Listener gets serious about sea level

by Bryan Walker on May 15, 2011

As I walked past the magazine stand at the supermarket this week my eye was caught by the front cover of the this week’s Listener (on sale last week). “Rising sea levels & extreme weather — why NZ needs to get serious,” it said. A cautious peek inside suggested Ruth Laugeson’s article might deserve a comment on Hot Topic so I parted with four dollars and brought it home to look more closely.  It does indeed deserve mention here if only because it’s the sort of straightforward treatment of climate change that we should be able to expect of serious journalism. Laugeson has been reading Mark Hertsgaard’s book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, which I reviewed a few weeks back on Hot Topic. Hertsgaard argues that we must plan adaptation to the now unavoidable changes at the same time as working to avoid much worse and likely unmanageable change.

Laugeson has enquired about how local government is faring in New Zealand with its adaptation planning, discussing the question with Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule. His overall feeling is that there’s something of a vacuum nationally. Some councils are working hard, but progress is patchy. There are vocal mayors who say that climate change is a lot of rubbish and local bodies shouldn’t be drawn into it. Work that is being done by some councils includes mapping coastal hazard zones likely to be at risk from inundation and storm surges over the next 50 to 100 years, and Laugeson provides interesting examples of outcomes such as restriction of new developments or requirements for new housing to be relocatable.  Difficult times lie ahead over decisions as to when to defend the coastline and when to let the sea come in. Developers use the Environment Court to fight councils who put obstacles in the way of development in vulnerable areas.

What support is central government giving the local councils? Not a lot, by the sound of it. The Ministry for the Environment has given a baseline guidance of 0.5m sea level rise by 2100, with the advice to consider higher rises. (Reported here two years ago on Hot Topic.) But Yule thinks central government should make a ruling on what level councils should plan for, revising it as necessary as new scientific data becomes available. The environment minister Nick Smith appeared to agree in 2009 that a National Environmental Standard on sea-level rise should be prepared, which would give legislative backing to councils when defending their policies in the Environment Court. But work has stopped on that, and Smith claims that the current guidance does not need revision – it is “fair, balanced advice relative to the uncertainties and long time horizon.”

Laugeson’s narrative is much fuller than this brief outline. She also includes some sidebars. One looks at the question of how high the sea will go; it identifies the difficulty of estimating how the ice caps are going to behave in response to the global warming and provides a list of recent scientific predictions, all of them higher than that of the 2007 IPCC report on which the Ministry for the Environment bases its guidance. Another sidebar takes a quick look at what we’re doing to cut emissions, noting that today’s forestry credits are tomorrow’s forestry debits when the trees are cut down, and concluding that it needs optimism to think that we will meet our 2020 emissions reduction target. A third lengthy box covers the thinking of James Hansen and gives information about his NZ tour.

There was a time when journalists writing articles on themes such as this would have felt obliged to ring up someone from the denialist Climate Science Coalition and duly report that some scientists consider that predictions of sea level rise are greatly exaggerated. (The habit dies hard: I notice the Herald report on James Hansen’s arrival gratuitously introduced the observation “While he has been criticised as an alarmist…”) It’s good therefore to see a lengthy and well-written article in a major magazine simply accepting the mainstream science and focusing on the adequacy of the political response to it. More such reporting would surely see more of the public understanding that human-caused climate change is real and thinking seriously about how we address it.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

JezWeston May 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm

The Royal Society of New Zealand reviewed recent science on sea level rise late last year. Most recent predictions suggest more than 0.5 metres.

My impression is that there’s still a wide range of possible outcomes for sea level rise. 0.5 metres by 2090 is looking unduly optimistic, 1.0 metres is looking reasonable, 1.5 metres is looking feasible, and 2.0 metres is looking like the upper limit of the worst-case. However, this all depends on how rapidly ice sheets collapse and then how rapidly ice can flow off Antarctica and Greenland.

The Ministry for the Environment was actually great, for 2008. They said plan for at least 0.5 metres and consider what will happen if it is more. At the time, that’s what the science supported. We’ve just had a few more years of research suggesting that the sea level rise is likely to be more than 0.5 metres.

Bob Bingham May 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm

It might be unpatriotic at the moment to mention this but Christchurch CBD is only just over a meter above sea level. In the economic rush to rebuild the city is anyone looking at the longer view?

Thomas May 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Indeed. It would seem foolish at best to rebuild the city where it has a horizon of perhaps 100 years before sea levels will inundate the area frequently and perhaps as little as 50 years is predictions of feedback cycles and accelerated melting are coming to pass with storm surges being an issue likely much sooner still.

Macro May 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Yes its the storm surges that are the killer! A beach I frequent regularly for instance has sand dunes “protecting” the settlement. These dunes are some 4 – 5 metres above the high water mark. Even so with a good sea running and the wind driving big waves onshore from time to time the seas break over these dunes and flood into the houses opposite – which are about 1 metre above high water. One town in particular that strikes me as being hugely vulnerable would have to be Ohope in the Bay of Plenty. Built on a low sand spit, and protected by the smallest of dunes. 3 metres at the max. The buildings are not much around the high water mark at the very minimum. This can be evidenced olfactorally on an early morning as the sewers run slow with such a restricted fall. Ohope is off my desirable places to live. :(

Kiwiiano May 16, 2011 at 6:56 pm

The ChCh Cathedral Sq is 4m above sea level according to Google Earth. Just point your cursor at any location and note the altitude values on the bottom bar. The high tide mark in the Avon is the rapids between the Barbados St and Kilmore St bridges.
It’s a worry that so many in ChCh are rushing headlong into rebuilding without taking the opportunity of being the first city to allow for climate change and rising sea levels. Remember that it doesn’t need an actual rise of 0.5, 1.0 or 2.0m for confidence to collapse and properties to be uninsurable, just an awareness of the inevitable.

Dappledwater May 15, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Thanks Bryan, for highlighting this. The Listener deserves a big pat on the back.

Carol Cowan May 15, 2011 at 9:38 pm

The Listener has run some good articles on aspects of climate change in the past year (I get my copies 3rd hand via my parents-in-law so am always a month behind the current issue).

pmagn May 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Great digital mag access for low cost. BBC has a great article on weather …
http://www.zinio.com/

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