Friday, November 20, 2015

Climate change: Ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away

Yesterday the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released a major report on the impacts of sea-level rise on New Zealand. Its a major problem, which threatens to 30,000 homes and businesses and will inflict tens of billions of dollars of economic damage in the fairly near future. The government's response? Do nothing:

Finance Minister Bill English says the Government will not budget for the costs of rising sea levels, despite a call from Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright to plan for the cost.


English said he would not be including sea level rise as a fiscal risk in the Budget "in a hurry".

He said Wright's report was "pretty speculative" both on the level of sea level rise and the likely cost that would incur - and whether that would change any decisions.

So, do nothing to reduce emissions, then do nothing to deal with the effects of that inaction. Instead, dump the costs and the politically unpleasant decisions on someone else (and meanwhile, sell up your coastal property portfolio and dump it on some other sucker). That's pretty much the government's plan. But this is a real problem, and it is already having real effects. Our government has a major role in both minimising the damage caused by and compensating the victims of natural disasters. Well, this is a natural disaster, albeit a slow-motion one. And it is the government's job to do something about it. Which means providing policy tools to allow councils to restrict coastal development and manage retreat, and (in the longer term) compensation for those whose homes will be rendered uninhabitable by the government's continued refusal to act. We do this for earthquakes and for landslides, with building standards and EQC. And we need to adopt the same approach for climate change too.

OTOH, if they don't, these decisions will be made for us by insurance companies, and by nature. If you live in a low-lying area, your home and business will become uninsurable, which will effectively destroy its value overnight (banks won't give you a mortgage unless a property can be insured, so no-one can buy an uninsurable home - which means you can't sell one). And when the rising seas wash away the only road to Eastbourne, its residents will simply have no choice but to move. Ignoring the problem won't make it go away - it will simply make dealing with it harder and more expensive. But I guess if National cared about long-term costs, they would have dealt with this problem (and rotten state houses, and child poverty) long ago.