Media appear to miss big picture on environment

Media coverage of environmental issues differs from one nation to the next. In North Korea for example it would be non-existent, whilst in a free country like New Zealand the media are able to research and report on it with relative ease then. So are we, the public, who rely on the fourth estate being told all that we need to know about the environment?

But how often do we hear about less sexy stories such as the leakage of toxic substances from e-waste into our ground water system? How often do see discussion of the ecological footprint that measures our use of resources? how often do we talk about acid rain or even the acidification of the oceans?

These are background issues going on. They are not sexy in the sense of being appealing to a reporter. The reporter might not have an editor who terribly cares for particular aspects of the environment, thus, even though they might be key parts of the bigger picture, these issues continue to be ignored. Perhaps there is also a bit of self censorship going on. A reporter makes their name by the number of articles they can get to air. If they find that their articles are not being accepted by the editor, it is reasonable to assume they will look for subjects that they can report on, where a reporter can get exposure.

In New Zealand the sexiest issues are fresh water and climate change. We all want clean water to drink. We know that nitrates getting into the ground water and into surface waterways contaminates the water. We know that cattle in water ways tend to defecate and urinate, which may introduce micro organisms (tiny pieces of poo)into waterways. The perception (both true and false – or exaggerated)about drinking water with such organism in it is obviously going to generate public angst.

New Zealanders also want – though they might not be so willing to make changes to their habits in terms of their preferred modes of public transport – to reduce carbon emissions. Politicians to varying extents agree that public transport and greater use of railways is necessary and there is much coverage around this. But, despite having demonstrable links to those same carbon emissions, the acidification of the oceans is not such a major priority. Despite acidification directly threatening the food chain in the ocean, the potential destruction of the coral reefs and completely destroying tourism and fishing industries in tropical nations, it does not seem to have attracted the same level of attention.

Perhaps also some issues such as acid rain, or electronic waste are too complicated to fit in a 30 second sound byte that has to tell the gist of what people need to know. Explaining that substances such as americium which is used in smoke alarms might get into ground water if they are just deposited in dumps with no protective cladding lining their base, might be possible, but how many people would know what americium is? It would be reasonable to suspect that not very many do.


Environmental policy: My view

As I type this article, I am reminded how much environmental news and policy is playing a role in my life at the moment. Sitting on the same desk as the computer being used to write this article, is a folder with course material for an environmental media monitoring assignment. Next to it is another folder on another course regarding the Resource Management Act and Local Government Act. Both are part of my Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management.

When I follow each election I think about all of the policy areas that I think are in the greatest need of change. The ideas I record are the result of my observations over the last three years since the previous election. They are also an attempt to record changes in my thinking to see if there are trends emerging, just as I am supposed to be doing in the current assignment for 72396: Environmental Perspectives and the Media, for the Open Polytechnic.

In the last three years, I have observed a growing intensity in the discourse about climate change. This has been amplified by a combination of both national and international events – the Paris Accord and the determination of nations to go ahead with it without the U.S., recognizing that the questions about how the climate is coping with man made emissions are too big to ignore; the realization that New Zealand emissions have continued to grow despite taking pledges like other nations to curb them.

The other major environmental concern that has bothered me is one that is much more obvious. The rate of resource consumption and the generation of waste has reached a tipping point where it is reasonable to believe that the economic and social well being of nations around the world, without regard to economic status will substantially – and possibly permanently – decline without substantial and sustained action. We see it in the huge amount of waste plastics and other materials being found in the oceans, the laissez faire approach to containing the radiation still leaking into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima.

Some of my views have not changed in three years, whilst others have taken substantially greater importance. In no particular order, I believe the following should be priority areas to tackle:

  • Our ecological foot print
  • Carbon emissions
  • The marine ecosystem
  • Fresh water resource
  • Electronic waste

A surprisingly large amount can actually be done on the basis of just a couple of broad policy changes:

  • A comprehensive recycling programme for electronics, plastics, aluminium, wood and paper
  • A change in land use patterns

The first one needs to be supported by city/district/regional councils and central Government alike. Voluntary participation by councils should not be an option – when I was a kid there used to be a council supported aluminium collection facility in a shopping mall carpark at the weekend, which was very well supported. What is so hard about restarting that? What is so hard about requiring every supermarket to have a plastic bag drop off facility and charge $1 a bag? Or simply ban them – whilst department stores such as Farmers, Briscoes and so forth definitely contribute to the plastic bag problem, I doubt the average person takes 5-6 bags at a time as they would from doing their weekly grocery shopping.

