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How will we respond to Sea Level Rise?

by Olivia Hyatt

The sea level rise data made public today is confronting. There has been growing concern in recent years about the threats we face from climate change, both now and into the future. This is a real tipping point for communities and their councils to confront sea level rise and for the government to take a true leadership role.

Sea level rise is a problem that will not go away and will affect every single one of us in Aotearoa New Zealand. We must forge a new path in co-governance with affected communities including Māori, disabled and vulnerable groups who are most at risk and need solutions to be driven by them. Affected communities must be given agency and be true partners in any decisions made.

So many of us live near the coast or spend time in coastal areas. It is an intrinsic part of who we are. Sea level rise is not just about buildings and infrastructure at risk; it will also change our beaches and how we access and use our coasts. As the sea rises more people will have to move inland. It is a sad and confronting reality that we cannot protect everyone and everything from the sea. We must make tough decisions on how to spend our limited resources (both financial and carbon budget). This covers so much of our lives, from our roads, buildings and beaches to the under the radar but vital infrastructure like sewage treatment.

This huge problem can seem overwhelming; but we do have options and we have more the sooner we start. Here is a list of what we can do now:

  1. First we must halt any plans to build new buildings and infrastructure in areas that are at risk of sea level rise this century. They need to be reassessed and with so many areas around the country at risk, with the understanding that there will not be enough resources to protect everything. It is criminal now to build in vulnerable places knowing that we know the risks.

  2. We need cross party support on national adaptation legislation. This is a hard and complex issue that needs national direction. It is long past the time that it is left solely up to councils to deal with. And while this is being developed, a directive needs to be sent out to councils and government departments that they must take climate change adaptation and mitigation into account for all activities and that they must demonstrate they can minimise any risks and reduce emissions. Many need reminding that it is not ok to continue business as usual until we have legislation.

  3. Fortunately, there is already a framework for councils to plan for sea level rise with their communities. Dynamic Adaptive Pathway Planning (DAPP), has been developed here in NZ, published in 2017 by Ministry for Environment, which many Councils are using. Now it is time all councils start using DAPP and make this a priority.

  4. We must have community conversations about climate change. If we are all informed we can face the many challenges and make better decisions collectively. Most of us are worried about climate change, but very few of us talk about it. Start today by talking to your friends and families about sea level rise and how it might affect you. Support your council to plan for sea level rise, there are many ways you can contribute from sending your councillors an email, submitting on consultations online and turning up at workshops.

  5. And finally how high the sea rises is up to us. Some sea level rise is built in, but many metres is not. Every tonne of carbon dioxide matters. We need leadership at all levels to make structural changes throughout our economic and social life that enables our communities to rapidly reduce their emissions. We need to do this collectively.

We must not continue to leave this up to our kids to deal with. The future of our children and grandchildren and that we grow old into, is up to us. We have the tools now to tackle climate change and resulting sea level rise. Let's be good ancestors to them.

"The evidence is clear, the time for action is now." Climate Change Commissioner, Rod Carr on RNZ.

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