New Zealand plans ahead
The land of the Long White Cloud notices that the water is rising and that new laws, new institutions, and new sources of financing are needed to help people thrive
When a government agency doesn't want a report to be noticed, but has an obligation to make it public, it uploads it to an official web site and says nothing. That's what happened last week to an epic experts' report prepared for New Zealand's Ministry for the Environment by its Expert Working Group on Managed Retreat. New Zealand's Climate Change Minister, James Shaw, acknowledged to reporter Jonathan Milne that little public fuss had been made over the report because the country is holding a general election in October ("The fact that there's an election coinciding is inconvenient," Shaw said.)
It's a remarkable, world-leading document to which all nations with coastlines should pay attention, not just New Zealand.
In New Zealand, as in the US, scientists and engineers know that some low-lying coastal areas and flood-prone regions will inevitably be chronically inundated, and therefore inappropriate for continued human habitation, within a matter of decades rather than centuries. Of course, the numbers are smaller in New Zealand: An estimated 282,000-plus houses, representing $200 billion in replacement value, are in flood plains in New Zealand. In the US, the number of homes at substantial risk of flooding is between about 9 million (FEMA) and 15 million (First Street Foundation), and those homes in total are likely worth trillions.
The striking element of last week's report from New Zealand is its recognition that new laws, new institutions, and new sources of financing are urgently needed to support community-level relocation. Its authors take a hard look at the truly hairy policy issues that planned relocation presents and actually make proposals designed to take them on.
Look, I know that an experts' report is a long way from action. But to date the US response to the uncanny, unearthly challenges presented to residents by rapidly accelerating sea level rise has been to say, mostly, "We'll get you the best possible data to help you address your climate risks." Climate-risk toolkits and checklists uploaded by the government are multiplying online.
The plan seems to be that the private sector, not the government, will make most of the investments needed to help Americans thrive: This year's Economic Report to the President prepared by the Council of Economic Advisers says, "Government action that targets constraints and market failures that impede adaptation should be most effective in supporting and enabling private action rather than crowding out actions that would have occurred anyway." As Jesse Keenan points out, this is a "classic economic position" that translates into "You're on your own. Good luck."
The New Zealand experts' report takes a sharply different approach. They've dug into the perverse and complex legal constraints and incentives that form the current environment for planned relocation (their preferred term for managed retreat), and they know New Zealand is in trouble.
Like the US, New Zealand has no national guidance or direction when it comes to relocation, and there is no agency in charge or anyone with responsibility for either planning or funding. There are scattershot legal authorities and processes in existence that touch on land use and legal powers to condemn buildings and land, but "these do not meet the requirement for a coherent and fit-for-purpose planned relocation system." Sound familiar?
The existing land use system in New Zealand, as in the US, protects existing uses. "This makes it very difficult to change existing uses to reduce risk," the report notes. There is no requirement in New Zealand that any local authority actually reduce risks to its population. Same here! The existing system freezes up in the face of significant uncertainty in New Zealand, as it does in the US. As in the US, there is zero national guidance in New Zealand as to the thresholds that should trigger planned relocation.
Importantly, the report makes clear that planned relocation should not be understood as a "last resort." It is, instead, one of many adaptation strategies. But! "In some circumstances, it will be the only viable strategy." Short-term "fixes" that will not be effective in the longer term—like seawalls—are not preferable. "Planned relocation is an adaptation strategy that should be used in some circumstances because it offers the best long-term solution to addressing the relevant risk. In that context, it is not a last resort." Indeed, planned relocation may bring other benefits.
Given how difficult relocation is in New Zealand, the report notes, communities often agitate for sea walls—even when they won't be effective for long. (For a great and irrational US parallel, look at the Washington Post examination of Smith Island, in the Chesapeake Bay.) The New Zealand experts want to avoid maladaptation, and they believe this will require centralized government intervention: "A comprehensive planned relocation system will need to help communities to adopt the best long-term solution for their situation, which will, in many cases, require relocation." But this has to be done in a principled and fair manner. Otherwise, as in the US, you get disaster-driven governmental responses, where government invests in an ad hoc manner only in popular, visible places that have recently gone through disasters. That kind of harebrained approach both makes people distrust government and amplifies existing inequalities.
