|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.