Ignoring the future? Sea level rise and NZ’s planning guidelines

A question-time exchange in the New Zealand Parliament a few days ago seemed worth drawing to the attention of Hot Topic’s readers. Green MP Kennedy Graham (pictured) put this question to the Minister for Climate Change Issues:

Is he concerned by a recent report of an international team of scientists that, even with a two degree Celsius rise in average global temperature, future generations could face sea levels of up to 12 to 22 metres higher than at present?

Kate Wilkinson, the Minister of Conservation, replied on behalf of the Minister for Climate Change Issues:

Yes. The estimates of sea level rise in this report are in line with estimates from the science community over the past few years. But I note that the author himself puts these estimates in context by stating that such changes could take centuries or millennia and that “The current trajectory for the 21st century global rise of sea level is 2 to 3 feet …”.

Graham’s follow-up question pointed out that the current Government guidelines for councils for sea level rise for 2100 are lower than the level estimated by scientists and asked whether the need for correction would be admitted.

I wrote about the guidelines three years ago. They recommend using a base sea-level rise of 0.5 m by the 2090s for planning and decision timeframes, but suggest an additional assessment of the consequences of a rise of at least 0.8 m. It seemed odd advice at the time. Why assess consequences for 0.8 m but plan for only 0.5 m? Anyway, the Minister in his answer to Graham seized on the higher figure as representing the government recommendation (no mention of the 0.5 m) and claimed it was in line with the scientific report Graham referred to, on the grounds that the lead author spoke of the current trajectory for the 21st century sea level rise as between 0.8 m and 1 m.

There is an element of evasion in this reply. If the government’s maximum guideline is the scientists’ minimum it can hardly be said to be in line. One metre would surely need to be the guideline before the government could claim to be in line with the report’s lead author.

However Graham pressed the matter with a question in relation to the rebuilding of Christchurch, this time quoting scientific assessments of sea level rise by 2100 ranging between 0.9 m and 1.6 m and asking whether the Minister would act to support the proposition that the city rebuild should allow for a possible 2 m sea level rise.

The Minister stood firm by the guidance that the Government has already provided, and suggested that the member make his own representation to local councils “if he feels that any specific factors do need closer attention”.

Nick Smith is no longer the Minister for Climate Change, but he has rather contemptuously declared in the past in relation to this question, “The Government is not going to consider adjusting its policy every week.” Maybe not, but how foolish would it be to stick with a figure for sea level rise which does not represent the latest scientific understanding? Graham in posing his question about Christchurch referred to the fact that a city’s life cycle is over centuries. That lends added weight to his contention that the rebuild should allow for the possibility of a 2 metre rise.  It deserved better than the deflection it received from the Minister.

Sea level rise is a stark consequence of global warming for governments to pay attention to. The Minister’s reply to Graham’s initial question seemed to be taking comfort from the fact that the very large rises may take centuries or even thousands of years to develop, as if that somehow relieved us of responsibility. It doesn’t. To knowingly contribute to such drastic consequences for generations even centuries away is deeply unethical; if we value humane and decent principles we can’t wash our hands of those consequences.

There’s a kind of desperation in the way the Government claims to pay attention to the science yet plumps for the lowest predicted level of sea level rise. Imagine if in the reconstruction of Christchurch it was decided to require buildings constructed to withstand earthquakes only in the lower range of severity. In the short term of the century ahead we should take the full range of predicted sea level rise into account and allow for the higher possibility, not the lower. The Government’s current guidelines for councils should be amended accordingly.

The more general question from Graham which concluded the exchange in the House elicited a response which indicates the complacent frame of mind behind the reluctance to reconsider sea level rise guidelines. Graham asked how, in the light of the recent OECD projections that without new mitigation policies the world is headed for substantial increases in emissions, the Minister can repeatedly assure the House that that every Government, including New Zealand, is doing enough to combat climate change.

The response was the familiar mantra:

The member is correct: climate change is a global issue, and a global response is needed. New Zealand is committed to fulfilling our international responsibilities. New Zealand is a small player, but we are doing our fair share, and our guidance will continue to be informed by sound science.