The New Zealand report calls for regional and then local priority-setting and relocation planning that is informed by clear national standards (setting automatic triggers of intolerable levels of risk requiring relocation, among other things) and not subject to judicial review. The authors have thought through the principles, criteria, and methodologies that these relocation processes will have to use. Their first desired outcome for relocation: "People must be kept physically and psychologically safe." All of their chosen outcomes are informed by an acute awareness of the risk of entrenching inequality unplanned relocation presents: "Socio-economic inequalities must not be exacerbated and need not be preserved" as a result of relocation.
They've identified the gaps in legal authority that will need to be filled, these New Zealanders. "We recommend that overarching legislation, containing all necessary powers, should govern the adaptation system, including planned relocation. It will be important that this legislation specifies the circumstances in which its terms take priority over other legislative provisions," they say. Can you imagine? They actually view the climate emergency as an emergency, and they say long-term institutional and legal changes are necessary to deal with it.
Also last week, a group of experts at NOAA held a briefing about their new high tide flooding outlook for the US. They announced the launch of a new monthly report predicting where flooding may happen day by day over the next several months.
Among these experts was Dr. William Sweet, an oceanographer with NOAA's National Ocean Service. He writes the basic reports on which we rely: the U.S. Interagency Sea Level Rise Task Force reports and the annual high tide flood assessment NOAA publishes. He's a chapter author on the ongoing National Climate Assessments. Sweet has the wry voice of an airplane pilot and a calm, folksy demeanor. A high tide flood "is only a flood if it floods," Sweet quips: Buildings and asphalt along coastlines cause flooding. "We've got a lot of stuff in the way [of rising water] and the tide is reaching the brim in many of these communities," Sweet says.
Sweet's role is to make sure that "the latest science, the best models, the most recent observations are synthesized and bundled up into data" that NOAA makes available to other federal agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers as well as communities across the country. His language during the briefing was designed to warn: The US is seeing a "rapid increase in high tide flooding which is, for the most part, accelerating on an annual basis [along the Eastern Seaboard], meaning impacts are growing in leaps and bounds." Stormwater systems along the coasts, many of which operate by gravity, can't cope because they get swamped at high tide. "So by the time you recognize [that] water is coming out of stormwater systems, flooding water on the streets when it's sunny outside, those impacts are becoming chronic rather quickly," Sweet said.
Sweet and his colleagues are supposed to inform us. They are not planners. Nonetheless, Americans may be looking for plans. During the briefing, someone asked the NOAA experts, "Do you favor managed retreat in some areas, or will hard or soft coastal defenses hold the line long-term, given the conditions that we're projecting?" Sweet smiled gently.
Nicole LeBoeuf, the director of NOAA's National Ocean Service, jumped in to answer the question, saying that the best solution for any particular location will be highly localized. "And so, we can provide [flooding] projections for communities and and for regions, but when it comes to individual homes and neighborhoods and towns, those folks will need to make those decisions for themselves," LeBoeuf said.
Sweet and LeBoeuf and their colleagues are doing the very best they can. They have not been tasked with planning ahead, and it is not their fault that they aren't. The trouble is that no one has this job. This is the American approach in a nutshell: Here's data. Here are a set of perverse incentives—growth above all, dependence on property tax receipts, perceived need to encourage people to live in risky areas by selling them flood insurance—and broken, patchwork, scattershot legal authorities and programs that make scaled-up, thoughtful relocation just about impossible.
The New Zealanders seem to understand that leaving all individual homeowners to make pre-disaster risk assessments for themselves ("is risk intolerable here?") is inappropriate, wasteful, and ultimately immoral. It is actually the role of government to ensure that people are kept safe.
We shouldn't be astonished by what the expert Kiwis are talking about. It's sensible to plan ahead. Let’s see what their national government does with last week’s astonishing report.