Tuesday 21 February 2023

Gabrielle’s Lesson.

Mitigate That! Cyclone Gabrielle’s lesson is that New Zealand’s climate change adaptation efforts have been woefully insufficient, and that much more work is needed if we are to survive this “time of consequences”.

THERE IS A LESSON to be learned from Cyclone Gabrielle, but far too many New Zealanders are refusing to learn it. From Climate Change Minister James Shaw’s portentous quoting of Winston Churchill, to Jack Tame’s hectoring of Finance Minister Grant Robertson for supposedly moving away from “mitigation”, Gabrielle is fast becoming one of those crises that political actors deem “too good to waste”.

But, if we are, indeed, entering a Churchillian “time of consequences”, then a moment’s reflection should tell us that the “mitigation” ship has sailed. The best we can hope for is a government committed to doing everything within its power to help us adapt to unstoppable global warming.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the climate change debate is how little attention those demanding “action” pay to what is actually happening. From a planetary perspective, all the efforts directed at mitigation – i.e. at stopping and, hopefully, reversing global warming – have not appreciably dented humanity’s consumption of fossil fuels. In spite of all the global gatherings, all the impassioned speeches, all the target-setting, there is scant evidence that more than a tiny percentage of human-beings are willing to renounce the dazzling amenities of the civilisation made possible by coal, oil and natural gas.

The central problem confronting the world’s leaders is a brutally simple one: to combat global warming effectively, four-fifths of humankind would have to foreswear the life that the burning of fossil fuels makes possible; and since no leader would dare demand that his people make such a sacrifice, global warming cannot be significantly mitigated.

Which is why, whether they are willing to admit it or not, governments around the world are focusing their efforts increasingly on adapting to the consequences of a warming planet. The primary lesson which Cyclone Gabrielle delivered to New Zealanders last week is that, domestically, these adaptation efforts have been woefully insufficient, and that much, much, more work is needed if New Zealand is to function (and hopefully flourish) in this “time of consequences”.

Successful adaptation cannot occur, however, while this country’s economic settings remain fixed by the dogma of the 1980s. Practically all of the adverse events unleashed by Cyclone Gabrielle have at their root the unwillingness of successive governments to properly maintain, improve and/or extend New Zealand’s basic infrastructure. The active nation-building overseen by central and local governments in the century following the end of the Land Wars in the 1870s was drastically curtailed by the economic reforms of the 1980s and 90s. The low-tax, privatised and de-regulated New Zealand demanded by the reformers left the New Zealand state weaker and poorer. Infrastructure was ignored until it failed, and then fixed on the cheap.

In a selfish game of pass-the-parcel, competing political parties did their best to bequeath the growing infrastructural crisis to their successors. Our political class understood perfectly well that a day would come when the infrastructural problems could no longer be ignored without sacrificing New Zealand’s status as a First World country. Everybody knew that something had to be done, but everybody also hoped like hell that it would happen on somebody else’s watch.

Their reluctance is understandable, especially when telling the private sector what to do is generally regarded as politically suicidal. According to neoliberal economists, market signals are sufficient to compel private enterprises to behave responsibly. Nobody thought too much about the consequences of the state declining to send the market strong enough signals to produce a change in private companies’ behaviour.

Such “light-handed” regulation was always bound to end in disaster. The forestry “slash” washed down the rivers of the North Island’s east coast revealed the true cost of central and local governments’ failure to make the leaving of unwanted timber on clear-felled hillsides too cripplingly expensive for forestry companies to contemplate. The result, as New Zealanders have witnessed with mounting fury, is environmental and infrastructural damage on a massive scale. Successful adaptation will require extremely heavy-handed regulation – backed-up by extremely painful consequences for those who ignore it.

Adaptation will also require a substantial expansion of the state’s revenue base. It is no accident that New Zealand’s century-long period of nation-building occurred in a fiscal environment that recognised the ongoing and substantial cost of building and maintaining a modern society and economy. To meet the massive costs of upgrading the country’s infrastructure – to the point of being able to withstand significant weather events like Cyclone Gabrielle – new and higher taxes will be needed.

A transport policy that looks beyond roads, roads, and more roads, is another vital component of any serious adaptation strategy. Where possible, a reintroduction of coastal shipping services should be included in the transportation mix. A seriously upgraded rail network would, similarly, help to relieve the pressure on New Zealand’s roads. The increasing severity of rain events generated by global warming may even force a “managed retreat” from the hill- and mountain-hugging roads that recent downpours have sent slip-sliding away.

