The impacts of climate change on New Zealand

By BRUCE ANDERSON

This article is from the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Climate Change/ Just Transition”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here. Note: production of the print version has been delayed due to the shutdown of all non-essential economic activity in Aotearoa New Zealand, but the electronic version has been mailed out to subscribers.

School climate strike demonstration, Wellington, September 2019

AUTHOR’S NOTE 20 March: Since this article was first drafted in early February, the coronavirus outbreak has been declared a world-wide pandemic, and is turning into a major economic and social crisis. Yesterday Australia and New Zealand both closed their borders. How its aftermath is handled may give us a clearer view of the likelihood of each of the three scenarios described in this article.

Some would consider this crisis unrelated to climate change, but evidence is building that our despoilation of the environment (driven by the need for growth, and cheap fossil fuel energy) may be linked to these outbreaks, as non-human life is stressed and adapts to the rapid changes we are causing (see for example“‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for COVID-19”, by John Vidal, for The Guardian).

Whether it is directly linked or not, it is one of those crises which increase the pressure on us as societies to change rapidly and transformatively. If our primary medium term response is “Phew, that’s over, now we’d better rebuild the economy and get back on track”, we will be heading down the “business as usual” path to environmental apocalypse.  If our response is “Phew, we got through that one, people have responded well to it, maybe we do have the political capital for a massive re-direction of resources to mitigate and adapt to the warming planet”, we may get closer to the “great turning” which is needed to build a better and more sustainable society.  And if our response is simply “So what lessons can we learn to help us prepare better for the next pandemic?”, we are on the “muddling through” path, making incremental changes in reaction to crises rather than working on the big picture.

Place your bets, please.  Or, better still, work out how you can best help influence our societal response so we move towards the necessary transformation.

Climate change is the “canary in the coal mine”

We are in a world-wide environmental, economic, and social crisis. The land and water are being poisoned by the expansion of industrial food production, and misused in the increasing production of “luxury” food such as meat, dairy (and almonds in California!). We will run out of fertile land in 55 years or so, on our current trajectory[1]. We are also poisoning the water and the air, heating the air and the oceans, and decreasing the species diversity which underpins the flourishing of life, through our expansion of industrial activity and distribution fuelled by coal, oil and gas.

Our dominant economic system is based on perpetual growth, which on a finite planet is clearly unsustainable, and on increasing concentration of ownership and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, through the exploitation of both people and nature. The social impacts of all this are steadily growing, with increases in the number and scale of local environmental disasters, instances of local food and water scarcity, and population unrest and dislocation. And the people least responsible for this crisis – such as our Pacific neighbours, living in low-lying atolls and islands, and contributing far less to emissions than Australia and New Zealand – are likely to face the greatest consequences. 

While the roots of this have been with us since the European “Enlightenment”, and particularly the Industrial Revolution, the major immediate cause is the unleashing of globalist capitalism over the last fifty years, and the spectacular increase in consumption this has enabled in the affluent world.

All of this is having increasing impacts on New Zealand. However, the rest of this article will take a relatively narrow view of climate change and its impacts. It will confine itself to impacts directly related to the increased warming of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. This will understate and even in some cases ignore the potential effects of the various elements and their inter-relationships on our current crisis. On the other hand, climate change is both a leading indicator of the crisis, and also can only be addressed effectively through addressing most if not all elements of the crisis. So we can treat it as the canary in the coal mine. Or the rather large flock of dying canaries.

There is no room for denialism, or minimisation, here

I’m not going to waste much space making a case that climate change is real. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that anthropogenic climate change, primarily through increased carbon release, is heating the atmosphere and oceans. The effects of this are now becoming obvious even to the casual observer, with increases in the severity of weather events causing droughts, floods, and extreme temperatures.

