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The New Climate Denial: adaptation over mitigation

Written By: - Date published: 6:05 am, February 28th, 2023 - 45 comments
Categories: climate change - Tags: , , , , , ,

Cindy Baxter is a long time climate campaigner and communications consultant, working on environmental issues for over 30 years. 

Cross posted from Coal Action Network Aotearoa

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.

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.

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 just hasn’t been done.

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.”

45 comments on “The New Climate Denial: adaptation over mitigation ”

  1. AB 1

    Like ignoring a hole in your roof that is steadily getting bigger. At first you just have to replace the carpet every couple of years, then all the gib has to come out every year, then the electrics pack up regularly, then you're replacing furniture every few months and then the floor collapses and you're broke and worn out and depressed. And the looters who are also broke and worn out are gathering to see what they can grab. And ultimately, there is noting left to do but give up and die in a ditch – or if you are lucky, join the countless thousands of internal refugees corralled in some crime-infested trailer park for the damned.. That is the social, economic and mental breakdown these lunatics are condemning us to.

    • weka 1.1

      plus the delusion that their money will keep them save. God knows what they think about their children and grandchildren.

  2. Far exceed it? You have no perspective on the adaption costs, and the hard fact is warming, if it does occur, is 99.9% out of New Zealand's control. So cry in your coffee or adapt?

    Building for storm tolerance is easy and relatively cheap. Higher CO2 allows for higher agrarian yields. New houses can be built on higher ground, as required (in time buildings must be replaced anyway). 1-meter dikes cost very little. Globally, there is still vast land for crops.

    We really do have far, far better things to worry about right now.

    [Citations required thanks – MS]

    • Oh, Andrew, you're sounding a bit like the Heartland Institute.

      The IPCC's latest report states that getting the world to 1.5˚C would be cost-effective. I'll go with them rather than your reckons.

      • Dave B 2.1.1

        Andrew is on the money, Cindy, but unfortunately you are not. Many people have suffered from Cyclone Gabrielle, but a consequence of global warming it is not; and it is cynical in the extreme to claim it is

        • Incognito

          … but a consequence of global warming it is not …

          You would say that, of course, because you are a notorious denier on this site, which I don’t think Cindy will know. I won’t moderate you yet, as I don’t want to pre-empt the discussion or another Mod jumping in.

    • joe90 2.2

      1-meter dikes cost very little.

      Sure they do, Andy.


      2013: Last week the council voted to bring the stopbanks back up to a standard that will protect 57 at-risk Anzac Parade houses in a 50-year flood. The $1.02 million repair job will be paid for in the following year, with the rest of the Horizons region contributing over $300,000, those in the flood zone paying about $84 each, those in urban Wanganui paying $48, and those in rural Wanganui paying $33.


      2022: At Horizons’ catchment operations committee on Wednesday, Professor Bruce Glavovic​ said he could not recommend building bigger stopbanks to deal with the issue.

      While his range of recommendations, formed after consultation with community members and local iwi, included better early warning systems and evacuations plans, arguably the biggest was recommending Horizons focus on ways to enable a buy-out of the properties.

      Building stopbanks to handle a one-in-200-year flood could cost north of $30 million, while the market value of properties was $28.1m.


      • Andrew Atkin 2.2.1

        It's cheap…when you do it where it makes sense. Remember also, you’ve got 50 or 100 years to just rebuild on higher land.

        • weka

          This is a curious brand of climate denial given how many people lost their homes in storms in the past month. Or how many lost their homes previously in Nelson, the West Coast, the East Coast of the North Island.

          • Andrew Atkin

            We had a storm – with slash.

            We will have more, with or without carbon.

            • weka

              2010: I set fire to the stove and the fire brigade came and put it out.

              2020: I set fire to the stove and the fire brigade were busy so the whole kitchen caught on fire before they came and put it out.

              2030: I set fire to the stove and the whole house went up, then the neighbourhood, because the fire brigade couldn't keep up with all the fires

              That's for other's reading, because there's no reasoning with denial that believes CC isn't dangerous.

        • joe90

          But how high, Andy, and how long should communities continue funding these schemes?

          How long do we carry on letting the idiots who run the shop spend our money on raising stop banks, installing gates and trialing hare-brained diverter schemes, as they have done after every major event (9) that my burg has endured in the past 35 years, only to find out the hard way that well, that didn't work, did it?

    • Andrew, “New houses can be built on higher ground.”
      You tell that to the people at Piha, or to farmers who have had their "higher ground' move down the hills.
      "Co2 grows more crops" Those crops may not like 400 to 450mm of rain, nor winds of 120km.crying So much hyperbole and so few facts.

    • We don't really need citations in this, so much as physics lessons. I am not going to write a lengthy article, or dig up ancient academic material.

      People are invited to search if there is any truth in my assertions – or just automatically disagree because I'm "the bad guy", if they like.

      [when asked by an author or moderator, you do in fact have to provide a citation if you want to keep commenting here. Citation doesn’t mean links to long articles or videos, it means 1) explain your rational/thinking 2) provide back up for claims of fact 3) use short quotes and links to make that clear (for audio/video a time stamp is required) – weka]

  3. Ad 3

    The current policies are set and agreed by all parties in parliament, except Act.