There is perhaps a glimmer of hope in those final four words, because if we are truly informed by sound science we will understand that “doing our fair share” is not a sufficient response in a world which is collectively falling well short of doing what is necessary to prevent deeply disruptive levels of warming.

12 thoughts on “Ignoring the future? Sea level rise and NZ’s planning guidelines”

  1. 1) “sound science” may or may not be good.
    The phrase was created by/for Philip Morris via TASSC and Steve Milloy.

    2) Always remember that the world hopefully doesn’t end in 2100. I’ve been in planning exercises for the SF Bay, and planning for a SLR that goes to X and stops … Is not the same as planning for continual rise, which not only has exciting politics, but issues like location of sewage treatment plants. People often talk about the sea, but some forget about rivers, saltwater incursion, need for pumps in some places behind dikes.

    As usual with water, the Dutch think ahead.
    Google: Netherlands floating homes

  2. “A new independent, non-partisan public policy think tank was launched today by Business Roundtable chair Roger Partridge and New Zealand Institute chair Tony Carter, following the merger of the two organisations on 1 April.

    The new think tank has been named The New Zealand Initiative. It will build on the legacies of its two founding organisations and will focus on raising debate on public policy and contributing bold, rigorously-researched ideas to achieve a more prosperous future for New Zealand.

    Roger Partridge and Tony Carter, who will co-chair the new organisation, also today announced the appointment of Dr Oliver Hartwich as executive director.


    Dr Hartwich:
    “To begin with, “consensus” is a term which is alien to science. It is a
    concept from sociology which describes only that a general agreement
    has been reached, a process of collective decision-making, if you will. In
    science, however, such a process could never be understood as a means
    of establishing “truth”, for it would not only require the individual sci-
    entist to submit himself to a majority view, but it would make that con-
    sensually achieved view virtually unassailable.Thus, establishing a scientific consensus is incompatible with the way that science has evolved,
    from the Age of Reason to Karl Popper’s theory of critical rationalism.
    One would be well advised then to treat the talk about a “climate
    change consensus” as what it is: not as a scientific consensus about climate
    change but at most as a political agreement to act and speak as if the major
    questions surrounding climate change had already been answered. In
    reality, however, there are very few things on which the majority climate
    scientists would readily agree.8
    Dealing with those issues on which there is agreement is very simple,
    for they are few. First, the average global temperature has risen by
    approximately 0.7 degrees centigrade since 1860. Second, an ever
    increasing world population has an influence on the climate through
    increased energy and land use. Everything else in the climate change
    debate is highly controversial. Has the climate of the past millennium
    always been colder than today or not? How much of an effect on the cli-
    mate does atmospheric carbon dioxide have? Do rising carbon dioxide
    concentrations lead us to a point of no return? Or are there self-regulat-
    ing mechanisms which will slow, halt, or even reverse the process? For
    each question one finds much disagreement among climatologists. Such
    disagreement should be welcomed, for it is what science is all about. Far
    from any clear-cut consensus then, there is a debate amongst experts
    about the various aspects of climate change. Puzzling, then, that most of
    what we hear in the public domain gives the impression that the case is
    quite the opposite.


    1. Hartwich is quoted as saying:

      To begin with, “consensus” is a term which is alien to science

      Anyone who says this is obviously not a scientist and doesn’t have a clue what science is all about.

      Hartwick, what is the length of a metre, what is the weight of a kilogram? If there was no consensus in science everyone would have their own definitions. Such absurdity but to be expected when I checked on his background:

      My academic background is in business administration and economics.

      He can hardly get further away from science than that. Yet he has the audacity and arrogance to tell scientists what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

      Thanks, jh, for pointing out just how incompetent your new group will be, I won’t need to waste any of my time reading anything they write because now I know it will be the usual denier rubbish.

      1. Chaps, I don’t think jh was endorsing Mr Hartwich’s position, merely drawing our attention to it. Don’t shoot the messenger, etc…

        Funnily enough, I’d found the same article a little earlier in the day, when news of the new lobby group broke. One hopes that it will adopt a more rational approach to climate and carbon issues, but on the evidence it might not be wise to hold one’s breath.

