Failing to internalise new realities

Bernard Hickey and Cathrine Dyer chew over the week's climate news, including a report on the lessons from Cyclone Gabrielle and the latest IEA estimate that emissions are still increasing

No transcript...

TL;DR: Here’s the top six news items of note in climate news for Aotearoa-NZ this week, and a discussion above that was recorded yesterday afternoon above between

and The Kākā’s climate correspondent : 

  1. An independent review panel into the emergency response to Cyclone Gabrielle in Hawkes Bay concluded  “that the current national emergency management system is not fit for purpose.”

  2. That was the same conclusion reached in three previous reports relating to this and other civil defence and emergency management (CDEM) events across the motu.

  3. The review found systemic rather than individual faults, reflecting a national failure to adapt to the new reality of climate-driven extreme weather events, to assess climate risk and to properly work, fund and include Te Ao Maori.

  4. A fresh IEA report reviewing CO2 emissions in 2023 found negative climate feedback loops from past emissions are now kicking in to constrain reductions in future emissions.

  5. The IEA found evidence of a structural slowdown (as opposed to an actual reduction) in emissions, resulting from growth in clean energy deployment.

  6. Debate is growing about a decision by geologists to reject naming the current era ‘the Anthropocene’

(See more detail and analysis below, and in the podcast above. Cathrine Dyer’s journalism on climate and the environment is available free to all paying and non-paying subscribers to The Kākā and the public. It is made possible by subscribers signing up to the paid tier to ensure this sort of public interest journalism is fully available in public to read, listen to and share. Cathrine wrote the wrap. Bernard edited it. Lynn copy-edited and illustrated it.)

Set up to fail as the world warms

The damaged Brookfield's Bridge in Napier in February last year after Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Kerry Marshall/Getty Images

The independent review panel into the Hawkes Bay civil defence and emergency response to cyclone Gabrielle, led by former Commissioner of NZ Police, Mike Bush released its findings this week.

Once again, we are being told that “that the current national emergency management system is not fit for purpose”. Instead, according to Bush “it simply sets good people up to fail, time and time again.” Many of the same points have been made before in the Auckland Cyclone Gabrielle review, in the 2020 Review of the Napier flood response and in a 2017 Ministerial review.

In an era of climate change amplified severe weather events, the predictable result of these repeated failures to adapt has been additional deaths, more displacement of people from their homes, increased private property and public infrastructure damage and devastated communities.

The report rightly highlights the role played by people on the ground including communities, volunteers, the contractor sector, and business and utility providers, many of whom were extraordinarily brave, resourceful, highly stressed, and chronically under-supported.

While most media outlets have been focused on specific response failures in the early hours of the storm, two particular systemic lessons from the report resonated with us.

The first has to do with approaches to, and treatment of risk, while the second has to do with the treatment of indigenous networks and knowledge systems. First, despite the Hawkes Bay Civil Defence and Emergency Management (CDEM) plans being “as sound as any we have seen”, the report also notes:

“CDEM staff were overconfident about their readiness on the basis of prior emergency events such as COVID-19. They lacked a scenario planning mindset, had low multi – agency operational exercise experience and suffered from optimism bias. We have formed the view that they tended to take a best case scenario rather than a precautionary approach to planning, communication and warnings.”

This is less the fault of individuals, and more of institutional systems that have failed to internalise new realities.

 “The world in which New Zealand’s current emergency management  arrangements were designed has changed. Weather driven events are increasingly frequent and severe. This is happening in a time when specialist responders, such as the Defence Force and Police, are also facing both cost pressures and increased demand driven by worsening geopolitical and law and order trends.

All of this suggests that changed system settings, culture and policies are urgently required.”

Globally, approaches to climate change risk are rapidly evolving. This is where some of the most meaningful research is being done and where critical on-the-ground learning is occurring. This is also where transformational change in the form of social tipping points are most likely to emerge in response to better apprehended climate risk, driven home by disasters. Changes in system settings, culture and policies are pivot points. This is a potentially powerful space, not just to watch, but to agitate in.

Ignoring indigenous networks and knowledge

A second issue highlighted by the report was the failure to make good use of indigenous networks and knowledge systems.

“Engagement of iwi Māori and Māori communities was more a matter of ad hoc relationships than the product of systematic and formalised effort.

At the operational level, Māori agencies and marae felt that their proven abilities to deliver welfare services at scale were either ignored or hampered by bureaucratic decision making from the centre.”

