By Cindy Baxter – with a guest post from Lucy

The night Cyclone Gabrielle hit my coastal village of Piha was, frankly, terrifying, as it was for so many around the motu.  I measured more than 400mm in my back yard – my neighbours up the road had 457mm. That’s nearly half a metre of rain. In just 12 hours.

house broken in half on a piha hill

The house on a Piha hill that broke in half in a slip

High above us on the hill, a neighbour’s house broke in half: the elderly occupants got out with literally 30 seconds to spare.  The family living directly under them down the hill quickly evacuated to mine at 12.45 am, all soaking wet from the deluge of water pouring off the hill and down our road.

Friends in North Piha had a slip come right through their house: red stickered. They don’t know what they’re going to do. This was their retirement, their dream, and it’s just been shattered.  Another whole road has slumped and the whole street is cut off,  as is the road at the top of the hill that provides access to the school that most of our primary school aged kids go to. The pre-school got flooded so isn’t operational.

The beginning of my little dead end road was completely flooded, submerging two houses. One family got out, leaving two dogs behind; the other didn’t, and spent the night in their house surrounded by water.  The new pond was finally pumped out on Sunday night, so finally we didn’t have to walk up the road and go down a goat track to get out – or to get things like generators in. [The dogs are both fine and reunited with their people].

mud-soaked house and cars that had been submerged

This area had been submerged underwater up to the first floor of this Piha house

We had no power in our street for 11 days (don’t start me on Vector who didn’t even have our outage logged and was telling people who’d been out of power for nine days that their power was on).  It wasn’t easy.  But my house is fine. And we’re all alive. As are all our neighbours over in Karekare, many of whom are still cut off from the world.

A Coal Action Network colleague was one of those choppered out in the days after Gabrielle, as he lives well below all the slips. His house is fine but whether he’ll ever be able to drive there again is still in question. 

Our hearts go out to the communities in Muriwai and further south in Hawkes Bay and Tairawhiti. 

But trauma is exhausting, and real. I found myself close to tears at the smallest things, like not being able to start the generator in the morning.

What’s also lurking behind my tears is the fact that I’ve been working to stop climate change for 30 years and the same old arguments keep coming up: that it’s too expensive to act on. 

For years we’ve been pushing the government to do the work to understand the costs of climate impacts, to weigh them up against the costs of action, of cutting emissions and moving to a low-carbon economy.  Because if the only numbers you have are the costs of action, it bolsters all those who object to taking the strong action we need.  The Climate Change Commission didn’t have the numbers either. The work on the cost of climate impacts just hasn’t been done.  Perhaps we should start with the bill from Gabrielle.

And now we’re hearing a new kind of climate denial – most ridiculous claims from people like Chris Trotter, and Matthew Hooton, arguing that it’s now too late to act on climate change, now we just have to get on with adapting to it. Act’s Brooke Van Velden joined the fray on TVNZ Breakfast.

Hooton has spent decades trying to (incorrectly) spin New Zealand’s lack of real climate action in favour of planting pine trees as somehow being world-leading. It isn’t and has never been the case.  

The question they haven’t looked at is how much you can adapt to: and when it simply becomes what the UNFCCC views as “loss and damage.” Loss of land, of people, of coastlines, and community. This has been the developing world’s big fight: given the developed world’s lack of action on climate change, those governments need to start paying for the resulting damage, damage that cannot be recovered from. But those Loss & Damage funds would not be available for Aotearoa: we’re part of the problem. 

We’re currently experiencing around 1.2˚C of warming above pre-industrial levels, when we started burning coal and other fossil fuels. Under current policy pathways, the policies governments have in place right now, the world is still heading to more than twice that: 2.7˚C of warming – or more. If governments manage to meet their Paris Agreement pledges, it’s still 2.4˚C. 

climate action tracker graphic showing warming projections

The reality of where we’re headed in terms of warming

But if this is what we get at 1.2˚C what kind of fresh hell will 2.7˚C bring? 

It’s mind blowing. Cyclone Gabrielle has now been officially confirmed by NIWA as being the strongest cyclone to ever hit Aotearoa. Worse than Bola (1988) and worse than Giselle (1968). The lowest pressure, and the most rain – of course there was a lot more moisture in the air with Gabrielle, thanks to global warming, and Gabrielle picked up intensity as she crossed an ocean undergoing a marine heatwave – also from global warming.

And no, it wasn’t the Tongan eruption. While yes, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption did send unprecedented vapour into the stratosphere, scientists have calculated it may lead to around 0.1˚C of warming. The rest of the warming is down to us.

If Trotter, Hooton and Act honestly think we can safely adapt to that, they need their heads read. It’s extraordinary the lengths people will go to cling onto their lifestyles and oppose all emissions cuts. 

But we still have choices.

We don’t have to get to 2.7 degrees. We need to spend cash both on adaptation AND mitigation. Because the bill for adapting to 2.7˚C would be ridiculous. A low-carbon society IS possible, and as scientists repeatedly tell us, will actually be good for our economy.  It’s not an either or situation. It’s both. 

It’s going to be hard to get to the recommended, and agreed, warming limit of 1.5˚C. It’s going to cost a lot. But let’s be clear, the costs of adapting to a two or even three degree world will be astronomical. 

Lucy, a friend who has worked on climate change for 20 years, put this next bit so succinctly, I’ve asked her if I can use it in this blog. 

From Lucy

“When I was first working on climate change 20 years ago, the most common belief was it didn’t exist and hysterical environmentalists were over stating the risk.

Then 10 years ago, we acknowledged it did exist but NZ was too small and we couldn’t make a real difference to global emissions and it was hard so we should give up trying – be fast followers.

Then we segued into accepting it was a problem and that if all the small countries like us gave up then, actually, that would be a third of global emissions and so maybe we should do our fair share. Climate change was just one of many other issues that all had higher priority and we needed to balance with economic growth and keep the farmers happy etc.

We also had a fun argument about whether we should invest in community engagement/education and behaviour change OR systemic changes to taxes, infrastructure, economic levers, legislation etc.

We roundly discounted education without considering that a) maybe we need to do both as fast as we can and b) that maybe getting some public understanding of climate change and buy-in to the solutions is an essential prerequisite to making major systemic change.

Bill English on a tractor protesting Labour’s 2003 “fart tax” (c) Scoop media

Instead we just introduced some policies, fart taxes, cycleways, parking strategies etc, got a shock when the public didn’t like them and quickly repealed them.

We didn’t have the support for systemic change but we said ‘we can’t try and educate people about climate change because nanny state, shower gate’, we can tell people not to speed, but we can’t possibly waste money on telling them how we can prevent the single biggest threat to humanity and te taiao.

And now people are drowning in Hawkes Bay and we have segued perfectly to ‘It’s too late, adaptation is the priority, we just have to invest in our physical assets’.

But the tragedy is the climate doesn’t care about the stories we tell and 2.7 degrees of warming will far FAR exceed any physical adaptation we can build.”