Climate change risk assessment – Expert Reaction

New Zealand’s first nationwide climate change risk stocktake has highlighted ten areas of most concern.

The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019 included a requirement for a National Climate Change Risk Assessment (NCCRA) every six years, with a national adaptation plan developed two years after each risk assessment.

Of the 43 risks identified, ten that require urgent action in the next six years include those to coastal ecosystems, exacerbating social inequities and drinkable water supplies.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the assessment.

Associate Professor Janet Stephenson, Director, Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago, comments:

“The NCCRA report is timely and doesn’t pull punches on the serious impacts that NZ faces from the impacts of unmitigated climate change. The risk assessment is based on a high-emissions trajectory, and this is entirely appropriate as unfortunately the world is currently heading in this direction. NZ has an important part to play in global GHG reductions – we punch above our weight in influence – but ultimately the biggest driver of the global GHG trajectory is the political ambitions of major emitters such as China, USA and Russia. We have to prepare for the worst and plan for a significantly impacted future.

“The reports highlights the extreme risks we face in social, economic, built environment, ecological and governance arenas. With ‘major’ and ‘extreme’ impacts’ identified, action is urgently needed to prepare and build resilience. As the report points out, we are knowledge-deficient in many areas, but this should not be a barrier to starting to embed climate response into every decision made at every level, from central and local government to businesses and households.

“What the report doesn’t do is highlight the additional challenge of building climate resilience in the global financial context. It is well-established that investing now for mitigation and adaptation is far more cost-effective than waiting until the impacts of climate change are even more devastating than they are today. But the shorter-term global economic impact of Covid, together with the longer-term costs of climate change impacts on global economies, have implications for New Zealand’s own financial situation. There is a danger that this will put us off making the necessary investments now, but instead pass on the costs and degraded environment to our children and grand-children. In a nation that prides itself on fairness, this cannot be countenanced.

“New Zealand’s successful Covid response has shown the advantage in moving ‘fast and hard’ to solve an impending crisis rather than waiting. The next step following NCCRA is the National Adaptation Plan which won’t be out for a couple of years. That’s too far away. We need to have serious political attention to be paid to taking action on this impending crisis long before then.”

No conflicts of interest.

Professor Ilan Noy, Chair in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“I do think that by focusing on this list of risks, which is useful and comprehensive with regards to the local direct impact of climate change, we might be ignoring the biggest elephant in the room; namely the impact of climate change internationally and, through these international channels, on us. The pandemic crisis has shown us that even when we can get our house in order, our economy is very exposed to what happens in the rest of the world. Climatic change in the magnitude that is contemplated by this report (3 degrees by the end of the century) will lead to massive changes in global markets, geo-strategic re-alignments, global movements of people (refugees, conflicts), and global risks of extreme events, that will have implications for NZ that will most likely dwarf many of the (justified) concerns expressed by this report.”

No conflict of interest.

Belinda Storey, Managing Director at Climate Sigma, and Manager of the Whakahura: Extreme Events and the Emergence of Climate Change Programme, comments:

“It is good to be able to celebrate a true milestone for Aotearoa New Zealand, with this assessment. Up until now, we have lagged almost a decade behind other countries in not having a national risk assessment for climate change.

While the report looks at climate out to 2100, by applying an engineering lens, the assessment could bias the national adaptation plan to solutions that reduce short-term risk only. The hope is the next iteration of this assessment can shift our focus more to reducing long-term residual risk.

“This assessment is key in deciding the path of Aotearoa New Zealand’s future and it is vital that it doesn’t constrain future assessments. By necessity, due to the short timeframe of this assessment, it is only a high-level review of a very complicated issue. In particular, by naming a ‘top ten’ of risks it narrows the focus dangerously away from other issues that may not have been fully identified by the authors.

“We now need to dig deeper into the foundations of our national climate change risks to look at the long-term implications and into wider social and economic issues.

