Not my problem? Sharing the risks of sea-level rise fairly
Facing the faraway threat of sea-level rise, responses range from, “Your place, your problem!”, to “Don’t worry, the
government will take care of it.” But unless we consider the issue and respond ethically, it’s very likely that the
risks of sea-level rise will not be shouldered fairly.
Research recently concluded in the Deep South Challenge: Changing with our Climate has found that without a new legal
framework to deal with sea-level rise, based on a broad social consensus, the risk will be transferred from the least to
the most vulnerable.
The research report, How should the risks of sea-level rise be shared?, by Elisabeth Ellis from the University of Otago, addresses a key question that emerged from a Deep South Dialogue
between insurance companies and researchers: On a principled level, how should the risks of sea level rise be
distributed between individuals, insurance, local and central government? Should we choose to view responsibility as
individual or collective? And either way, which approach delivers the best and fairest outcomes?
“If we stick with the status quo,” Ellis says, “the way we adjust to sea level rise will exacerbate existing inequality.
Nobody in New Zealand wants that,” she continues. “They want policy to be in line with consensus ethical values. They
want the government to do what people think is right.”
Ellis and her research team considered two main situations: existing communities that need protection against new or
escalating risks, and new, obviously risky developments.
Within our current framework, for existing communities such as low-lying Petone or South Dunedin, “individual members of
our most vulnerable communities will bear the burden of risks they could not have foreseen.”
But for new developments, “the government – that is, effectively, everyone – will be expected to cover losses for
development that is already predictably risky.”
Ellis and her research team found that, “The most important immediate step New Zealand can take toward an ethically
robust sea-level rise policy is to bring certainty and consistency into the legislative framework.” Central government
should resource adaptation to sea-level rise nationwide, so that community resilience does not vary with the ratepayers’
ability to pay. And at a local level, the public should be engaged “as early and deeply as possible” in these important
decisions about their lives.
The report makes three key recommendations:
• New Zealand must bring certainty and consistency to the regulatory framework governing adaptation policy, in
order to end the “collective action” problem and the transfer of risk to the most vulnerable.
• Adaptation funding must address both spatial and temporal inequalities, so that we don’t transfer risk to the
most vulnerable, whether that vulnerability is due to ratepayer capacity, membership in future generations, or some
• Policy pathways planning must include regular, ethical evaluation of both processes and outcomes. Monitoring is
necessary to prevent unintended consequences of otherwise egalitarian and inclusive procedures, such as the regional
loss of accessible beaches due to uncoordinated local engineering solutions.
Ellis also noted that research gaps remain and must be filled. Given the disproportionate stake members of younger
generations have in the success of climate change adaptation policies, it is critical to engage young people in the
policymaking process: How can the New Zealand climate adaptation policy process engage more substantially with young
Finally, while Ellis’s research focussed on the general, consensus ethical values of equality and agency, more research is needed in two ethical values specific to New Zealand. First, What do New Zealanders think about
ethical tradeoffs, like the tradeoff between solidarity and moral hazard, and how are their ethical views different from
people in other places? And second, How are New Zealanders’ views on the ethics of climate change adaptation policy
changing as they themselves experience sea-level rise and its consequences?
For more details and the final report, visit the project page here