Cyclone Gabrielle’s severe disruption of energy distribution and telecommunication services has shocked the nation. Their fragility has been exposed in the most disconcerting fashion to a population hitherto unaware that such essential services could be knocked out of action for so long.

Watching Gabrielle lay so many services low, many older New Zealanders will have recalled the “gold-standard” reticulation networks set in place by the “government departments” of yesteryear. Unconstrained by the profit motive, the engineers who designed and oversaw the construction of these services asked themselves only: “How strong and reliable is it possible to make these vital links?”

Politicians will find it difficult to avoid confronting the all-too-obvious shortcomings of privatised energy and telecommunications companies. Successful adaptation to global warming is going to place public ownership of vital infrastructure back on the political agenda – with a vengeance.

Finally, any successful adaptation strategy to the challenges of global warming will have to reign-in the power of private property developers. With the steadily rising premiums demanded by insurance companies acting as the state’s battering-ram, New Zealand’s developer-driven local government regimes must eventually give way to organisations dominated by civil engineers and urban planners. Decision-makers responding not to the hunger for profit, but to the promptings of utilitarian ethics and dispassionate climate science.

Cyclone Gabrielle, in all her exogenous fury, has left our political parties with scant room for manoeuvre. The damage inflicted by the storm must be fixed, and the funds to do the fixing must be found. Moreover, politicians who insist Gabrielle’s primary lesson is that the personal and societal sacrifices bound up with climate change mitigation cannot now be avoided, are likely to get a very short shrift from those whose houses, farms, orchards and livelihoods have been destroyed.

The political party that promises to make good the damage of Gabrielle, while offering an adaptation strategy for ensuring that such destruction does not become an annual event, is going to be much more warmly received than one which asks every voter to don a hair shirt and do without the wonders of our fossil-fuelled civilisation. When U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney said “the American way of life is not negotiable”, he wasn’t kidding.

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 20 February 2023.


Trev1 said...

"Mitigation" of what? The Southern Oscillation, the positive Southern Annular Mode and the biggest volcanic eruption since Krakatoa which has thrown millions of tonnes of dust and water vapour 58kms high into the stratosphere, where it continues to circulate? King Canute gave humankind an important lesson one thousand or more years ago about the power of Nature over Man.

Adaptation is within our reach however, and I completely agree we must focus on building far greater resilience to weather events and earthquakes. Since it is essentially a "public good', resilience cannot be left to the private sector alone. We need a Minister for Resilience as they have in Japan, and every large scale infrastructural development needs to be vetted accordingly from now on. New Zealand is the land of the quick-fix and patch-up, as our substandard, deteriorating roading network amply demonstrates. Perhaps we no longer even have the skills to build better?

Anonymous said...

Climate changing is never ending, of that there can be no denying. Adaption is what we must do as the horse has long since bolted to reverse anything.

I want to be proven wrong but as the government tries to coordinate the private sector to rebuild the public sector infrastructure lost, and given this government is the least practical, lowest achieving in memory, I can't help but worry that this disaster will not be addressed in a timely nor physical manner. About now a strong Ministry of Works would come in handy, but it's not there.

The solution does not lie in self-flaggelation and appeasing the climate gods with sacrifices of motor vehicles, coal and proving we love cargo bikes to show we've learnt our lessons because that is about as futile as our ancestors doing the same for their angry gods. But it does lie in assuming our climate is similar to the tropics and building our housing, infrastructure, and maintaining it, to suit.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The free market does not handle externalities at all well. Never has, never will. That's why regulation is necessary, because the effects of externalities are often too late, and to extreme for the market to take care of them. If granny can't be got out of her flat quick enough to avoid being buried by a landslide, the market doesn't do granny much good at all does it?
It also doesn't handle things like pollution very well either, given the clever ways in which businesses managed to weasel out of their obligations, up to and including going bankrupt.

IMO it's time we started subsidising – properly subsidising – solutions, particularly energy solutions that help with climate change. It's not as if businesses worldwide don't get subsidies for all sorts of things, including the oil industry in the US. Time to get rid of that for a start.

Kat said...

The political party the reinstates a 21st Century Ministry of Works should be 'warmly received' however politics and cries and squeals of communism, socialism, state control, bloody unions and loss of freedoms etc etc etc will be get bellowed from the boardrooms and ZB radio stations and paralysis by analysis is bound to ensue......

Unless of course Chippy and co just get on with it........

Anonymous said...

The government timidly brought in plus/minus sanctions for "clean" and "dirty" new vehicles. The car sales industry is now offering to "pay" for the penalty on larger high consumption vehicles by discount. Insanity...

