Tuesday, February 21, 2023

NZCPR newsletter: Cyclone Gabrielle

Cyclone Gabrielle was a tragedy that has exposed life-threatening frailties and failures within our infrastructure network.

Once the immediate problems have been addressed, a comprehensive public inquiry rather than the internal government review signalled by the Minister for Emergency Management, should be held to ensure that lessons will be learnt and changes made to mitigate the effects of potentially damaging natural events in the future.

Widespread power and cellphone network failures left hundreds of thousands of families without any means of emergency communication.

While some would have been better prepared than others, for many an old-style transistor radio was their only communication with the outside world. Driving to safety was not an option for those stranded by floods and damaged roads - and when the power goes out, those with electric vehicles are without transport.

Too many people were on their own - without power, cell phone coverage, and with no means of escape.  

A National State of Emergency was declared on Tuesday for the six affected civil defence emergency management group areas of Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Tai Rawhiti, and Hawke's Bay – along with the Tararua district - to enable a more coordinated response, utilising the Army and other national resources.

It’s only the third time in our history that such a declaration has been made – the first was for the Christchurch earthquakes, and the second, the Covid-19 pandemic.

It wasn’t until Friday, that a co-ordinated search was finally launched to attempt to locate over 3,000 people reported as missing. While most are expected to be unaccounted for as a result of having no means of communication, it does highlight the significant danger that exists when people are unable to reach out for help.

With many communities still cut off, and in some areas power outages expected to continue for weeks, the impact of this event, which has affected almost half of the population of New Zealand and cost lives, homes, and livelihoods, will be significant.

And while the neighbourhood and community support to assist those in need has been heart-warming, a number of troubling issues have surfaced that need to be addressed by the inquiry.

Prime amongst them is the prolonged power outage. It exposed the fact, that while most emergency services and many bigger businesses had generators on standby, many others that should have had back-ups available, did not.

We clearly need to hear from the power companies about what can be done to build more resilience into our electricity networks. Should more power lines be underground? Is a greater effort needed in line maintenance, to clear nearby trees and vegetation?

The failure of the cellular network came as a major shock to many people who were under the impression that their mobile phone would be their lifeline in a crisis.

It now turns out that not all cellphone towers have emergency power backups, and many of those that do only have capacity for a couple of hours - while others rely on solar backups that are ineffective during storm events.

Some telcos say the biggest problem is with the government-backed Rural Connectivity Group sites, which carry mobile services in rural New Zealand, but that is the sort of detail that needs to be fully investigated through the inquiry. 

Another issue that must be addressed is the situation that occurred during a critical weather update predicting the path of Gabrielle on the eve of the Cyclone, when the announcer persisted in using Maori placenames, instead of English, confounding the confusion and fuelling the panic.

In fact, as part of the policy reset, that the Prime Minister hopes will win him the 2023 election, Chris Hipkins should stop the public service using Maori words in official English communications. The situation is completely out of control and needs to be sorted.  

The inquiry should, of course, cover infrastructure to assess which of the damaged roads and bridges need to be repaired, replaced, or relocated.

And clearly, the enormous and on-going problem with ‘slash’ from the harvesting of pine forests being washed into waterways destroying everything in its path, must be addressed, especially in light of the mad rush into carbon farming, whereby vast swathes of productive farmland is being converted into pine plantations.

There should also be an assessment of recent environmental law changes to see whether they are contributing to the problem and leaving New Zealanders far more vulnerable than they need to be.

In particular, three matters spring to mind, where ideology has triumphed over common sense.

Just as green advocacy has made it more difficult for property owners to build sea walls to protect their land and homes from coastal inundation, so too the dredging of silt from harbours, estuaries, and rivers to keep them free-flowing and help prevent upstream flooding in the event of heavy rainfall, has become more problematic.

In both cases, laws and regulations need to be re-assessed to ensure safety is prioritised.

A second policy area that needs to be addressed is the unacceptable consequences for farmers of the requirement to fence and plant the riparian strips around waterways. While previous generations of farming families did their best to keep waterways clear to allow heavy rain to drain freely, nowadays, they are forced to watch on while tree roots and vegetation increasingly block their drainage systems, causing on-going and soul-destroying flooding.

The third policy area involves the government-encouraged over-reliance of households on electricity. If a major storm like Gabrielle had arrived in winter, the power-outages would have been life-threatening for many more New Zealanders.

The whole situation highlights how misguided successive governments have been in trying to force people to install heat pumps instead of allowing them to choose efficient wood burners with a cooktop and a wet-back to heat the hot water. The push to discourage the installation of open fires and wood burners accelerated under Helen Clark’s Labour Government, but the
justification used was so questionable, that the whole issue needs to be re-assessed to ensure families can better cope with adverse events in the future.

In fact, many families will now be looking for ways to reduce their dependency on utility providers and the government should get out of the way of those who want to be more self-sufficient.

