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Climate change will force thousands of NZ homeowners to abandon properties like this one near Ngawi, on the south coast of the Wairarapa. Photo: Getty Images

NZ - Longterm leases to ease pain of forced climate retreat

Large-scale, climate change-related relocation of people from the coast and flood-prone areas is inevitable, according to a panel of experts. Politicians must make tough decisions on when people have to abandon their homes, and how to compensate them.

No one in the room was using the word “if” when it came to “managed retreat” – the coordinated process of moving people and property at risk from climate change-related hazards out of harm's way. It was all about “when”, and what to do about it, preferably before a disaster happened.

The three New Zealand climate change experts gathered at law firm Bell Gully to discuss “What happens as the water rises”, were unequivocal in their view.

Those grim pictures of Westport under water – again – were a preview of what is going to happen with increasing frequency in more New Zealand communities as global warming causes sea levels to rise, and more intense storms bring more flooding more often.

Defence (seawalls, for example) and remediation (lifting homes on stilts) might help in some places for a certain length of time.

But in the end, as Tony Randerson, chair of the government’s Resource Management Review Panel, the body that proposed what is now being known as the Climate Adaptation Act, said at the managed retreat event: “The point will come where homes become uninhabitable and homeowners will be forced to leave and live elsewhere.”

And people won’t be able to rely on insurance companies to cover the costs, Randerson said.

“The inevitability of sea level rise means there is nothing unforeseen or sudden about it and insurers are likely to be unwilling to cover loss from this source.”

Higher premiums and increased excesses for flood damage are a likely first step in some areas, but as a one-in-100-year probability event becomes a one-in-50-year or a one-in-20-year risk, insurance companies will refuse to cover certain properties, or even whole neighbourhoods.

If not insurance companies, then who will compensate homeowners for loss or damage to their properties?

The Government has talked about a publicly-funded insurance scheme for uninsurable areas - similar to what EQC provides for earthquake victims, although EQC doesn’t cover uninsured homes.

But as Belinda Storey, managing director of Climate Sigma and a senior research fellow at the NZ Climate Change Institute at Victoria University said: “Public insurance does not reduce risk, just transfers it to the state.”

“Managed retreat is the only thing that permanently reduces risk - and therefore cost. That is the only thing which doesn’t hand on cost to future generations.”

But managed retreat is a thorny and unpalatable issue. How do you judge future risk to someone’s home from a high tide storm surge made worse by several centimetres of sea level rise? How do you predict who is at risk from climate change-impacted rainfall which might flood a valley or a town? And when it might happen? What if someone’s house is safely on high ground but the local council decides sea level rise makes it unjustifiably expensive to repair the only road connecting it to shops or medical facilities. That’s a very real question for settlements like Eastbourne in Wellington’s eastern suburbs.

Storey says much of the scientific evidence is already there, particularly when it comes to sea level rise. However there is less confidence from experts around future rainfall patterns, and far less confidence around how storm surges are going to be impacted by climate change.

The NZ SeaRise Te Tai Pari O Aotearoa programme, hosted at Victoria University and involving researchers at NIWA and GNS Science, has produced specific projections out to 2300 for every two kilometres of the New Zealand coastline, combining sea level rise and ‘vertical land movement’ - whether a particular bit of coastline is rising or sinking. This allows people living on the coast to check the risk to their individual property using an interactive mapping tool.

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