Mike Grimshaw said...

Excellent points Chris but all this needs to be funded by increased economic growth not just increased taxation on a country that lacks a notion of a social contract, let alone a social covenant. We need smart growth that increases wages and salaries not a stagnation economy where increased taxation hurts an already hurting middle class or is seen as yet another reason to move to Australia. We want to keep wealth generators here, not export them elsewhere. On top of such infrastructure funding we need to continue to fund a failing health system, ensure nzers have sufficient, affordable and healthy housing and sort out an education system that seems to fail too many...and this failure starts at pre-school level. To do all of this out of the current working population and economy requires a fundamental reset...

ZTS said...

100% agree CT, especially good column today.

Archduke Piccolo said...

The Climate Change Denial Mantra

It's not happening.
It's not happening.
It's not happening.
It's not happening.
All right, all right -
It's happening!
Too late to do anything about it now...

What bothers me is that the little Joe and Jo are the ones expected to make the voluntary lifestyle changes, as though those trivial changes would make any difference. The Fat Cats get to consume as they have always done.

Let's see some genuine leadership, not only in action but also in sacrifice. That is what it will take. That has always been what it would take. And that ought to have been happening more than 30 years ago.

David George said...

Nature is out to kill you one way or another, and always succeeds eventually but there's no evidence that weather is more extreme; despite the medias incessant efforts to convince us otherwise. The 1897 and 1938 Napier area flood, for example, conveniently memory holed. In fact, climate related deaths have declined massively, now only 5% of what they were a hundred years ago. https://www.humanprogress.org/dataset/global-climate-related-deaths-per-year/

There is more that can be done of course, impoverishing ourselves with this counterproductive net zero nonsense and thereby limiting our capacity to cope with natural disasters makes no sense at all.

We got off fairly lightly here in Northland, lots of rain but not all at once like some places. We were still left without communications for a day or so though; no Eftpos and cash only at the shops and service stations as a consequence. Having a bit of good old cash gives resilience, personally and collectively. Imagine if the whole electronic system crashed for days; chaos.

We had a really bad storm here in Kerikeri back in March 1981, lots of flooding and an old lady died when her house was washed away. After that two large dams were built in the main catchments feeding our rivers. They are for irrigation water but also serve to attenuate peak flows - we've not had anything nearly as bad since. There was a big national program of water management in the 60's - dams, stop banks and river dredging etc. Perhaps we need to look at doing a lot more of that sort of thing, the bigger dams can generate power as well. The Dutch are masters at this sort of thing - have a look at the history of floods and the appalling death toll before they put in their water management infrastructure.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"We need smart growth that increases wages and salaries not a stagnation economy"

We were promised that in 1984 – still waiting

"Nature is out to kill you one way or another,"

Nature is indifferent to you David. And everyone else for that matter.

The Barron said...

21 October 1966, the Welsh village of Aberfan suffered the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip, generally referred to as a slag heap. 300,000 cubic yards of coal sludge buried a Welsh primary school, and 19 houses killing 116 children and 28 adults. The report of the subsequent tribunal placed the blame for the disaster on the National Coal Board (NCB,) an NCB witness conceded that tip safety arrangements had been inadequate and the disaster could clearly have been foreseen.

57 years later I am left pondering the forestry industry and the nature of slash as a by-product of the commercial enterprise. Is it reasonably foreseeable that in certain weather conditions the slash will cause harm and probable death to the surrounding communities? Of course it is. What is the position of Worksafe? Surely actual harm and death being caused by industrial waste sets a liability with the owners of the business. The communities of te tairawhiti lives and well-being is not an acceptable cost of profit making business exploiting our poor rural districts.

Yes, there needs to be on-going and deep exploration as to the impacts of climate change and changes made., but independent of that is surely an accountability as to the foreseeable harm of the industrial waste of the logging industry.

AB said...

If you don't mitigate, adaptation becomes increasingly expensive, then ruinously expensive, then impossible. We have painted ourselves into a corner where we now have to do both simultaneously. We can blame the political and economic power of the deniers over the last 25 years for that nasty little gift.

Jason Barrier said...

A prescient column CT. I cannot understand why the government does not create a fund to incentivize farmers to put up to 5% of their worst land into natives? Instead their policy settings are encouraging overseas carbon speculators to blanket vast areas of our country in exotic pine trees. Doing lots of small native catchments would achieve the governments long run mitigation aspirations without stuffing up our communities, exports, employment, rivers, beaches and roads in our rural hinterland. Agreed also that as a country we need much more focus of adaptation and less on the mitigation virtue signaling.