Carbon levels in the atmosphere are going up by 2-3 parts per million each year and are currently at about 415ppm, compared with the pre-industrial level of 280. When they were last at this level, some millions of years ago, temperatures were significantly higher, and sea-levels were 20-30 metres above what they are now. But it takes many decades for the full effects of increased carbon levels to be felt – that’s why we’re not currently swimming for our lives.

The Planetary Boundaries framework developed by the Stockholm Resilience Institute[2] sets a “red-zone” boundary of 450ppm after which all bets will be off, and climate conditions and weather events will become so extreme and unpredictable as to probably make much of the Earth uninhabitable in the medium term. On our current trajectory, we will pass this boundary in 15-30 years (although it will some decades longer before all the extreme effects are felt).

Unfortunately, the science of all this tends to lag behind actual events, and things are likely to happen faster than science predicts. Each of the IPCC’s five yearly reports has been more pessimistic than the last, and their most recent reports are about as shrill as good scientists can get, for example: “We have till 2030 to cut our carbon emissions by 45% if we are to have any chance of keeping temperature increases below 1.5 degrees”[3].

Moreover, interconnections between changes may lead to tipping events (such as rapid deterioration of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice-sheets, or increased methane release in Siberia, or collapse of large chunks of the Amazon rainforest into savannah) which disrupt the linear projections currently be made.

So we as a species are likely to continue to be surprised by the increasing speed of change, and “caught short” in any preparation we do.

New Zealand as a lifeboat

New Zealand’s position (isolated in the middle of the Southern Ocean), geology (a volcanic spine on top of intersecting Continental plates), and political and social stability (few recent wars or major uprisings), give it certain advantages relative to many other places in the world as we face our climate crisis.

The ocean has a moderating effect on temperatures, severity of weather events, and unsolicited arrivals; we have enough moderately fertile soil to feed ourselves and then some; the high proportion of uplands means that retreat from the rising oceans is feasible; and as long as we don’t succumb to the extreme sorts of political behaviour currently infecting parts of the Northern Hemisphere, we might be able to manage all of this in a more or less orderly manner.

These are the reasons why an increasing number of wealthy people are starting to bunker down here, paying more or less attention to how they integrate themselves into New Zealand depending on their natures. Apparently Alaska and New Zealand are highly favoured locations for “weathering the storm” (or at least surviving the early parts of it).

We are a lifeboat. But, to extend the metaphor, let us not pretend that the seas we are in will be calm.

The impacts of climate change are pretty much locked in for the next decade

World-wide (and New Zealand) average temperatures are currently just over 1 degree above pre-industrial levels, and will continue to rise towards about 1.5 degrees over the next few decades. This “average” conceals wide regional variations in averages – for example, the Arctic has been averaging as much as 6 degrees above – and, more obviously, extremes – for example, the recent record highs in Australia and New Zealand (and pretty much everywhere else). Increasing temperatures in the oceans will combine with this to add more moisture – and more energy – to the atmosphere, increasing the number and severity of extreme weather events.

There are also regional influences which dampen or accentuate the general trends, in particular the El Nino-Southern Oscillation in the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean Dipole, either separately or reinforcing each other.

In New Zealand, average and extreme temperatures will continue to rise more or less in line with the world-wide trends – with the extremes rising more quickly than the averages, and becoming more frequent, and drought/flooding conditions becoming more severe.

Overall, the North and the East Coast will get hotter and drier (but still subject to torrential downpours), while the South and the West will heat more slowly, and get wetter in general[4]. The biggest impacts in the next decade will be from extreme weather events. Bigger droughts, storms, floods, fires and, close to my home, bigger wind runs. Wellington has over the last few years been experiencing relatively benign wind conditions, but this spring and summer the higher winds have begun to return – and we probably ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to severe gales in the Cook Strait area during the next decade.