The report highlights the role of mārae as “vital providers of community intelligence and services” and recommends more formal involvement of iwi/Māori in civil defence and emergency management systems and structures.

Dr Shaun Awatere, Kaihatū Māori Research Impact Leader at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research commented that “it  is heartening to see leadership taken by the Independent Review Panel” on this issue, suggesting that,

“A business as usual approach is often easier to put into practice, with its rigid and clearly delineated components. The holistic and relational aspects of a te ao Māori approach to disaster risk reduction make it much messier and more complex to operationalise. Yet, there are numerous projects, particularly in sustainability areas, where te ao Māori approaches have been operationalised with great success; the arguments against are nothing compared to the difficulties we will face in coming years if risk and vulnerability to extreme weather and climate change hazards are not reduced and community resilience built up.”

Properly supporting and formally engaging with tangata whenua at national as well as regional and local levels could fundamentally alter the resilience of all communities in Aotearoa. There is no other established group or system that has even a skerrick of the potential in terms of knowledge, networks and resources already in place. That the country would fail to properly acknowledge, support and learn from it is  - well, let’s be honest, completely aligned with our history. But let’s hope, not our future.

Given the literal power failures that accompanied Cyclone Gabrielle, this seems like a good place to redraw attention to a pre-election proposal from both Te Pāti Māori and the Greens, to support the establishment of community renewable energy projects on mārae. The advantages of community energy projects extend well beyond the provision of electricity itself and would benefit the resilience and autonomy of local communities across the motu. Currently such development is actively constrained by institutional arrangements, policy processes and regime narratives (as described in the linked article by my PhD co-supervisor Associate Professor Julie MacArthur and her co-authors).

Report reinforces need for energy demand reductions

In other news, the IEA recently released a report on CO2 emissions in 2023, highlighting the continued growth of global energy-related CO2 emissions, up 1.1%, with more than 65% of that increase from burning coal.

In a worrying trend, the effects of climate change on temperature and precipitation have become a key determinant of emissions reduction failures in the electricity sector. The report notes that, absent the effect of droughts creating a shortfall in hydropower generation, emissions from the electricity sector might have actually fallen in 2023.

In other words, negative climate feedbacks that result from past emissions, are now kicking in to constrain reductions in future emissions.

The main reason for optimism was the identification of a ‘structural slowdown’ resulting from the growth in clean energy deployment, represented in the following graph.

According to the IEA, the percentage growth of emissions was substantially slower than global GDP growth, which was around 3% in 2023 (in line with the annual average over the last 50 years). Without clean energy, which has more than doubled from 16 to 34% of electricity generation since 2007, the emissions growth would have been three times higher.

The rate of emissions growth seen over the last decade is slower than that seen during the 1970s and 1980s, which saw major disruptions with the two energy shocks of 1973-4 and 1979-80, and a macroeconomic shock of global significance with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. When the last ten years are put in a broader historical context, a comparably slow rate of CO2 emissions growth only occurred in the extremely disruptive decades of World War I and the Great Depression. Global CO2 emissions are therefore undergoing a structural slowdown even as global prosperity grows.

An actual reduction in emissions would be even better, and is in fact required to meet global climate goals under the Paris Agreement. Increasingly, demand-side policies, that focus on reducing demand for energy, are seen as key to this goal. Although strangely unremarked on in the IEA report, they formed a key section of the IPCC’s Working Group III report on mitigation in 2022.

It is even more important to emphasis the need for demand reductions in energy requirements when we are entering an era in which climate amplified weather events conspire to make the achievement of emissions goals ever more challenging.

Renewable costs, and you’re not in the Anthropocene now, Dr Ropata

Briefly elsewhere:

  • On the

    substack this week, climate scientist tackles the question of whether renewable energy really is cheaper than fossil energy. The answer is a resounding YES, IT IS..... up to a point. In doing so, he shows why a measure that is often thrown around, known as LCOE or the levelised cost of energy, has some limitations when it comes to overall grid costs. While most of the world still has a long way to go to reach the point at which more renewable energy becomes very expensive, it is definitely relevant to the debate in Aotearoa over where the best investment for our decarbonising buck lies.

  • Geologists have decided to reject naming the current era ‘the Anthropocene’ after an epic academic row that has been as slow-moving as you might expect from a bunch of geologists. The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) took 15 years just to write the proposal, In their announcement,the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) effectively accepted the reality that the rest of the world has moved on without them and will continue to insist on calling it the Anthropocene anyway.


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