The second one is something that the central Government can give direction on, but which local councils with amendments to the Resource Management Act 1991 and Local Government Act 2002 would need to take responsibility. Philosophical differences and concerns from private property owners are a certainty, but this does not need to be a draconian exercise.

If every large electricity user installed motion detectors in their buildings and set them to work between the hours of – say for arguments sake – 0700 and 1900, with an absence of motion turning the lights out, I believe the investments would pay for themselves with time. They would also serve a secondary purpose of reducing carbon emissions from coal/oil/gas fired power stations such as Huntly, Whiranaki and Otahuhu.

There are also significant alternative energy options available for New Zealand to explore. Many cities – Nelson, Christchurch, Blenheim, Tauranga – have good sunlight hours, and could therefore support or encourage solar energy, as the price of solar panels for this type of generation has fallen significantly. Tidal power is another if the problem of barnacles collecting on the turbine blades can be addressed – an estimated 8,800 megawatts of potential generating capacity, or roughly what we have now – is thought to exist in tidal energy.

The marine ecosystem is one where I believe New Zealand has an international obligation to introduce or – if such a treaty is already being drafted – support and assist an internationally binding agreement on steps taken to reduce waste in the oceans.

A.C.T.’s grandiose housing policy

The other day A.C.T. released its housing policy.

I was initially quite dubious about what the policy would hold in terms of responsible housing for New Zealanders. However I decided to make a stern challenge of this – not to A.C.T., but to myself – to read through the policy and have an honest go at critiquing it.

The major tenets of the policy appear to be:

  1. Removing what A.C.T. considers to be red tape around building houses – it interprets this to be building codes, land use planning and labour laws
  2. It would build 600,000 houses
  3. It would require compulsory insurance for new buildings

The A.C.T. Party has never been a fan of the Resource Management Act 1991, and has variously said it will either repeal or completely rewrite the Act. It blames the land use planning rules provided for in the Act as having a choking effect on housing. The actual purpose of land use planning is because not all land zones will be appropriate for housing, and the local council in identifying and providing these different uses needs to have tools that enable – e.g. an asbestos dump covered over is not appropriate to have housing built on top and the base of it would need to be secure to stop contaminants leaking into the ground water.

A.C.T. proposes a policy that I am not aware of other parties having come up with, and that is the use of G.S.T. as a means of funding infrastructure such as roading, sewerage and electricity connections. All of this is infrastructure that councils are obligated to build when they let new construction go ahead. Although I am not sure how well the G.S.T. will work in this regard, I acknowledge A.C.T. has at least thought about how it is going to fund this.

600,000 houses will be built. That is a huge number of new houses for such a small country – and would far exceed what is probably needed. Even 300,000 would solve housing issues, assuming they were affordably priced. Would there actually even be market demand for such a huge number – which I assume would largely consist of dwellings with 1-4 bedrooms, bathroom and toilet/s, kitchen, laundry and maybe a double garage. We know nothing about the land they would sit on

A.C.T. says it would require compulsory insurance for new buildings. Here is something I agree with, though I thought that this might have been better suited to a wider construction policy than just for houses.

I still have credible concerns about the policy though. I am not sure where they will find enough tradespeople to do the work. New Zealand simply does not have a big enough population to provide these workers. As we have seen with the current construction environment in N.Z. cities, there is a risk of exploitation by industry cowboys who just want a fast dollar.

To process the necessary legalese (what can I call the planning phase when A.C.T. is taking this away from councils?), a substantial – and I find this quite ironic – bureaucratic machine will still be needed. A.C.T. cannot just walk away from the City/District/Regional Plans set down under the Resource Management Act, or Long Term Plans which area Local Government Act 2002 requirement would either have to be allowed to run out or substantially modified.

So, lets see how all of this turns out, but I think A.C.T. will find New Zealanders consider this a rather grandiose policy.

