New thinking for climate change impact on coasts

Resilience and natural hazard planning specialist Professor Bruce Glavovic

Irrespective of the success or otherwise of the Paris climate change conference, New Zealand needs to grapple with adapting to a changing climate, says a Massey University resilience and natural hazard planning specialist.

Communities living on low-lying shorelines or along rivers prone to flooding ­– including many in the Manawatū – face the prospect of escalating natural hazard risk and need to build their adaptive capacity now, says Professor Bruce Glavovic, from the School of People, Environment and Planning.

He is giving a public talk in Palmerston North this Friday to coincide with Friday’s focus on oceans at the UN COP21 conference in Paris on climate change.

Bold leadership is needed in Paris, he says. However, for ordinary New Zealanders, the more vexing issue is how planners, local bodies and communities address the effects of climate change, especially for those living along our coasts and rivers. A ‘business as usual’ approach to addressing climate change impacts by relying on static protective measures ­– such as sea walls ­and stop banks – is ultimately ineffective because sea levels will continue to rise and flood risk in places like the Manawatū will get progressively worse, he says.

Current approaches for addressing climate change impacts involve expensive, adversarial legal processes that fail to resolve the issues they are intended to address. Consequently, communities are poorly equipped to adapt to changing conditions, Professor Glavovic says. Alternative solutions, such as “managed retreat” and “adaptive pathways”, require new kinds of conversation between local body authorities, the private sector and the public, he suggests.

He cites the Kapiti Coast and areas of post-quake Christchurch as prime examples of regions vulnerable to the effects of progressively worsening coastal erosion and flooding where solutions have proved difficult under current legal and governance arrangements.

Business as usual or bold decision-making?

So what are the prospects for rural communities with minimal flood protection and more frequent extreme flood events?

He says that while there is no simple “recipe” for how to adapt to climate change, New Zealand communities can choose between a “low road or a high road.”

“We can take the low road – carry on with business as usual and worry about the consequences of climate change sometime in the future – at massive cost to our communities. Or we can take the high road and begin to unlock opportunities and benefit now by building more vibrant, resilient and sustainable communities.”

Leadership is needed to enable effective community decision-making at the local and regional level. “There is a mismatch between the problems we need to resolve, and the tools we currently have, which are not fit for purpose in a changing climate.”

Professor Glavovic is the lead editor and a contributing author of Climate Change and the Coast – Building Resilient Communities (CRC Press), published earlier this year. In his talk he will draw on local and global case studies in the book that showcase how coastal communities are facing climate change impacts.

He hopes his talk will spark interest among those in the local community with responsibilities or concerns about planning for resilience and sustainability. “We need to create safe spaces for difficult conversations to enable our communities to face and adapt to the turbulence, uncertainty and contestations of climate change impacts,” he says.

Five steps Professor Glavovic says are needed:

 Raise awareness and accept reality – climate change is happening now.

  1. Build shared understanding about the risks facing your community through joint fact-finding.
  2. Work together to jointly solve unprecedented complex problems. Tough decisions will need to be made that result in winners and losers, but a consensus-building process will enable communities to make robust decisions in their best interests.
  3. Face the future with confidence by envisaging alternative future scenarios (including the worst case scenario) and identifying pathways that progressively yield no-regret outcomes over time.
  4. Mainstream climate change into everyday community planning and decision-making.

 Event details:

 Free public lecture: Climate Change and the Coast – by Professor Bruce Glavovic

Friday, 4 December at 12-12.45pm, Planning Studio, Geography Lab Block GLB 2.01, Manawatū campus


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