Meanwhile, some alarmists, like the Green Party’s co-leader James Shaw are making the ridiculous claim that it was man-made climate change that caused the cyclone -
telling Parliament: “I don't think I've ever felt as angry about the lost decades that we spent bickering and arguing about whether climate change was real or not, whether it was caused by humans or not, whether it was bad or not, whether we should do something about it or not, because it is clearly here now, and if we do not act, it will get worse. There will be people who say, it's ‘too soon’ to talk about these things, but we are standing in it right now. This is a climate change - related event. The severity of it, of course, made worse by the fact that our global temperatures have already increased by 1.1 degrees. We need to stop making excuses for inaction. We cannot put our heads in the sand. We must act now.”

He went on to
say: “There will be a certain crowd who say … let’s give up on stopping climate change and its focus entirely on responding to the effects of climate change and I cannot state enough what a catastrophic mistake that would be, because every tenth of a degree of warming increases the frequency and the severity of these events.”

But he’s wrong. Just as there has been
no appreciable global warming since 2016, the number of extreme weather events around the world is falling. According to Swedish climate specialist Bjorn Lomborg, 2022 was the second weakest year for hurricanes in more than forty years.

It appears that not only is Minister Shaw unaware of this information, but he also does not appear to understand the impact that last year’s eruption of the Tongan volcano is having on the weather.

When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano
erupted on January 15, 2022, it was the world’s largest explosion in 140 years. A 20m high wave of water travelled more than 100km from the volcano at a speed of around  500km/h. Pressure shockwaves circumnavigated the planet six times, and 400,000 lightning events were triggered that day.

The eruption not only shot volcanic ash 58 km into the earth’s stratosphere, but it also sent up 146 million tonnes of water - which NASA claimed was enough to fill 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This boosted the amount of water vapour in the southern hemisphere’s stratosphere by around 20 percent.

Water vapour, which is our most common greenhouse gas, acts by reflecting the sun’s radiation back into space, while reflecting the earth’s radiation back down to the surface of the planet.

As a result of the eruption, the vast increase in water vapour has cooled the stratosphere and warmed surface temperatures, which Australian
meteorologist Rob Sharpe predicted would lead to wetter weather in many parts of his country, and what he described as a “Flooded Summer”.

This, of course, is similar to what much of New Zealand has also experienced.

In fact, a new international
study has now been launched to further investigate the link between the Tongan volcano and Cyclone Gabrielle.

While Minister Shaw has been politicising the crisis to imply that mankind caused the cyclone and promote climate change scaremongering, this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator Barry Brill, the Chairman of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition and a former Minister, believes it is time the whole zero carbon agenda was abandoned since the goals have now been largely met:

“This year marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations’ drive to manage ‘dangerous anthropogenic global warming’.  New Zealand signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the ‘Rio Earth Summit’ on 12 June 1992 and formally ratified it on 16 September 1993. Most other countries also ratified it in 1993. 

“In 1992, Convention parties had good reason to expect that future global emissions would accelerate in leaps and bounds – to double and re-double over the next few decades, on a business-as-usual basis. The data showed that emissions had grown by 140 percent in 30 years.

“But then came the Global Financial Crisis and quieter times – although efficiency enhancements  continued to roll out across the world and the historical link between energy use and prosperity became more nuanced. The result during the past decade has been both spectacular and gratifying. One could say that the goal of the UNFCCC has been fully achieved.”

Ever since the global warming became politicised by politicians, dramatised by the media, and monetised by environmental celebrities, common sense has been side-lined in many aspects of our lives. As a result, instead of making things better, environmental zealotry ends up harming people and the environment.

And that’s the point that Barry makes - continuing the Net Zero agenda will cause massive economic destruction for virtually no gain - except giving our Climate Change Minister a platform to carry on spouting his apocalyptic nonsense.

Perhaps not for long though.

Prime Minister Hipkins, on his mission to win the 2023 election by ditching unpopular policies, has already cancelled a key Net Zero policy - the biofuel mandate - claiming it would have exacerbated the cost-of-living crisis.

Perhaps he can be persuaded to defer the whole Net Zero agenda, since it will have such a detrimental impact on farmers and other food producers - not to mention all energy users – that it will significantly worsen the cost-of-living crisis.

With so many voters having to deal with the devasting impact of the floods and the cyclone, the last thing they need is the pressure of escalating costs that are unnecessary. Surely abandoning James Shaw’s hyped-up Net Zero action plan would be the sensible thing to do!

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*Do you believe there should be a full public inquiry into the failure of essential infrastructure to cope with the effects of Cyclone Gabrielle - rather than an internal government review?  (Please feel free to share your experiences of the cyclone and any comments or recommendations for the future.)

Dr Muriel Newman established the New Zealand Centre for Political Research as a public policy think tank in 2005 after nine years as a Member of Parliament. The NZCPR website is HERE. We also run this Breaking Views Blog and our NZCPR Facebook Group HERE

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