The opportunity and risk in collaboration

The sea crept back up the political beach last week, a reminder of a tidal change under way.

That tide might come in faster than previously thought.

A new research paper in Nature last week suggested the melting of the massive West Antarctic ice sheet, which most scientists do think is under way and which alone is calculated to raise sea level by up to 4 metres (maybe much more), might be much faster than previously assumed.

Scientists have expected the melt to take at least hundreds and possibly thousands of years. Even the politically indestructible John Key — who last week in Washington took a swipe at United States candidate Donald Trump — will be gone by then.

The new research, drawing on historical Antarctic ice changes, says the melt might be many times faster — fast enough to lift the sea level 1 metre by 2100 on its own and, coupled with other ice melts, a total of 1.5-2 metres and then on up.

Another on this tidal case is Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright. Last week at Parliament’s local government and environment select committee she followed up her November 2015 report on the topic, which Bill English dismissed at the time as “speculation”.

Her report put 9000 houses at risk, at a cost of $3 billion, from a sea-level rise of just 50 centimetres and a $20 billion cost from a 1.5-metre rise.

That bothers insurance companies and banks, which committee chair Scott Simpson acknowledged. News website reported Simpson saying constituents in his Coromandel electorate were suddenly finding it “not as easy to get insurance”.

Local and regional councils are bothered, too. They have to deal with the impact and disentangle knotty coastal property rights issues.

The government has issued some guidelines and councils are looking into a hazards risk management agency. But the cost and legalities are so far left to local councils — which ministers have relentlessly lambasted about spending and property rights.

Wright suggested a working group, similar to those English relied on for expert advice on tax, savings and welfare. “Social investment” came from the welfare group, for example.

But a narrow-focused working group might not pull together the many interlocking climate matters: sea level rise is only one; another is the emissions trading scheme, now under review.

Some argue for a wider approach, similar to that of the Land and Water Forum (LAWF) set up in 2009 on freshwater. The Ministry for the Environment has been gingerly talking about a climate forum for some time.

The LAWF involves around 60 groups with an interest in water, ranging from farmers, industry and generators through to environment and recreational lobbies and iwi. Its fourth report was in November 2015.

The value in this “collaborative governance”, as it is clumsily titled, is that it operates by consensus, each group giving away some of what it wants in pursuit of stable policy. Most political parties have backed the LAWF.

It isn’t democratic in the sense that “the people” decide. But the LAWF interest groups cover a very wide spectrum of needs and wants.

The attraction for ministers is that it legitimises hard decisions. But, even so, the current cabinet has not implemented most of the LAWF’s first three reports’ 153 recommendations, to which its fourth report last year added 60. Nick Smith partially addressed the gaps in a “next steps” statement in February.

Smith is keen on “collaborative governance” at local level. Examples are forums dealing with the dairy invasion of the Mackenzie Country and environmental protection of the Hauraki Gulf.

Smith’s latest Resource Management Act (RMA) amending bill formalises the process for councils setting up such forums. These forums focus on the nitty-gritty, including setting limits and allocations of water.

Sounds good. But there is a risk.

As Wright pointed out in a submission on the RMA bill last month, effective collaborative governance needs serious buy-in by all interest groups.

For that they must believe the government or council will, and then does, act on their painfully reached conclusions.

If not, they will revert to competitive lobbying. The politicians will go back to competitive squabbling. The public will not be served.

Some in the LAWF think the RMA change may encourage quick-fixes which do not generate deep consensus. “It is far better that six work than 26 are set up and half fail,” one says. That would undermine the concept and discourage commitment to future forums.

Some also worry Smith’s bill gives too much scope for ministerial intervention.

Then there are officials: necessary guides to forums on policy factors but also with patches to protect as official advisers to ministers (or councillors).

And ministers have big egos, not least Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett.

So will there be a LAWF-type climate forum? Or just a working group in disguise? Does it matter? Your grandkids might be alive in 2100. You won’t.