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Climate Change—Increase in Extreme Weather Events

Wednesday 18 August 2010 Hansard source (external site)

Norman7. Dr RUSSEL NORMAN (Co-Leader—Green) Link to this
to the Minister for Climate Change Issues

Does he expect that climate change will result in an increase in extreme weather events such as floods; if so, what steps is he taking to prepare for such an increase?

SmithHon Dr NICK SMITH (Minister for Climate Change Issues) Link to this

Yes, but I caution against ascribing a particular flooding event to human-induced climate change, as did the member’s statements at the weekend about the Bay of Plenty floods. Extreme weather events have long been part of nature’s processes, and it is not scientifically robust to assign any particular event to being the result of human-induced climate change. The steps the Government is taking to help New Zealand adapt to climate change include publishing the documents Preparing for coastal change, published in March 2009, and Preparing for future flooding, published by the Ministry for the Environment in May this year.

NormanDr Russel Norman Link to this

Does he agree with the World Meteorological Organization and the global insurer Munich Ri that the unprecedented level of extreme weather events around the globe is part of a trend that can be fully explained only by climate change?

SmithHon Dr NICK SMITH Link to this

The advice I have received from Dr David Wratt, who is the head of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and its chief climate scientist, is that in the New Zealand context there is not sufficient evidence of the increased frequency of storm events for it to be assigned to human-induced climate change. However, at a global level there is a likelihood of the link, albeit the connection between the change in the chemical composition of the atmosphere and temperature is stronger than it is for extreme weather events because, quite simply, our record of extreme weather events is not as extensive.

NormanDr Russel Norman Link to this

Does he believe there is a vast global conspiracy between the scientific community, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Meteorological Organization, the insurance industry, and NIWA to fake the numbers on climate change, or are such beliefs held by newer members of the executive?

SmithHon Dr NICK SMITH Link to this

No. However, I caution that the sorts of extreme statements that have been made by the member, such as that the Bay of Plenty flood was a consequence of climate change, are not scientifically robust. When we are presenting the scientific information about climate change, we need to present it in a balanced way, which is exactly the way this Government is doing so.

NormanDr Russel Norman Link to this

Will he provide directions to local government organisations that they must take climate change - related weather events into account when drawing up district and regional plans, to properly prepare for more floods, more droughts, and sea level rise, as are expected as a result of climate change?

SmithHon Dr NICK SMITH Link to this

The document that was published by the ministry this year, Preparing for future flooding, provides exactly the sort of robust advice that local authorities need for dealing with climate change. I am interested that the Green member is inviting the Government to provide direction. As a practical civil engineer who has done work, for instance, in designing stormwater systems, I caution the member that the level of robustness about the projections for climate change is not sufficient to be used directly in the design of such facilities. They have relevance, and that is why we provide guidance. I think that that is the responsible approach.

NormanDr Russel Norman Link to this

Which is the least-cost option for New Zealand: giving local councils the option of planning or not planning for climate change in an ad hoc way through such guidance documents, or providing direction through a national policy statement on climate change adaptation?

SmithHon Dr NICK SMITH Link to this

My view is that the guidance that we have provided for local authorities in this very document is exactly the sort of practical information that engineers and others working in local authorities need to adapt to climate change. But I question the member on the idea that some national policy direction on climate change will somehow assist when there remains quite a lot of uncertainty at a regional level. In my own community of Nelson, for example, exactly how the climate in Nelson will be affected by climate change does not have a level of definitiveness that would justify a national policy statement.

NormanDr Russel Norman Link to this

Does he agree that, just like with leaky buildings, taxpayers and ratepayers will foot the bill if some councils do not plan for climate change and sign off on new housing in areas that may become flooded, and that the much cheaper option is to provide some clear national direction so that all councils prepare for climate change - related extreme weather events?

SmithHon Dr NICK SMITH Link to this

The Government is providing very clear direction to local authorities. That is what is provided in this very document, which this forward-thinking Government provided for local authorities in May of this year. That is what it is—

NormanDr Russel Norman Link to this

It’s guidance.

SmithHon Dr NICK SMITH Link to this

The member interjects that it is guidance. I stress to the member that the idea that there is absolute factual information that will enable us to direct local authorities simply does not exist.

NormanDr Russel Norman Link to this

Does he believe that central government should direct local government to take a precautionary approach to the extreme weather events that could result from human-induced climate change or not?

SmithHon Dr NICK SMITH Link to this

Yes, I do. That is why the Government has provided the material for—

NormanDr Russel Norman Link to this

It’s a guidance document.

SmithHon Dr NICK SMITH Link to this

The member seems to have got carried away with the fact that our document refers to guidance. The member seems to ignore the simple fact that one cannot provide more than guidance. For instance, NIWA provides scenarios about what might happen with climate change and the sea level in any part of New Zealand. I ask how one can provide definitive direction when that work is based on scenarios.

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