New Zealand is focusing purely on its own adaptations challenges – ‘Impacts in My Backyard’ – rather than the brutal climate impacts already being felt elsewhere. It’s a gaping hole in our strategy, writes Dr Luke Harrington. 

We Kiwis are more concerned than ever about the significant and growing challenges of a warming climate, both globally and in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Most of us also understand the two ways in which the Government is helping Aotearoa respond to this mess: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is crucial to stop us making the problem any worse than it already is, while adaptation is needed to cope with the unavoidable changes already taking place.

But there is a gaping hole in Aotearoa’s plans to play a leadership role in the response to the global challenges of climate change: our policy planning only concerns the adaptation challenges facing Aotearoa. An alternative phrasing might be climate change IIMBYism (‘Impacts In My Backyard’), and it’s an approach seen the world over.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the worsening of extreme weather, food insecurity and other climate change impacts, we know many lower income countries around the world will outpace Aotearoa – often by a country mile.

For example, research by colleagues and myself found projected changes in extreme heat in low income countries after only 1.5°C of global warming are so severe we wouldn’t experience equivalent changes in Aotearoa until global temperatures warm by more than 3.5°C. In essence, whatever bad stuff Aotearoa experiences from a warming climate, we know others – often those least equipped to cope – will receive an even larger dose of climate brutality.

When you further account for who has been contributing most to the warming we have already seen, these inequalities become all the more pronounced.

Aotearoa therefore has a glaring moral obligation to not only plan for local adaptation but also help other countries manage the impacts of warming they are already experiencing, as well as from the warming they are on track to suffer through while the globe stagnates towards net zero.

Unfortunately, we are failing abysmally.

The United Nations target for overseas development aid (ODA) contributions from a wealthy country such as Aotearoa is 0.7 percent of our annual gross national income (GDI). In 2018, we contributed just 0.28 percent – this translates to an annual shortfall of more than $1.2 billion.

Within this sub-par aid budget, around $100 million – just shy of 0.04 percent of our average annual GDI – was specifically allocated in 2018 to overseas climate adaptation projects. Meanwhile, some estimates suggest poor countries will see their annual economic growth shrink by around 2 percent in response to warming levels expected by mid-century.

So if we Kiwis really want to claim Aotearoa is leading the way when it comes to addressing climate change, we need to look beyond our borders as well as within. Other countries have written their 0.7 percent ODA spending commitment into law – there’s no reason why we couldn’t too. And if our Government explicitly told the world by how much they will increase their annual spend on overseas climate adaptation over the next decade, claims of climate leadership would become all the more credible. 

Alongside reducing our carbon emissions to net zero, adaptation planning is fast becoming the second-best way for countries of the developed world – those who benefited most from the carbon already locked in the atmosphere – to help prepare those still-developing nations who have the most to lose.

Aotearoa still has a way to go before claiming leadership in this space.

Dr Luke Harrington is a Senior Research Fellow in the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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