    That includes the carbon trading framework.

    The rules of farming emissions are only agreed by Labour and the Greens.

    The first signal we will get on how deep the adaptation has to go is in Budget 2023 in May.

    The policies are very progressive compared to most countries already.

    The NZ practices of petroleum addiction however through agriculture and transport are exceptionally regressive and in reality show no signs of decreasing soon.

    In between the NZ policies and the NZ practices are the great yawning gulf between expectation and reality, and no that isn't going to get resolved when people are cleaning up trying to recover their lives and figure what futures they have left.

  4. tsmithfield 4

    Even if the C02 problem was solved tomorrow, adaption would likely be required due to the stored heat already in the oceans. So, I don't think there can be much argument about the need to adapt.

    I think the recent flooding needs investigation to determine whether the severity of the flooding is due mainly to climate change, or whether it was due to a rare combination of factors that intensified the effect of climate change. I raised yesterday research that is being undertaken into the effect of the Tongan volcano in this respect.

    This is important know. I don't remember flooding to that degree in my lifetime. And I imagine it is a very rare event. Historical and geological records should shed light on that.

    If it is mainly climate change that is responsible, then flooding to that extent is likely to occur quite frequently. In that case, there will be little option but to abandon the areas at risk of flooding.

    But if it is shown to be a rare combination of events then this type of event may occur more frequently in a historical context, but still relatively infrequently from a human perspective.

    For instance, if this type combination of factors causes flooding like this historically every 500 years, but now with climate change occurs every 100 years, then we may be able to live with that. But if it is mainly climate change, and the flooding is likely to occur every 10 years, then clearly, we can not, and will have to adapts.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 4.1

      The contribution of global warming to individual extreme weather events is a matter of active research, and there's no shortage of events to study.

      World Weather Attribution

      Since 2015 the World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative has been conducting real-time attribution analysis of extreme weather events as they happen around the world. This provides the public, scientists and decision-makers with the means to make clear connections between greenhouse gas emissions and impactful extreme weather events, such as storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts.

      We research and develop scientific tools and methodologies to perform timely and robust assessments of whether and to what extent human-induced climate change played a role in the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events.

      We’ve made real and significant advances in isolating the climate signal in the costly impacts of such events, in both developed and developing countries. Our partners are at the forefront of this emerging scientific field.

      Ideally, civilisation on spaceship Earth would apportion resources/eggs intelligently between CC (short-term) adaptation and (long-term) mitigation. As others have mentioned, putting too many of our eggs in the adaptation basket would be imprudent, because sometime in the not-to-distant-future most of our eggs would be gone, and the existential threat (of anthropogenic global warming) would still be there.

      I'm not optimistic that global leaders will make prudent decisions – that doesn't worry me personally, but I do wonder how those decisions will impact future generations.

      Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios
      [1 August 2022]
      There is ample evidence that climate change could become catastrophic. We could enter such “endgames” at even modest levels of warming. Understanding extreme risks is important for robust decision-making, from preparation to consideration of emergency responses. This requires exploring not just higher temperature scenarios but also the potential for climate change impacts to contribute to systemic risk and other cascades. We suggest that it is time to seriously scrutinize the best way to expand our research horizons to cover this field. The proposed “Climate Endgame” research agenda provides one way to navigate this under-studied area. Facing a future of accelerating climate change while blind to worst-case scenarios is naive risk management at best and fatally foolish at worst.

    • There's no question that adaptation is required. We are finding that out pretty fast. The Tongan eruption may have increased warming by around 0.1degC – but it wouldn't have contributed to the marine heatwave anomalies across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. This was a climate-fuelled storm: yes it's cyclone season, but we can expect more intense storms like Gabrielle and indeed the 27 January flooding in Auckland, and the atmospheric river that trashed Nelson and the storms that hit Westport and of course Tairawhiti.
      This is the new normal.
      But as James Shaw pointed out on Morning Report: you don't just clean up the flood in your living room from a leaky roof, you have to fix the roof too.

  5. If it's about mitigation, then here are my ideas to achieve that end. Also, build on slightly higher ground and adaption becomes extremely easy too. We can in fact develop very cheaply.


    • weka 5.1

      I’ve removed your link. The commentariat here exists for robust debate. We expect people to make their argument clearly in comments and back that up with evidence.

      • Andrew Atkin 5.1.1

        My link showed how we can reduce CO2 in totally logical ways. I can provide constructive ideas and understanding. If you really do believe in warmageddon, then my link is the last thing you should have deleted.

        • weka

          heard it all before mate. If you want to comment here you have to make a coherent argument and be prepared to back it up in ways that are accessible to the people reading and debating. Read the Policy at the top of the page.

  6. Thinker 6

    Adaptation would be OK if it meant changing our technology, but complacency is not the same thing as adaptation.

    What I don't get is that for every other project we do a cost benefit to see if is worthwhile.

    You don't even need to be bean counter to work this one out. For every dollar we spend on climate change our children live a bit better. That alone should make this the world's top priority.

