Climate Change Minister James Shaw's balancing act after Cyclone Gabrielle

By Giles Dexter of RNZ

When Parliament met to discuss the National State of Emergency on Tuesday, the Green Party co-leader said he had never felt as sad, or as angry.

"We cannot put our heads in the sand when the beach is flooding. We must act now," James Shaw told MPs.

But as Climate Change Minister, Shaw is also the one tasked with acting.

The Climate Adaptation Act is a meaty piece of work, and is just one part of the sweeping overhaul of the Resource Management Act.

While the Natural and Built Environment Act and Spatial Planning Act - which set outcomes and long-term strategy - are already going through the legislative motions, the Climate Adaptation Act is yet to even be tabled. But Shaw said it could not be rushed.

"That does mean that until we've got that framework in place, we are going to be dealing with situations like Cyclone Gabrielle and the flooding on an ad hoc basis, which is less than satisfactory," he said.

"But we do need that framework to be really well thought through, because the long run consequences of getting it wrong would be catastrophic."

Shaw hopes to get the adaptation bill at least introduced to the house - if not fully passed - by the end of this term.

But he knows in the wake of Auckland's floods and Cyclone Gabrielle there are some things that need to happen much more urgently. He has asked the Ministry for the Environment what interventions could be brought forward.

"I do think that there are things that we could move on that are reasonably straightforward (and I say that advisedly, because nothing is straightforward) - which would make a difference," he said.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw.
Green Party co-leader James Shaw. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The bulk of the bill addresses the issue of managed retreat, relocating settlements away from vulnerable areas.

But adaptation could also include 'protection', like installing seawalls, or 'accommodation', such as putting houses on stilts. There's also 'avoidance': simply doing nothing, if owners are prepared to write the asset off. All carry their own risks, and massive costs.

Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby said the sooner it is finalised, the sooner it can protect people and properties.

"What we need is some serious thinking about collective resources and funding, in terms of recovery, but also where it's inappropriate or still at high risk to replace people's homes," Crosby said.

"How are they going to be funded to relocate into safer areas? That's a very high level burning question."

There is cross-party consensus to work together on solutions.

National's leader Christopher Luxon agrees with James Shaw there is a need for bipartisanship: legislation all parties can agree on, to make it long-standing.

The reinstatement of Todd Muller as National's climate change spokesperson was a sign the bipartisan spirit was being taken seriously. Muller worked with Shaw on 2019 to pass the Zero Carbon Act.

"He's a tough negotiator if we end up in a negotiating position, but I think he has a level of integrity and a sense of responsibility to the country to do the right job," Shaw said.

"So I would imagine he'll put issues on the table from their perspective that we'll have to work through. But I'm committed to working through those."

Where the wheels could get gummed up is agreeing over who pays for the adaptation. Luxon said it was a complex issue that they needed to get right.

"The burden of proof sits with insurance companies, it sits with individual property owners, it sits with ratepayers and councils, it sits with taxpayers and central government. It sits with how much do you balance between this generation and the next generation," Luxon said.

National's Todd Muller.
National's Todd Muller. Photo credit: Newshub.

Shaw walks a tightrope, a Green minister in a Labour government.

It has hamstrung him in the past, with perceived compromises on other climate legislation. He is acutely aware bipartisanship often ends up meaning 'watering down'.

"I think that when it comes to how we adapt to the effects of climate change, my sense is that there's less of the centrifugal forces of partisanship that are involved there. But not that I'm not wary about it, because I kind of feel like I've been burned once or twice on that front before," Shaw said.

"We know that this is a very thorny public policy challenge. We know that it's going to come with some significant costs, and how those are going to be distributed is going to be very challenging for the country to deal with. But it is certainly not in the country's interests to turn that into political football."

Shaw said there would be a by-Māori-for-Māori approach at a granular level in the adaptation and emissions reduction legislation.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said it was frustrating the calls to speed things up were coming after the disaster had already happened.

"We had years and years when this government first got in, and they talked about 'just transition' and how there would be an equity lens towards that. It hasn't actualised. And so what we need is to see an equity-based investment that isn't up for debate," Ngarewa-Packer said.

The prime minister said while the government would work through policy after Cyclone Gabrielle as quickly as it could, he did not want any decisions to be overly arbitrary.

"I'm aware that the way people are feeling today might not be the way they feel three months from now, and it might not reflect the way they were feeling three months ago, or even three weeks ago," Chris Hipkins said on Monday.

"We'll just work through the process. We'll have to make sure that the decisions that we made are based on principle, rather than based on a knee jerk response to something."

Shaw said he still had not talked to the prime minister about what could be brought forward, as Hipkins had been busy with the immediate emergency management and response.

But when Parliament sits again this week, getting his attention will be a top priority.