Local Government Magazine

How to handle a hazardous future?

What are the roles and responsibilities of local government in the face of a changing climate? Auckland Council chief sustainability officer John Mauro – and a panellist at the recent Australia-New Zealand Climate Change and Business Conference – shares his views.

What natural hazards will we face as a result of climate change?

We face natural hazards regardless of climate change, but some natural hazards are exacerbated by a changing climate. Not only will the nature of these hazards change in the future due to climate change, but we’re already starting to see and feel some of the effects today.

Those climate effects are visible – and will be visible – around Auckland’s coastline, and this is particularly the case with observed and future sea level rise. Coastal beach erosion, cliff erosion and coastal inundation have changed and will change the nature of Auckland’s 3000 kilometres of coastline.

Likewise, climate change may exacerbate storm and cyclone intensity, strong winds and flooding with implications far beyond the coastline. Drought and rural fire are other natural hazards with a link to climate change.

While we have a solid understanding of climate change’s impact to certain natural hazards and certainly enough information to act responsibly to avoid or mitigate risks, there’s always a degree of uncertainty involved.

Strong collaboration between local governments and central government on acquiring and sharing new data has been and will be essential to staying current with the best available information so we can make the best possible decisions.

What are the planning and liability implications for local government?

Local governments play a key role in reducing natural hazard risks, being ready for natural hazards, and responding and recovering from them. We have a legal responsibility for gathering data and for monitoring natural hazards, including associated impacts of climate change on those hazards.

This includes statutory responsibilities spelt out in relevant legislation. For instance, the CDEM Act requires local governments to coordinate management of natural hazards by encouraging cooperation and joint action between regional groups. The RMA requires local governments to control the use of land to avoid or mitigate for natural hazards, and with particular regard for climate change. The New Zealand Coast Policy Statement requires councils to identify areas of coastal hazard, to manage development (including future development and significant existing development) and to protect and restore natural defences against coastal hazard, all with a 100+ year timeframe.

Local governments also have responsibilities to manage assets and maintain infrastructure that will be affected by climate change – and incorporate climate change into infrastructure decisions.

Finally, Auckland Council’s high-level strategic direction related to natural hazards, climate adaptation and climate mitigation is incorporated into the 30-year Auckland Plan.

But let’s be clear: there are significant challenges determining which tools we should use in which contexts and how we wrap all of this around the absolute necessity of a strong, meaningful and inclusive democratic process.

Through and in addition to our responsibilities and obligations, local governments have a duty to involve those who we serve in the decision-making process. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s critical if we’re going to succeed in building resilience to climate change.

A prerequisite to a climate-resilient community is widespread multi-sector engagement in an informed, inclusive conversation about how we’re going to take care of ourselves, our families, our businesses and institutions, and each other. It’s germane to all of us and, thus, while local government must play a convening role, it requires all of us to be involved.

What tools and technologies are available to manage and respond to hazard risks?

Managing and responding to natural hazard risks requires a variety of tools in the toolbox as well as the smarts, insight and flexibility to use them appropriately. This includes everything from a land use planning approach (eg, managing sea level rise via provisions in the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan) to a public education or emergency management approach (eg, an early warning system for tsunami).

New insights and innovations from landscape architecture, urban design, hard and soft protective infrastructure provision, and approaches to insurance add to the mix.

In broadening this to a larger frame, we should also consider climate risks that go beyond those directly related to natural hazards. Energy price fluctuations and volatility, climate-related migration and food security are among other issues worth considering in the context of adapting to climate disruption.

In that sense, I’m particularly fascinated by the intersection of climate adaptation and climate mitigation: what can we do to better adapt to a changing climate and build a more resilient society while also reducing our contribution of harmful greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change in the first place?

Decentralised renewable energy production and efficiency strategies, local food production and distribution, and provision of urban forest infrastructure are a few examples of that intersection of mitigation and adaptation.

Some of those tools and solutions are exciting because not only do they tick the boxes for both mitigation and adaptation, but they allow us to focus on strengthening social cohesion and building stronger communities, catalysing innovation and new business opportunities, and addressing underlying issues of poverty and inequality.

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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