Report on options for Manawatu Gorge route ignored

For as long as Manawatu Gorge has had transport links through it, they have been subject to slips. Some of them have been cleared in a matter of days. Some have taken several weeks.

With each slip business has been lost by the towns at either end of the gorge. People’s livelihoods have been disrupted, with locals and tourists alike forced to take detours.

A few weeks ago another slip came down. The gorge had not been long reopened after several previous slips. This time it looks like the disruption might be terminal, the patience of the communities having run out and the issue now a political football in election year.

In 2012 after a particularly severe slip event the New Zealand Transport Authority commissioned a report into alternative transport routes in the Manawatu Gorge. There were four options being suggested:

  1. A direct route that is the shortest and involves building a 5.9 kilometre long straight bypass – COST: $309 million
  2. Bridging to provide a straight a carriageway in parts of the gorge – COST: $415 million
  3. Overhaul what is commonly known as the long route, which is about 10 kilometres long and currently carrying most of the traffic, but which is not really suited for the volume of traffic it is carrying – COST: $120 million
  4. A tunnel, which would be New Zealand’s longest road tunnel and start and end about the same place as the direct route – COST: $1.8 billion

The geological structures and strata that any overhaul would have to be worked on is tricky. Large faults including, but not limited to, the Wellington Fault are nearby. The strata is largely sedimentary in nature and likely uplifted by seismic activity on the nearby faults. Old landslide zones abound along the slopes of the gorge

The report was ignored. It was shelved because despite the frequency of slips closing the gorge, it was not considered to be a priority.

Now, finally, with a slip closing the gorge blocking the road indefinitely, the Government has finally admitted there is a problem. But how do we know that this is not simply a case of electioneering in election year to counter resurgent opposition parties?

Public not trusting emergency evacuation warnings

Civil Defence are concerned that people are becoming blase about disaster evacuation warnings. This particularly pertains to tsunami warnings because of the absence of a damaging tsunami event striking New Zealand. Social media critics are claiming that Civil Defence cry wolf over evacuation alerts and some are engaging in the dangerous and irresponsible practice of sowing division that makes people uncertain in times when certainty is necessary.

But one day a damaging tsunami will occur. The ones that have happened in recent decades have fortunately arrived at times in New Zealand when the tide was out far enough that the waves lost all of their energy making up ground in the tidal zone, or more likely were never going to be very large in the first place and – high tide or not – were simply out of energy when they got to New Zealand.

But picture this. A major earthquake has hit the South American west coast on the tectonic plate boundary off the Chilean coast. A Pacific wide tsunami warning has been issued. The waves will start hitting New Zealand about 13-15 hours from now. The largest wave comes ashore in Chile 10 metres high and causes heavy loss of life and damage.

The tide is coming in in Lyttelton when the first warnings are issued about with about 10 hours leeway. The waves will begin to strike on a rising tide. Based on computer modelling the waves are likely to reach 2-3 metres. Over the next several hours the warnings are refined as data comes in. Major damage has been done along the west coast of South America as far north as Colombia and there are waves heading for Hawaii, New Zealand, Fiji.

People are generally complying with the authorities evacuation advice. Despite the confusion about arrival times and wave size, people accept that a warning has been issued and they need to move to safer ground.

But on social media, disgruntled people are accusing Civil Defence of crying wolf. They say past tsunami’s turned out to be nothing and this one will be nothing as well – why should they worry?

There are some basic rules about tsunami’s that everyone needs to know:

  • There is MORE than one wave. Some have up to 8
  • The first wave is RARELY the biggest. The 1960 Chilean tsunami was triggered by a massive earthquake and the third wave was the biggest
  • The topography of the ocean floor means every tsunami behaves differently – is it for example a long narrow bay with a shallow dipping sea bed? In that case you will probably see the waves coming sometime before they get to you. Or is it an open beach with a steep drop off? In that case the waves will not be obvious until it is too late and hit the coast with significant speed that you will not be able to outrun
  • Do NOT go back in between waves as you won’t have time to get away. In tsunami events elsewhere this has cost people their lives
  • Be prepared to be gone for several hours
  • Stay away from coastal water features such as river mouths, estuaries and lagoons lest you get cut off