Climate change is having real and tangible impacts on the way we live in Aotearoa, New Zealand. As identified in our previous article 'Will your bach or business be underwater in 100 years?', rising sea levels and accelerated coastal erosion could leave tens of thousands of coastal homes and baches at risk and uninsurable. We are now seeing just how serious this threat is for our coastal communities and beyond.
In January of this year, Cyclone Hale ripped through the North Island demonstrating the risk posed to vulnerable areas. A prime example is the Mercury Bay Boating Club in Whitianga. Having previously lost four metres of its land due to high tides and swells, it was predicted in June 2021 that the club room was only a few storms away from falling off its bank.1 This outcome very nearly eventuated. Supported by the Thames Coromandel District Council, the club urgently constructed a temporary breakwater to protect the building, which is said to have given the club enough time and space to relocate the club room.2 Such retreat is likely to become a more common place occurrence over time.
Climate change has not only threatened our coastal communities. Immediately after Cyclone Hale, Auckland and Waikato experienced widespread flooding in low lying areas from heavy rainfall. Weeks later, Cyclone Gabrielle hit the North Island. Both events devastated homes and tragically claimed lives, putting the spotlight back on the management of and planning for climate change.
In February 2021, the Government announced its intention to repeal the Resource Management Act 1991 and replace it with three new acts including a Climate Adaptation Act (CAA). The CAA, which has not yet been introduced into Parliament, is intended to respond to the effects of climate change, including through relocating communities and/or assets prone to increased flooding or coastal inundation. This is no small task. Before the 2023 weather events, the Government said around 750,000 New Zealanders, and 500,000 buildings worth more than $145b are near rivers and in coastal areas already exposed to extreme flooding.3
While the issues to be addressed by the CAA are pressing, the immediate focus has been on the emergency response to 2023 extreme events including the Severe Weather Emergency Legislation Act 20234 and Severe Weather Emergency Recovery Legislation Act 2023. The CAA is expected to be released later this year.
The content of the CAA may be influenced by the Government's long term strategy for dealing with climate change called the National Adaptation Plan (Plan). The Plan acknowledges that natural hazard events will increase in severity and frequency over time, considers the potential impacts and provides long term strategies and policies to help Aotearoa, New Zealand adapt. The Plan identifies managed retreat as an option and states that legislation will be passed to support such retreat. What remains to be seen is how managed retreat will be implemented and whether it is an effective strategy to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Key issues that need to be addressed include when managed retreat is appropriate, whether and how it is to be enforced, who is responsible for decision making and where the financial burden will fall. The CAA will also need to give guidance on community engagement and other options available to address natural hazards. Work on these important issues is underway.
The very real effects of climate change are becoming increasingly evident through Aotearoa, New Zealand with much of our country still reeling from the devastating impacts of recent extreme weather events. Communities responding to these events are urgently looking to the Government for national direction on long term solutions. A national, forward looking approach is vital for a resilient and sustainable Aotearoa, New Zealand.