Environment Commissioner Jan Wright’s long-running quest to get Finance Minister Bill English to set up a working group on rising sea levels appears to be getting nowhere.
So far he has apparently not even replied to any of her proposals for a meeting to discuss her request.
Last November he described her warnings on rising sea levels as “speculative” and said there were still many uncertainties about the potential impacts of rising oceans.
But Dr Wright is getting some support for her request that the Government take the issue seriously.
She told the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee yesterday that she had had supportive talks with the Bank of New Zealand the Insurance Council of New Zealand.
Dr Wright argues the sea could rise 30cm in some parts of New Zealand within the next 50 years and then go up another 20cm during storm surges.
This could affect 9000 houses worth $3 billion.
“Calls for compensation will be inevitable,” she told the Committee.
In April she proposed that the Minister of Finance set up a working group to consider the implications of sea level rise.
“It’s too soon to include the fiscal risks of sea level rise,” she said.
“But it is not too soon to consider these risks when making planning and investment decisions.
“Banks and insurers are keen to engage in such a working group.”
But she told Labour’s Grant Robertson that she had no response to her proposal from the Minister.
Later she told journalists that she would have appreciated the opportunity to talk to him.
However she had met the Chief Economist from Treasury, and she said she understood Treasury was now working with the Ministry for the Environment on the issue.
Meanwhile, she has briefed the Minister for Climate Change Issues, Paula Bennett.
Ms Bennett last night said that the Ministry for the Environment was currently updating its guidance to local government on coastal hazards and climate change, including preparing for sea level rise.
“The recommendations in the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report are being considered through that process,” she said.
One of the issues that will confront New Zealand because of sea level rise will be the mismatch between insurance policies which are taken out on a year by year basis and mortgages which are usually for 30 years.
If insurance is terminated because of seal level risk to a particular site — and insurers can already name likely candidates — then it is possible the mortgage could be called in as well.
”One of the important things that should be sorted out is who should pay for what,” said Dr Wright.
“Because when houses become uninsurable or insurance becomes unaffordable, or certain restrictions are put into policies, people are going to be very upset.
“So if there are claims for compensation how does that break down between local Government and central Government.
“It’s not too early to start to think about these issues.
“Central Government does need to take leadership here because this issue is too complex for individual Councils.”
That view would be shared by some in the insurance industry who worry that Councils are too easily driven by lucrative rates receipts from beachside property to consider the longer term issues.
But Dr Wright was keen to emphasise the human dimension of the problem.
“The people side of this is extremely important,” she said.
“It’s about homes and equity and security and for many, their identity.”