“In my first read of the assessment it strikes me as light on finance. Finance can be a key lever in adaptation to climate change – for example a bank’s decision to require higher initial deposits and shorter mortgage periods for flood-prone houses may have more impact than local government’s attempt to constrain development in hazardous locations by recording the extent of sea-level rise in district plans.

“Last year, Te Herenga Waka: Victoria University of Wellington was funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund for a five-year programme examining Extreme Events and the Emergence of Climate Change. This will be a critical contributor to future national risk assessments and we look forward into expanding the risk assessment to examine the impact more deeply.”

No conflict of interest.

Sally Owen (Te Rarawa ki Hokianga & Pākehā), Disaster and Climate Change Economics Researcher, Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“This National Climate Risk Report is a first cut at summarising climate risks to Aotearoa. This is a very positive step for Aotearoa New Zealand’s future resilience and an important milestone.

“It’s encouraging to read the authors have attempted to engage widely and that the authors note they have drawn on an interdisciplinary group of experts. I am happy to see that the authors have acknowledged the importance of Māori interests.

“My concern is that the nature of this first (quickly-done and internationally-led) piece of work entrenches a process of categorisation, engagement and prioritisation which does not adequately take into account the holistic nature of the risks, or the particular challenges and vulnerabilities for Aotearoa New Zealand.

“My primary critique after a first quick read would be that the top ten risks were chosen by ranking the lists of risks in each of five domains (natural environment, built environment, human, economy and governance) and then taking the top two for each and calling these the top ten. Clearly, the top two risks to ‘governance’ are likely not as important to most rangatahi as the majority of risks within the natural and people categories.

“I’m also interested to read the engagement documentation in detail. Engagement processes tend to involve only those who can appear on a certain day and time at a certain location, and even for this group, who is heard depends on who has a certain amount of confidence to speak in front of a group. They also tend to be one-off, project-based engagements. This is not effective engagement, particularly for representation by youth, Māori, migrants, renters, people in small towns, and anyone struggling with mental health issues. I welcome the suggestion of a Māori-led accompanying assessment.

“I also see that the next Climate Risk Assessment won’t be done for six years. I’m a little shocked this won’t be done more regularly – isn’t an inventory of climate risks something which could be performed annually? Perhaps there is scope for the Climate Commission to take this on.

“Finally, I’d critique that the three assessment timeframes for ‘urgency’ and ‘consequence’ ratings per risk were: 1) now, 2) in 50 years, and 3) in 100 years. Climate risks are not linear, and with so much dependent on what happens in the next few years, I would have liked to see a non-linear assessment timeframe such as: now, in five years, in ten, in fifty, and in one hundred years.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Anita Wreford, Lincoln University; Science Lead, Impacts and Implications, Deep South Challenge, comments:

“New Zealand’s National Climate Change Risk Assessment is very important, as it is the first attempt to systematically review the available evidence and identify and prioritise the risks of climate change across the country. New Zealand urgently needs to begin strategically planning for climate change in a coherent way, and this assessment is the first stage in enabling that to occur.

“The assessment is critical in identifying the priority areas to focus on for adaptation (and a National Adaptation Plan will need to be developed within two years of the Risk Assessment).

“The assessment also identifies areas where there are gaps in evidence and highlights the need to develop our evidence base and understanding of what climate change will mean for our key economic sectors, natural environment, communities, and our governance arrangements.

“With my Deep South Challenge: Changing with our Climate hat on, I want to highlight that much of our Challenge research has been drawn on in the creation of the Technical Report, and feeds into many of the priority areas. For example, Lisa Ellis (University of Otago) and Catherine Iorns (Victoria University of Wellington) have both led research projects investigating issues around maladaptation and social inequity, and Janet Stephenson (University of Otago) has done important work looking into community well-being and social cohesion throughout current and future displacement because of climate-related flooding. Ryan Paulik (NIWA) is leading work mapping coastal and river flooding to national infrastructure. James Hughes (also on the NCCRA project team) has completed research to understand risks to our storm and wastewater systems.

