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Climate change risk assessment faces uninsurable 'conundrum'

The government acknowledges the severity and damage from climate change on property and infrastructure is increasing but it needs time to get the solution right.

computer model of
wellington showing flooded streets

Image via Wellington City Council, 2009: New technology helps city plan for climate change


The Reserve Bank has highlighted the risk to the country's financial system from a warming climate, saying rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events could affect coastal property values and lead to higher insurance claims.

Next year a nationwide risk assessment will be undertaken to get a sophisticated data set around what the country will be exposed to and over what period of time, and it will look at how this is dealt with financially.

The Climate Change Minister James Shaw said the assessment would have to develop a way of sharing the risk between the property owner, local and central government, the insurance industry and the banks.

He said it needed to be handled so that it does not create a moral hazard, where people just carry on in exposed homes on the assumption that they will receive a bail-out at some point in the future.

But the assessment would also have to weigh up the fact that people had chosen to live in certain places long before the risks became evident.

"So that's the kind of conundrum that we've got to deal with," Mr Shaw said.

Marilyn Pearce has lived in Matata in Whakatane for generations. Her home was one of 27 destroyed by a flood in 2005.

Residents were allowed back into the area in 2006 because the Whakatane District Council believed it could build a structure to contain debris in a similar event.

But it later gave up on that idea, and now she and others are facing the [https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/2018638255/precedent-setting-matata-evictions-need-to-be-nationally-notified

prospect of being forced off their land] as the council seeks to undertake a managed retreat because it is deemed to risky to live there.

Mrs Pearce did not rebuild until 2008, saying her family took their time deciding what to do based on the council's advice.

She said if the council had told them it was too risky, they would never have rebuilt and would have moved on.

"We've got no value in our homes anymore, nothing, they've stripped that. Some of the people that live here bought in 2015 thinking that everything was fine, bit of flooding, they weren't told that the council was going through this process."

She wants people who will be affected in a risk assessment to be talked to.

"I'd want them to treat people with a bit more respect than what the Whakatane District Council has and to be honest."

Mr Shaw said he didn't want the assessment to be carried out by people removed from the people affected.

He said it offers an opportunity for communities to get involved in an adaptation plan and track whether the perceived risks turn into reality.

And the assessment will be designed to help people who are facing a potentially uninsurable future.

"In many ways that's the whole point is as a country to kind of look at those changing conditions over the coming decades and to work with the insurance industry and the banks to say 'well what is our plan for how we adapt as a country to the changing conditions and how do we keep everyone on board and leave no one behind?'"

The Insurance Council's chief executive Tim Grafton said the country needed to think carefully about how people exposed to climate risks were dealt with.

He said people faced a future where properties will potentially be uninsurable and the country needed to start looking at smart options on how those properties could be relocated and deal with the home owners fairly.


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