20 Apr 2023

Belinda Mathers: My reflections on IPCC’s report and being on the ground for Cyclone Gabrielle

Posted in: Environmental news

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Belinda Mathers

Chief Science and Advisory Officer

In my role as Chief Science and Advisory Officer a key aspect is staying on top of the latest science and data that underpins all that we do to help provide leading practice and the latest international insights on climate action. However, in February this year, I saw the impacts first hand. This is my recount of where science and action meet real world impact.

My reflections on IPCC’s report and being on the ground for Cyclone Gabrielle

Opinion | 5 minute read

Businesses take actions everyday on how they conduct their businesses, for example, where to put their sites to avoid floodplains, or how supply chains are set up. But what about reducing climate disaster risks?

It has been a month since IPCC released its synthesis report, which brought together close to 9000 pages of working group reports that had been released over the past 2 years. The full volume hasn’t been issued yet, but the various documents that have been released (including headline statement, summary for policymakers, longer report and video trailer) reiterate what we are experiencing – climate change is here, we are causing it, and we are not doing enough to reduce our impacts.

As well as working on climate change in my day job as Chief Science and Advisory Officer at Toitū Envirocare, I spend some of my spare time as a Civil Defence volunteer with a New Zealand Response Team (NZRT21). When my team was set up 5 years ago, the key risks were expected to be earthquakes, fires and flood. Fortunately, the Alpine Fault is still holding on, and our response activities have been very much focussed on extreme weather events, with a pandemic mixed in for good measure. I spent a week supporting isolated communities around the Auckland region during and after Cyclone Gabrielle. So, I have had the opportunity to reflect both on efforts to mitigate our impacts on the climate, and on the impacts to our communities when our efforts are insufficient. I saw modern houses that were presumably built in line with the Building Code and planning rules that had slipped down hills. I helped to evacuate homes in the middle of the night because waterlogged ground led to active slips, threatening properties. People lost all their belongings because of flooding of their homes.

Image reel: Photos from on the ground of Belinda's Civil Defense response team assessing and responding urgently to communities impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle 2 months ago. Courtesy of NZRT21 and Selwyn District Council.

Many people either don’t seem to be seeing the link between weather and climate, and between emissions and climate or don’t think we need to prioritise mitigation over resilience and adaptation. Or maybe it just feels so hard within current constraints that it is too much for people to think about. Whatever the reason, unfortunately, we aren’t reducing our impact enough.

But, if we don’t do it now, it will just get harder and more expensive. More homes, families and communities will be impacted, and the impact is likely to be largest for those that can least afford it (and who generally have smaller than average emissions).

So, what do we need to do?

  • Governments need to make sure it is easier for everyone to do the right thing than the wrong thing for the climate.
  • Businesses need to both buy and create lower emissions products and services, and make it clear what the emissions associated with their outputs are, to help everyone to make better decisions.
  • And every one of us needs to make decisions that minimise waste and GHG emissions, whenever we can.

The many experienced scientists that worked on the IPCC reports are clear that it’s not too late, but the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change is closing quickly – and keeping that window open will take every one of us to make changes in how we live and work.

Belinda works with the NZRT-21 Civil Defense response team who are currently fundraising to support the Karekare community with ongoing resilience to severe weather events. If you’d like to support, you can do so here.

Read what IPCC AR6 means for businesses