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Jack Tame: Gabrielle turns climate change theory into reality

Author
Jack Tame,
Publish Date
Sat, 18 Feb 2023, 9:52AM
Photo / NZ Herald
Photo / NZ Herald

Jack Tame: Gabrielle turns climate change theory into reality

Author
Jack Tame,
Publish Date
Sat, 18 Feb 2023, 9:52AM

It’s here.

I think we’ll look back at 2023 as the year in which the realities of climate change chickens really came home to roost. The year in which for a lot of Kiwis, it went from all being a bit theoretical to being on the front doorstep. Or the basement. Or the downstairs bedrooms. Or pouring down the walls.

Sure, droughts have been a bit more frequent, Coromandel and Westport have been flooding, the glaciers have been retreating for years and the Ruapehu skifields have had a terribly lean few winters, but the weather events of the last few weeks have clarified our new reality.

Policy makers talk about two different responses to climate change: mitigation and adaptation. We obviously haven’t mitigated. We all know that. For all of the UN conferences, the lofty speeches, the pledges, all the international carbon credits, globally we haven’t reduced our emissions in a meaningful way. In New Zealand, we’ve barely reduced them at all. It was only a couple of days before last month’s floods that the new Prime Minister extended the fuel excise tax cut... yet again.

But actually, the greater realisation for many Kiwis this week is that we haven’t adapted for climate change, either. We were woefully unprepared for a storm of Gabrielle’s strength. Roads, pipes, electricity networks, telecommunication... Cyclone Gabrielle didn’t just batter the North Island, it completely humbled our infrastructure. It says something pretty stark that in 2023, five days since the storm, with all our mighty technology, thousands of New Zealanders are still officially uncontactable.

I understand younger people’s bitterness at the situation. The cost of mitigation and of preparing our infrastructure so that it’s fit-for-purpose, will cost hundreds of billions of dollars in New Zealand. Trillions of dollars, maybe. Generations that have had it pretty good for most of their lives won’t have to foot the bill. The politicians and governments that didn’t invest in the future, that worried more about electibility than long term challenges? They don’t have to foot the bill either. It’s younger people. Not only do they have to live with the destruction and disruption of climate change, they also have to pay to adapt.

All is not lost. But even if we scramble, even if we dramatically reduce emissions and dramatically increase our infrastructure investment, it’s going to take time. And there are some bitter realities right around the corner. ‘Managed retreat’ is about to be an awfully familiar term.

A friend of mine had part of their house flooded in Auckland. They’ve had to rip out carpets and cut out walls and try to air out all of their things. They know in the grand scheme of things, compared to some of the communities in Tairāwhiti and Hawkes Bay, the damage doesn’t compare. But as well as the most significant destruction, there are communities and families dealing with all manner of lower-level disruption and damage. Think about it - we’re only in mid-February and there are tens of thousands of kids who’ve already missed a week of school, this year.

‘It just feels like we’re pin-balling from once crisis to the next,’ my friend told me.

I didn’t want to say it to him in the moment, but even once the mess has been cleaned up, that’s not gonna’ change. This is life now. There might be a reprieve for a period of time, but ultimately there is no end point to all of this. There’s no finish line. The frequency of these events is going to keep increasing. Crises and catastrophes and significant disasters are baked into our future.

Last month’s floods and Cyclone Gabrielle will make for New Zealand’s most expensive storms this century but there’s good reason to think they won’t hold the record for long. And the truth as it was illustrated to us so profoundly this week, is we are not ready.

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