“While not directly cited in the Technical Report, much of our Deep South Challenge Vision Mātauranga research speaks directly to multiple significant risks raised by the Assessment, including Huhana Smith’s work on coastal indigenous ecosystems and Shaun Awatere’s work on diversifying land use on Māori land.

“The Deep South Challenge continues to focus our efforts at the pointy end of climate adaptation, and this Assessment will also enable us to further prioritise future research, for the future security of Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Conflict of interest statement: I was part of the NCCRA project team.

Dr Judy Lawrence, senior research fellow, Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“This first NCCRA represents great progress in identifying the climate change risks that uniquely affect New Zealand. The Assessment helps us focus attention on where adaptation will be necessary and when.

“It is comprehensive in that it covers all domains affected while also highlighting where we need more understanding of the risks e.g. areas of the natural environment, cascading and compounding impacts and future social and economic change.

“The assessment was undertaken using two scenarios: a low emissions (RCP 4.5) and a high emissions scenario both at the 50th percentile. This enabled the assumptions around urgency of action to be stress tested for their sensitivity to different plausible futures. There is urgency required under both scenarios. (Refer para 2.1.8 of the Technical Report).

“The Assessment provides an essential evidence base for the National Adaptation Plan to be developed which can now be underpinned by the RMA Review Panel Recommendations released last week to help fill statutory barriers to effectively addressing many climate change risks identified in the Climate Change Risk Assessment.

“All the ducks are beginning to be lined up for the implementation of coherent adaptation across New Zealand.”

Conflict of interest: NCCRA Author and Governance Domain Lead; Coordinating lead Author IPCC AR6 Working Group 2 Impacts Adaptation Vulnerability; Climate Change Commissioner (the views expressed do not represent those of the Climate Change Commission)

Dr Andrew Tait, chief scientist climate, atmosphere and hazards, NIWA, comments:

“Several NIWA scientists were involved in producing Aotearoa New Zealand’s first National Climate Change Risk Assessment. The process involved working closely with multiple partners and stakeholders to identify projected climate change hazards and vulnerabilities to these hazards across five domains.

“The key risks identified in the report clearly show where we need to focus our climate change impacts and adaptation scientific research over the coming years to reduce our nation’s vulnerability and enhance adaptive capacity, something NIWA is committed to doing.

“We look forward to the next phase of work on a National Adaptation Plan which will guide the way climate change adaptation measures are evaluated and implemented in a consistent, scalable and evidence-based way and envisage an era in the not-too-distant future when we can manage and systematically mitigate the climate change risks we collectively face.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor James Renwick, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The National Climate Change Risk Assessment is a major piece of work mandated under the ‘Zero Carbon Act.’ Since climate change is already with us, adapting to current and future climate change is as important as getting to zero carbon dioxide emissions.

“The Assessment identifies ten significant risks in need of urgent attention, seven of which are rated as having extreme consequences. They include risks around water supplies, damage to buildings and infrastructure, economic damage, and risks to social cohesion and community wellbeing. Put simply, everything we value is potentially at risk, especially if global emissions of greenhouse gases are not brought under control and reduced to zero by mid-century.

“Climate change affects everything we depend on, everything we eat and drink, as well as our way of life and livelihoods. Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, sea level rise and increasing extreme events are already affecting Aotearoa New Zealand and will have increasingly damaging effects in future. This report takes an appropriately broad view, but recognises there are some fairly fundamental things we just don’t know. We have limited knowledge of the effects on natural ecosystems, effects on cultural heritage and spiritual wellbeing for Māori. We do not even have consistent national information on the exposure of the built environment to climate hazards, so there is clearly work to do.

“In response to the Risk Assessment, the Government has two years to come up with a national adaptation plan. There is clearly an urgent need for such a plan, but even so, it must be designed carefully. The Assessment identifies that current governance systems may not be able to respond well and may in some cases end up making the situation worse (known as ‘maladaptation’). We do not want to paint ourselves into any corners by locking in further high-carbon infrastructure or by making ourselves more vulnerable to climate change hazards.”

No conflict of interest.