The people of Christchurch — and the whole of New Zealand — need a better response to flooding than a prime minister gurning with a mop, because every coastal city and town in the country is going to face increasing inundation as sea levels rise and rainstorms get heavier.
Last week’s flooding in Christchurch was a sign of things to come, and should be a wake up call to the whole of the country. The poor old garden city is leading New Zealand into all our climate futures, because the 2010/11 earthquake sequence lowered large parts of the city — by as much as half a metre (or more) in places — rendering previously effective flood defences useless. Add in unusually heavy rain, a sequence of high tides and earthquake damaged infrastructure, and you have the perfect recipe for historic floods and a particularly offensive prime ministerial photo opportunity.
With Gerry Brownlee grinning in the background, Key wielded a squeegee and performed for the cameras in a flood-hit pharmacy in Shirley. The hypocrisy inherent in the PM’s posturing seemed to escape the media, but it won’t be lost on many in Christchurch. Here’s a government which sails as close as it can to outright denial of the seriousness of climate change – which has gutted the climate policies it inherited from the last Labour government, featherbedded the carbon emissions of its friends in farming and big business, and crucified forestry investment – making it obvious that all it’s prepared to do is mop up after the event rather than plan for the future.
What happened in Christchurch was not a consequence of climate change (though the heavy rainfall is something expected to increase in a warming world), but an early warning of what will happen to coastal cities as sea level rise takes its toll over coming decades. With CO2 nudging 400 ppm, the planet can expect the sea to eventually stop rising when it is 15-20 metres higher than today. It might take a few hundred years to get there, but if we don’t act to reduce atmospheric carbon it’s not just a distant threat, it’s a long term certainty.
Long before we get to the sea level endgame, however, we will see that the relatively modest increases expected over the next few decades will increase the damage caused by storm surges, high tides and heavy rain. Christchurch is there today by unhappy accident, but the issues confronting the people of Canterbury will soon be shared by every coastal dweller in New Zealand — and around the world.
We need a government which recognises the big picture when it’s lapping round their Gucci gumboots, and is prepared to plan for the long term. We need to be exploring mechanisms that allow for planned retreat from the encroaching sea. It’s going to be difficult politics. There’s a lot of money tied up on the seaside, whether it’s ports, roads, city apartment blocks or modest baches, and finding a way through the now inevitable problems is going to be a problem to tax any politician of any persuasion.
Ignoring the problem or pretending it doesn’t exist is not just bad government, it’s bad politics. New Zealanders have a right to expect that their government acts in their best interests. Adapting to the climate change and sea level rise that’s now inevitable is a critical part of that job. If Key and Co persist in pretending that climate change is not an important issue, then they need to be delivered a stern message in September’s ballot boxes.