Climate change hurts the vulnerable

Our thoughts are with those in Edgecumbe and other towns experiencing massive flooding from the latest weather bomb, the second in the space of a week. People are having to leave their homes and their possessions as the floodwaters rise. This follows fires, droughts, storms and floods over recent months. Many Kiwis are suffering trauma and loss as they deal with extreme weather.

As we respond to these events we need to ask about the cause. Weather was not always like this. Scientists have documented the rise of extreme weather events and concluded that climate change is having an impact. So has the insurance industry.

Flooding in the Bay of Plenty

It is sometimes difficult to connect any single event to climate change, but the pattern is clear – there will be more heat waves, droughts, wildfires, intense cyclones, heavy rainfall, sea level rise and more extreme conditions as weather patterns are disrupted. Victoria University climate scientist Professor James Renwick said heavy rain events that have brought flooding to parts of New Zealand have a clear link to climate change. Hotter temperatures means around 7 percent more moisture in the air for each degree of warming, and that results in heavier rainfall.

Therefore it is surprising to hear the Prime Minister saying that the government doesn’t spend much time thinking about connecting climate change with flooding. The government should. It would not only provide an impetus for us to reduce our high levels of emissions, but also impetus to prepare for some of the more predictable natural disasters.

As we cope with disasters across New Zealand, we should spare a thought for others who are bearing more of the brunt of climate related disasters, especially poorer countries in the tropics. They are bearing the brunt of the disruption to the climate. Our Pacific Island neighbours are on the frontlines, suffering from droughts, floods, intense cyclones, storm surges and sea level rise.

The affects of Cyclone Evan in 2012

Within each of these countries, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are most affected by these impacts. They are less likely to have savings to fall back on when their crops fail or a welfare system to support them. The current edition of the prestigious journal Nature documents the links between climate change and drought in East Africa, and the growing humanitarian crisis there that has put 16 million people at risk.

Other evidence links climate change with water shortages and conflict in Syria, where 11 million people displaced. It will take a huge and urgent commitment from the international community to reduce climate emissions, and provide more support for those who suffer the impacts. Even if this is forthcoming, the humanitarian impacts will still be massive.

Our response should be action, not hand-wringing or despair. There are viable options to transform our economies away from polluting fossil fuels. In fact, a Parliamentary cross-Party report has just outlined viable pathways for New Zealand to do just that. Many of the solutions are already available, economically viable, and have impressive co-benefits such as reducing traffic congestion, improve public health and make our cities more liveable. On a global scale, the Paris Agreement sets a direction, and although the level of ambition needs to be raised, there is now a global commitment to achieve zero emissions.

We shouldn’t need any more wake up calls. We should be committed to act now on climate change. But fossil fuel lobbying and the National Government’s head-in-the-sand approach is getting in the way. It’s time for a change of government.