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On whether the weather equals climate change

The latest bout of weather events battering parts of New Zealand provides an opportunity for commentators and policymakers to sheet home the importance of taking urgent action to address climate change.

It’d arguably be silly not to seize on the immediacy of severe rainfall and floods to strengthen the case for going further and faster in mitigating the impact that human activity is widely accepted to be having on global climate.

After all, as various proponents of climate action can regularly be heard to lament, humans just aren’t very good at focusing on threats that may unfold across decades when there are more pressing issues to deal with in the here and now. The woeful intergenerational underfunding of the nation’s water infrastructure is an example of this, while a just-released Q+A Verian Poll that found 68 per cent of respondents would not be prepared to see petrol and electricity prices rise in order for NZ to meet climate change commitments [versus only 27 per cent who would be] is as on-the-nose an illustration of this tendency as one could hope for.

Today’s power bills and prices at the pump trump tomorrow’s potential catastrophe. Every. Single. Time.

In the face of such apparent indifference – or at least lack of future focus – it was unsurprising that as Cyclone Gabrielle was still wreaking havoc around NZ in February, Green Party co-leader James Shaw was far from the only person to make an explicit connection between the weather and long-term climate change.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as sad or 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,” he said.

However, as tempting as it is to conflate current weather with climate, it’s really advisable not to, as pointed out by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research [Niwa] late last week.

As reported by Stuff, Niwa regards it as “problematic and even unhelpful to link climate change to single weather events”.

“This week’s current extremes – while they seem unusual – are being caused by a combination of natural climate drivers, Niwa meteorologist and forecaster Tristan Meyers said”, before going on to explain how those drivers are currently contributing to “the roller coaster weather we call spring”.

This is obviously not a case of Niwa – or pretty much anyone else, actually – denying that climate change is a reality; it’s simply making what should be the uncontroversial observation that it’s a complex issue that demands a nuanced discussion about, among other things, trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation, not simplistic soundbites in the service of stimulating more urgency in addressing it.

As pointed out by the evergreen proverb, ‘haste makes waste’, and we can’t afford to embark on a rapid response that turns out to be wrong.

Germany’s climate policy provides an uncomfortable example of just this, with the absurd result of its rush to close down nuclear power in favour of renewables being an increased reliance on burning coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world.


  1. Please read history books about weather conditions over the years we have had written language. Get back to reality and enjoy life, in Hollywood they create entertainment not reality. The climate is not a computer it’s reality . Some Political parties are using climate change as a tool to make money 💰 and get into power.

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