By: Christopher Cookson
I think Marlborough is a great place to live, so I'm not keen to spoil the party, but climate change is one of those things that's in the news daily now, so I decided to do a bit of investigation into what it means for Marlborough. I don't get paid for writing blogs, but I do provide services to several of Marlborough's primary industries, forestry, viticulture, and marine farming, so I've got a strong interest in any impact on these industries. Unfortunately I've got some bad news. We're literally going to be in the poo, in the not too distant future.
I've been reading scientific journals since high school, and have taken papers in chemistry, physics, ecology, and computer science at university, so I've got a pretty good understanding of how scientific method works. My attitude regarding those who deny that climate change is an issue, or who want to take a softly-softly approach, is that they are like a medical patient with a condition that will be terminal if left untreated, who refuses treatment because medical staff can't give a 100 percent assurance that they will fully recover, even though there is a very high probability that treatment will result in recovery. It's certainly rather inconvenient if you're told you're going to die if you don't accept treatment that may involve uncomfortable medical interventions and possibly lifestyle changes depending on the condition, but most people are generally prepared to accept medical advice, so it somewhat mystifies me that there are so many people not prepared to do the same when it comes to health of the planet as a whole.
There are several projected consequences of climate change that directly have an affect on Marlborough's major industries; rising sea levels, higher mean temperatures, greater risk of droughts, but also greater risk of severe weather events that can cause short term flooding. With around 20 percent of New Zealand's coastline, Marlborough is particularly susceptible to effects on sea level.
Climate Change Impact on Marlborough's Economy
Marlborough has a high dependence on primary industries with viticulture, forestry, and marine farming heavily dependent on a suitable climate.
For viticulture, climate change is a mixed bag. Higher mean temperatures mean regions where grapes can be successfully cultivated will extend, and hotter, drier summers should result in excellent vintages, however in contrast, increasing droughts will put pressure on water resources, and although storage dams may mitigate this to some extent, there is still a risk to vineyards. Sea level rise is highly likely to make some vineyards east of Blenheim inviable potentially by 2030 even with best case scenarios.
For forestry, uncontrolled climate change is pretty much an unmitigated disaster, as it's not viable to irrigate forests, and increased droughts will stress trees and reduce growth at best, while combined with increased temperatures, the risk of forest fires greatly increases, with the associated economic losses they will deliver. Increased extreme weather means in even in cooler months forests may be at risk, this time not from fire, but from sudden, extreme rainfall or wind associated with higher energy in the atmosphere.
For marine farming, higher dissolved carbon dioxide levels in seawater will impact the ability of marine molluscs like mussels, oysters, and clams to form shells, while increased water temperatures put fish survival at risk, while also increasing the probability of algal blooms.
Climate Change Impact on Marlborough Infrastructure
That's the bad news for Marlborough's economy, but what about the day to day lives of Marlborough people? That's where the poo I mentioned in the first paragraph comes in.
A pretty reputable science and journalism organisation, Climate Central, has helpfully put together some interactive maps to allow people anywhere in the world to evaluate the effect of climate change on sea level and impact on coastal environments. They recognise that with science, there is always some uncertainty, so have provided the option to select from any of a variety of scenarios which provide somewhat different outcomes.
I've decided to take the most optimistic analysis of the data they provide, and even so, the data is extremely disturbing. As early as 2030, Blenheim's sewage treatment ponds are likely to be below high tide level, along with a good amount of productive vineyards east of Blenheim. The infrastructure cost of relocating and rebuilding Blenheim's sewage treatment is alarming. Marlborough District Council has budgeted $52.3 million for Blenheim, and another $26.2 million for Riverlands industrial sewage in the 2018-2028 long term plan to cover operation and maintenance of sewage treatment systems, however there is no budgetary provision for a complete relocation of sewage treatment facilities, which may become necessary to initiate before the current long term plan expires. Between 2012-2013, Marlborough District Council commissioned an upgrade to Blenheim's sewage system at a cost of $13 million, creating 25 hectares of new wetlands. It should be noted that this was an upgrade rather than a replacement, so allowing for inflation, land acquisition costs, and the need to develop completely new sewage treatment facilities if sea level rise projections occur, it would not be unreasonable to expect cost to significantly exceed $20 million, a cost that will be bourne by rate payers, in a region that may already be experiencing negative economic impacts of climate change by the time expenditure is required.
How Marlborough can respond to climate change
Marlborough is a large region with a small population, so modifying our individual carbon emissions can't alter the impact of climate change on the region, however Marlborough has a history of great innovators who spent time here who changed the world; Kupe, Cook, Kingsford-Smith, Hillary, Rutherford, Pickering among others. Marlborough has a favourable climate for solar and wind energy, and huge amounts of tidal energy at locations like French Pass and Tory Channel.
We certainly can't save the world on our own, but by encouraging education, innovation, and acting as a proving ground for solutions to a problem the whole world is looking for solutions for, Marlborough can certainly punch above its weight and not only maintain, but possibly even enhance our prosperity while we do it. Already, some businesses in Marlborough are leading by example with reduced emissions profiles and general sustainability improvements. While it won't be easy, Marlborough certainly has the potential to move to a completely sustainable economy, and sell our expertise to the world.
The alternative, doing nothing, and waiting passively for the not so proverbial excrement to hit the fan, or at least the Wairau Plain, doesn't really seem like the kind of intrepid pioneering spirit that shaped Marlborough up till the present.