Meg Parsons and Iresh Jayawardena explain why managing climate risk is a complex social justice issue
Commentary and coverage of the floods in Auckland has so far focused on the severity of the flood, loss of life and injuries, damage to buildings, homes, roads and other infrastructure, on the number of people who have been displaced or have lost their homes, on environmental damage and the cost of rebuilding and recovery.
While they are all tangible impacts, we have yet to begin to comprehend or understand the substantial psychological impacts and mental health consequences on survivors and communities, who are likely feeling overwhelmed, let down by the institutions and system, and suffering from distress likely to be felt for a long time.
We’ve seen much in the media recently on nature-based solutions, water-sensitive design, and sponge cities to cope with and prevent future flooding. Some authorities have already incorporated these approaches for urban development, but the effectiveness of low impact/ecologically-based approaches would have had minimal effect in eliminating the impact and severity of the mountain of rainfall we have recently experienced in Auckland.
And while we have the know-how of forecasting extreme rainfall events, predicting floodwater levels, and assessing what areas are most at risk from flooding and the likely damage, such forecasting tools have limited ability to measure or predict the long-term effects on communities, particularly communities that are already marginalised.
These extreme events remind us of the urgency of responding to climate change but also puts, or should put, the spotlight on climate (adaptation) justice. This is a relatively new principle that hasn’t been acknowledged enough within the rhetoric of climate change. Climate justice calls for fairness and equity in climate change-related decision-making in local and global-level plans to address the climate crisis.
Government authorities and communities have been surprised that their region would be flooded, and many residents were surprised to learn that the homes they have lived in for years are now at risk of flooding or landslides. This was not necessarily because they have always lived in hazardous areas, but because the climate risks are increasing.
Over the past couple of decades, flood management in New Zealand has been concentrated on developing new knowledge, adopting new technologies, developing flood mapping, modelling and measures to understand the science of flooding, and implementing flood defence and control for areas vulnerable to flooding.
But existing methods of flood modelling and managing flood risk (paralleling climate risk management more generally) are not socially neutral and tend to marginalise the most vulnerable people and communities.
The management of climate-related risks is often carried out in an unfair and unequal way, with the poorest and most vulnerable communities bearing the brunt of the damage. This is due to a number of factors, including unequal access to resources, power imbalances, and the exclusion of marginalised voices in decision-making processes.
Extreme weather events such as flooding and heat waves are more likely to detrimentally affect the elderly, people with chronic medical conditions, disabled people, women, children, LGBTQ+ etc. Those with restricted mobility, for example, are less able to move their possessions to safer locations in the expectation of a flood or evacuate during a flood event.
Māori and Pasifika households are much more likely to be located in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation than Pākehā.
This exacerbates the vulnerability of these communities and further entrenches their position of disadvantage. People from more socioeconomically deprived areas that are at risk of flooding are not only more vulnerable to the impacts of flooding, but they are also often less able to access information, lobby the government for flood protections, or receive media attention than residents in wealthier neighbourhoods.
We would argue that one of the most pressing issues arising from and adapting to climate change’s impacts is developing a managed retreat system for those communities exposed to the risk of natural and climate hazards. This would involve the deliberate and systematic relocation of communities vulnerable to climate change-related impacts, specifically marginalised groups who have often been disproportionately affected by the risk posed by climate change.
Flooding often occurs more than once in an area. Places and people in vulnerable locations can become trapped in flooding cycles that exacerbate disadvantages and inequities. Auckland’s flooding highlights the importance of fair and equitable decision-making in preparation and mitigation for extreme weather events, and how crucial it is that marginalised communities are heard in any planning. This will help ensure that the impacts of climate change are addressed in a way that is inclusive, equitable, and fair, to address the impacts of climate change but also help build a more sustainable and resilient future for all.
The typically ignored yet troubling reality is that worldwide, those who contribute the least to the drivers of climate change are the ones most vulnerable to extreme climate events. They also often have the lowest capacity to adapt to climate risks. We must recognise that managing climate risk is a complex social justice issue based on the principles of fairness and equity.