        1. A problem with unmatched quotes – if the second paragraph (and presumably then the rest of the text) was intended to be part of a quotation, then jh is a messenger – if the missing closing quotes were at the end of the first paragraph, then he would clearly be a supporter. I think IF and I both read it in the latter context.

  3. Now that the old codgers of NZCSC have passed their use-by date, we have a shiny new bunch of paid-for deniers who want to “teach the controversy” and give us the benefit of their infinite (corporate-funded) wisdom.

    To give them their due, though, its quite an impressive density of lies, half-truths and non-sequiturs that they manage to achieve in the following:

    “Everything else in the climate change
    debate is highly controversial. Has the climate of the past millennium
    always been colder than today or not? How much of an effect on the cli-
    mate does atmospheric carbon dioxide have? Do rising carbon dioxide
    concentrations lead us to a point of no return? Or are there self-regulat-
    ing mechanisms which will slow, halt, or even reverse the process? For
    each question one finds much disagreement among climatologists. Such
    disagreement should be welcomed, for it is what science is all about. Far
    from any clear-cut consensus then, there is a debate amongst experts
    about the various aspects of climate change. Puzzling, then, that most of
    what we hear in the public domain gives the impression that the case is
    quite the opposite.”

  4. Dr Oliver Marc is part of the cabal that is opposed to urban planning (other than by entrepreneurs). They are opposed to any ideas of limits imposed by nature. The Demographia line is promoting further research (they don’t like the results):

    From Interest.co.nz
    “by Hugh Pavletich | 01 Oct 11, 9:27pm

    jh – commenting briefly –

    I think you may find that Germany is more urbanized than the UK – yet doesnt have housing bubbles as the UK does. I suggest you read the extensive material by Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich, currently of the CIS in Sydney and formally of Policy Exchange in the UK. There is a link to his personal website down the left colun of my website http://www.PerformanceUrbanPlanning.org .”

    “by Hugh Pavletich | 01 Oct 11, 10:49am
    PhilBest – thank you for your comments.
     I find much of the enviro blather sort of amusing. People such as Julian Simon (The Ultimate Resource) dealt with all this nonsense of Paul Ehrlich of The Population Bomb infamy decades ago.
    The reality of course is that people are our greatest resource. And for most people, life is getting better and better all the time. The human progress over the short span of the past 200 years (only about 8 generations) has been truly remarkable.
    The collapse of communism just 20 years ago has lifted countless millions out of poverty as well, in an extremely short time.
    To think that back around 1850 (just 160 years ago) at the time of the Great Stink in London (when the started to put sewage underground), the average life expectancy of a male in that city was just 28 years.
    With human ingenuity, enterprise and rapidly growing affluence, we sure have come a very long way in an extremely short span of human history.”

      1. How many civilisations disappeared because it was too warm?

        There’s been a few because it was too cold though.

        Also, while not immune to climate, we are not helpless either. Assuming we actually are prepared to use technology, not retreat into a self-enforced exile from it.

  5. Here’s someone willing to call a spade a spade:

    Myles Allen
    Head of the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford’s Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department

    “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is claimed, requires substantial changes in consumer and corporate behaviour throughout the world that can only be achieved via internationally harmonised carbon taxes or restrictive emission permit schemes…Enthusiasts for free-market economics are understandably concerned. But rather than offering a credible alternative, they have generally chosen to adopt a Panglossian view that the problem does not exist, will turn out to be tolerable, or can be addressed by some futuristic technical fix like geo-engineering.

    I will argue that almost all of the measures currently proposed to “stop climate change” will do nothing of the kind, because they focus on reducing the rate of flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while the risk of dangerous climate change is primarily determined by the total stock of fossil carbon released over the entire ‘anthropocene’… Framing the problem in terms of carbon stocks suggests that the only way to solve the problem is by focussing “upstream”, on the point at which fossil carbon comes out of the ground. Ensuring the net flux of carbon out of the ground is reduced to zero before we release too much into the atmosphere, through a massive increase in carbon capture and storage, is a formidable technical challenge that only the global fossil fuel industry has the resources and knowhow to meet, so the sooner they are simply told to get on with it the better.

    Date: Wednesday 11th April 2012
    Time: 12.30 – 1.30 pm
    Venue: Rutherford House, Lecture Theatre 2

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