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Climate change is coming, we must be ready

Climate change is coming. Preparing for it means we may have to dramatically change how we live our lives, Marc Daalder writes

A baby born today will, by the time they turn 70, live in a world that is 3 degrees warmer, where the seas are 67 centimetres higher, where there are half as many 0-degree nights and four times as many 26-degree days.

That's according to the modelling underpinning the first-ever National Climate Change Risk Assessment, which lays out the ways New Zealand is threatened by climate change and tasks the Government to come up with a response plan to adapt to the impacts of climate change within two years.

While the modelling was based on the worst-case scenario - emissions continue to rise and the atmosphere is extremely sensitive to the greenhouse effect - it does show that the world today's children will inherit is very different from the world we inhabit today.

There's widespread acknowledgement that the way we live our daily lives will have to dramatically change to engage in effective climate change mitigation - that is, emissions reductions. We will drive less and walk, bike and take public transport more. We will probably have to consume less meat and dairy. International, in-person business and industry conferences may become less common while the digital economy thrives.

What is less recognised is that changes of a similar scale will have to be implemented if we want to adapt to the impacts of the climate change that we can't avert. Already, the world is 1.1 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average. Some degree of climate change is locked in and its effects - from droughts to storms to coastal flooding - are already being felt.

Research from a team of New Zealand climate scientists, led by Victoria University of Wellington's Dave Frame, has found major 2007 and 2013 droughts - which the Treasury estimates led to $4.8 billion in lost GDP - were seriously exacerbated by climate change. Some $800 million of the lost GDP from those events can be directly attributed to climate change.

The same model, when applied to the 2017 Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged much of Texas, found $104 billion of $140 billion in damages was directly attributable to climate change.

That will only grow worse over time - the NCCRA found 43 priority risks across all sectors of the economy, society and environment which are threatened by climate change. Of these, 10 are particularly urgent and particularly severe, including the threat to drinking water posed by droughts, the threat to coastal ecosystems from sea-level rise and the threat to social cohesion from the need to disassemble coastal communities and retreat from the water's edge.

Whether we want it or not, climate change will change the way we live our lives. What is up to us is whether our lives change as a direct result of the impacts of climate change or whether they change as we work to shield ourselves and our communities from those impacts.

In comments to reporters about the NCCRA, Climate Change Minister James Shaw raised the question of how coastal communities would cope with sea-level rise.

"Do we retreat from the sea, do we build sea walls? And what does that mean for the pipes under our feet that give us potable water and take away our stormwater?"

What about pressures on the availability of drinking water? Will we need to invest in new and greater storage that is drought- or weather-proof? To what degree should new buildings be strengthened against anticipated extreme weather events?

How will we shield our most vulnerable from inequitable impacts of dwindling potable water or droughts in poorer rural communities?

Given councils will be tasked with implementing much of this new infrastructure, will they need more funding from central Government? If so, how much?

These are the sorts of debates and discussions we need to start having now.

We now have a chance to shape these discussions and make conscious decisions about how we want to future-proof New Zealand from the impacts of climate change in an equitable and sustainable manner.

How we receive the NCCRA and how we respond to it (through the first National Adaptation Plan, due next year) will set up the framework for fundamental changes to the New Zealand way of life - and to the world that today's children will live and, hopefully, thrive in.

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