This will all put increasing strain on local communities and physical infrastructure. Some will be more or less unaffected and some will be moderately or severely damaged. Water supply will become a major issue in many communities; emergency and support services will come under more severe pressure, with less time to recover and re-plan between events; insurance will become harder or impossible to obtain for low lying areas and fruit and vegetable production; the calls for local financial relief will have an increasing effect on government budgets and spending; and some coastal communities will have to start looking at relocation (from greater storm surges rather than average sea-level rise).

How we as a national community respond to all this is one key to our future. In many cases, local communities will be unable to recover without outside help. So how those who are less affected respond, as the calls for help increase in number and severity, will be very important. They will HAVE to share some of their own time, wealth and support if we are to maintain New Zealand-wide social stability, which will become increasingly important as the century wears on.

And, even in the next decade, this may all be thrown into more turmoil if the state and civil society fail to adequately respond to increasing numbers of refugees caused by the greater deterioration of conditions elsewhere. More housing, more services, more investment in infrastructure will all be necessary. But external impacts such as these are likely to be more severe over the middle decades of the century rather than in the 2020s.

Our politics[5], current and future, determines impacts beyond the next decade

What happens beyond 2030 is a function of political decisions and actions we in New Zealand, and in the rest of the world, make over the next 10 to 30 years:

  • If political action continues as now, marginal changes will continue to be made within the capitalist perpetual growth model, and climate change will move into uncharted and extremely violent territory later in the century. We will be at about a 4-degree temperature increase no later than the early 2100s, a level which, when put to groups of scientists as a possibility, causes them to put their heads in their hands and despair. This is in line with Joanna Macy’s “business as usual” and “great unravelling” scenarios[6].
  • If enough of us manage to “bite the bullet” over the next few years, to look and act beyond capitalism, forming a renewed partnership with nature and building societies based on social justice and economic thrift, we have the capability to transform ourselves, and to mitigate, and eventually reverse, the more severe impacts of climate change. This is in line with Macy’s “great turning” scenario.
  • It seems most likely to me that we will end up somewhere between these two extremes, being forced by crises to take more radical actions than currently contemplated in mainstream politics, but never developing or acting out a coherent strategy based on real understanding and acceptance of the causes of, and effective responses to, the overall crisis. This is the “muddling through” scenario (my name for it), and its eventual outcomes are wildly uncertain compared to the other two scenarios.

The rest of this essay briefly explores the possible impacts on New Zealand of each of these three scenarios over the next generation (to 2050) and century (to 2120).

The climate-related impacts on New Zealand of the “business as usual” scenario

In the next generation (to the year 2050), we will see the extremes of the 2020s as described above continue to accelerate. In addition, crop failures will increase, and food security will reduce. As immigration increases, mostly driven by the impacts of the climate crisis elsewhere, there is considerable risk that populists will scapegoat the newcomers for the crisis, and that the state will respond by repression of various groups rather than concentrating on provision of adequate infrastructure for a growing population.

Health related issues will really start to bite, with pests, viruses, and the risks of epidemics, much more frequent. There will still be parts of New Zealand only indirectly affected by most of this, but the overall economic effects and sense of crisis will mean they are no longer able to pretend that they can distance themselves from the issues.

By 2120, weather extremes will be apocalyptic, and a subsistence existence will be the best most of us can hope for. A connected society as we currently know it will have largely ceased to exist, and international travel will be done only by the foolhardiest of sailors. There will undoubtedly be survivor communities in various parts of New Zealand, probably mostly on the west coasts, but many of the trappings of affluent society will be gone. Sea level rise will have caused retreat from areas of some cities (notably Christchurch), but the bigger issues will be collapses of infrastructure and failure of emergency and support services, making severe social breakdown probable, but not certain (we may still manage to struggle to survive together, but that’s all we’ll be doing).

The climate-related impacts on New Zealand of the “great turning” scenario

The next generation will be one of social turmoil, as we construct a useful common narrative to underpin the transformation. The current moves towards renewable energy, based on carbon-intensive manufacturing and electric vehicles, will be rapidly overtaken by low-energy realism, and a broadly local community-based “food, water and energy self-sufficiency” movement.