    But I do wonder at some in tlhe green party, being the champions of climate change, running around saying someone needs to do something…

    • weka 6.1

      I largely put it down to cognitive dissonance (we know it's happening but can't believe it is) and feeling powerless to do anything. Both of which are solvable barriers.

      But I do wonder at some in tlhe green party, being the champions of climate change, running around saying someone needs to do something…

      How do you mean?

      • Thinker 6.1.1

        How do I mean? Lots of little things but all bound up in nothing that makes the average person feel like "This starts with me"…

        For example, here's a cut and paste from the Green Party website:

        "Urgency: The window for reducing greenhouse gases to achieve a climate-safe world has almost closed. Immediate and transformative change to most human systems is required if we are to minimise species extinction"

        So, where and when do we turn up for the working bee?

        I know this is my opinion and it won't be shared by many Standardistas but it is my opinion. I think the Green Party is different to other mainstream parties.

        While most parties get support by campaigning for things they may or may not be able to achieve, I believe the Greens are more of an activist organisation – getting people involved in meaningful actions and then they will vote green because they see the results already happening.

        • weka

          Still not quite getting it sorry. Are you saying it's a failing of the GP that they talk about the urgency for change?

          • Thinker

            Simply, I believe the Green Party is different to other parties. It needs to draw support at, say, a Green-party-organised stream clean or hire a bus and go plant some trees for the day. Sorry, Im not very imaginative.

            People would feel a part of meaningful change and vote green. They'd champion the actions with their networks and do subliminal campaigning.

            It's definitely my opinion, but I have friends on all political spectrums including swinging voters and I get the impression that those who might vote green but don't is because they only see visions when, at last, the clear message is we need to start acting yesterday.

            A bit like being asked to donate to green peace. They show you what they have achieved when they canvas your support.

            Other parties can get away with promises. TBH, I vote the way I do more to keep the opposing party out than for anything that party promises.

            But I think the greens are seen as activists with inroads into government and that makes them different in how they should promote themselves.

            Again, just my opinion and I should have kept it to myself. 🙂

            • weka

              I understand now, thanks for explaining. This is a really good suggestion. I agree they are different from other parties (although Labour have a history of this too eg the cross over with the peace movement), and are seen to be different.

              GP members used to do this, I'm not sure how it is now.

              One of the most important things we can do presently is show/offer people ways to act that make a difference. The kind of hands on, directly engaged involvement you are talking about is a big opportunity to both help people to act and get them involved in the party.

              Hoping some active GP members here see this and can chime in.

            • Stuart Munro

              I'd be keener to participate in that kind of Green event than listen to the likes of Menéndez March.

  7. Peter Bradley 7

    The current government is planning to use Lotto to help fund the rebuild of damaged infrastructure and National are proposing tax cuts. This sums up what I predict will happen – very little. No-one is going waste too much time of money on Northland or Hawkesbay unless it's to protect pre-existing investments in the forestry sector. There'll be lots of talk but when it comes down to it, NZers are cheap and will never vote for the type of government spending and taxation that's needed to even restore what's been lost never mind invest in adaptation or resilience. As for reducing our existing carbon and consumption based economies – that will never be allowed happen. Way too many vested interests.

  8. Sanctuary 8

    Twice as much rain as Bola. Imagine that annually. Adaption? Really?

  9. jay11 9

    Mitigate or not mitigate we have no choice but to adapt.

    • weka 9.1

      I've not seen anyone argue for not adapting, and I've been following a lot of conversations on this.

      What the post is pointing out is that adapting without mitigation won't work.

      There is no adaptation to catastrophic climate change that comes with 3C global warming. This is why mitigation has to remain central.

      • jay11 9.1.1

        Too late now no matter what we do including completely dismantling Industrial Civilisation the Earth is moving rapidly to a new hot house stable state. Earth has had two stable points ice age and hot house the latter has been more dominant. Probably us intelligent clothed naked apes will not survive the new hot world coming, we are children of the Ice Age.

        • weka

          the science says that if we drop GHGs fast, we can most likely avert the worst of CC. We have the technology to do that already. The problems are social and political. People that say it's too late are part of that social/political problem. My question is why you would choose that position rather than working for change.

          • jay11

            " the science says that if we drop GHGs fast, we can most likely avert the worst of CC " That statement is not true it's just a form of techno-hopium. The worst of CC is now baked in. We ran out of time to change our ways back about 1990.

      • Andrew Atkin 9.1.2

        "There is no adaptation to catastrophic climate change that comes with 3C global warming. "

        How do you know?

        • weka

          because I understand the natural limits of the physical world. A I believe the scientists that present scenarios around degrees of warming.

  10. Jenny are we there yet 11

    Deny this;

    Since 1992, when the satellite started recording ocean surface height around the world, the global average sea level – shown by the zigzagging line in these charts – has risen 10.1cm, NASA says.

    The red and deep orange colours on the plot line indicate some parts of the ocean rising faster than the global rate.

    Tracking back even further, satellites and tide gauges from the past 140 years show a rise in the global sea level of between 21cm to 24cm.


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