better to try to plan around that - not just to avoid economic impacts or maladaptive behaviour, but to bring wider benefits too.
We know the future climate will be different, and that buildings have a long lifetime, so the decisions we make now will help create the future built environment.
Internationally, there is a shift to designing city specific adaptation plans, and Auckland is leading the way within New Zealand on this.
You mention maladaptive behaviour. What are the risks that come with this?
Extremes of heat mean that we tend to use more energy for air conditioning, or choose not to go out into our towns and cities.
The key is to create buildings and environments that can better maintain an acceptable range of temperature and avoid maladaptative behaviour, which is where our behaviour actually makes the issue worse.
For example, increasing energy use to cope with temperature extremes only fuels future risks.
Is the impact of higher temperatures sometimes overlooked amid our focus on effects like storm surge, sea level rise, flooding and extreme rainfall?
It's useful to think of this as the difference between a climate stress and a climate shock.
Shocks like floods or storms tend to receive more policy attention than stresses like droughts, or heatwaves, which is understandable as they are immediately damaging, there are clearly affected communities, and they are high profile.
What might New Zealand learn from approaches that other cities are taking?
Europe is leading the way internationally on urban adaptation to climate change and while every city is different, there are frameworks that have been developed that could be applied in New Zealand.
These tend to link elements of modelling, such as from climate projections, vulnerability assessments, and urban typologies, and then link these policies that mitigate these risks and allow a transition in the built environment to occur.
It's important to note that, while we may discuss various climate impacts like floods and droughts separately, in practice strategies should address these collectively.
For example, developing a green infrastructure strategy is a common approach overseas, and this can cool public areas, provide shading to lower building energy costs, help absorb extremes of precipitation, provide biodiversity corridors, improve air quality, and create social and economic value.
Lastly, what obvious advantages and disadvantages does New Zealand have in making itself more resilient to future climate change?
I think the first advantage is scale.
It's a country where you can get things done if there is political leadership and science investment.
A disadvantage is capacity, there is not a lot of expertise and experience in some of these areas and much of it is spread around quite thinly.
There is understandably a focus on getting good science on projections, but there is a growing need to also bring social scientists, politicians and communities together to translate these into impacts and responses into reality.
In practice, the ways we respond is not a science question - it's about values and the kinds of cities we wish to live, work and play in in the future.