The air and oceans will continue to heat up for some time, and events will continue to get more extreme. But, as forest plantings increase, industrial dairying and large animal farming are abandoned, and other sensible techniques are used to begin drawing down atmospheric carbon, this trend will slow – and even potentially start reversing – by 2050.

This will be a hard period, both economically and socially. Costs will be high, both to mitigate the ongoing effects of global warming and also to bring the low carbon technologies that will form the basis of our more sustainable future up to scale. And the pressures from multiple sources will make negotiation and non-violent conflict resolution critical skill sets for many of us.

On the more positive side, a social narrative and economic system based on recognising the best of our impulses and behaviours, and not the worst, will steadily gain supporters. The efforts at community-rebuilding that are currently run as fringe activities by many groups will become more mainstream, as the cult of individual celebrity and personal consumption is replaced by one of mutual recognition and respect. In particular, tangata tiriti and tangata whenua will learn from and support each other in honouring the Treaty of Waitangi, and in protecting the land and water. We will also honour obligations to our Pacific neighbours, whether by investing in prevention and mitigation to ensure they are not forced to leave their homes, or by recognising theirright to sanctuary.

By 2120, the new narrative and lifestyles will be much stronger. Regional communities will be larger and more respected, as people-intensive multi-cropping agriculture has become the norm. Global warming and climate impacts will have been reversed, although how far this will go back toward or beyond where it is today is uncertain. International trade and travel will be largely confined to essentials. In New Zealand and other affluent countries, the material wealth of the rich will be substantially reduced, but there will be material improvements for the poor. Life will be slower, but emotionally and socially richer.

The climate-related impacts on New Zealand of the “muddling through” scenario

Place your bets everyone. There are potentially some very bad, and some quite good, impacts in this scenario. The climate will continue to deteriorate, but at a slower rate than in the “business as usual” scenario. Life will get harsher, and international trade and travel will drop considerably. But in terms of social impacts, there will be one of two broad trends, one towards authoritarianism, the other one towards democracy.

Over the next generation, the “constant crisis” mode of reacting to major events will be accentuated. This could lead towards either greater centralisation of power or greater decentralisation, as progress is made towards local resilience. There will be winners and losers from the piecemeal approach to climate solutions – this applies both to people and to places. Some places will become ghost towns, others will thrive. And none of this will be very predictable, as the complexities of the mix of status quo and radical changes will make their impacts very uncertain.

By 2120, the climate situation may have stabilised, at a hotter, wetter/drier, normal, or may still be on the path to complete collapse, albeit at a slower pace than in the “business as usual” scenario.

In social terms, any type of political system, from fascism through feudalism to democratic socialism, is possible. In economic terms, we can presume that the use of sequestered carbon (ie oil and coal) will be largely confined to high yield, long term products, but there will almost certainly still be high-end, luxury travel and transport available for privileged people and goods. And the gaps between rich and poor might be worse or better than now – if we go down the fascist route (probably via populism while still democratic in name at least), they will be worse; if a more democratic route, better.

Conclusion

If you wish to independently find out more about the potential impacts of climate change on New Zealand, the Ministry for the Environment has published national and regional climate change projections out to 2090, including some material on impacts. These are based on the IPCC’s models and projections, and so are quite conservative. Parts of this essay have used some of the Ministry’s projections, which are referenced in Endnote iv.


[1] See https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[2] See https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Report_on_Global_Warming_of_1.5_%C2%B0C

[4] See https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/climate-change/climate-change-projections-new-zealand

[5] Here I define politics as Colin Hay’s wide and perceptive a community’s use of its “capacity for agency and deliberation in situations of genuine collective or social choice”. Thanks to Ani White for pointing me to this.

[6] See for example https://www.activehope.info/three-stories.html, referring into “Active Hope: How To Face The Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy”, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, 2012

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