In a new project funded as part of the Deep South National Science Challenges, Associate Professor Lisa Ellis will investigate how the risks of sea level rise should be shared.

It asks the questions; 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? Either way, which approach delivers the best and fairest outcomes?

Ellis doesn’t know yet what a fair solution looks like. But she can confidently say that the delay in deciding is raising the costs for everyone. Right now, people are making new coastal investments when the country hasn’t collectively decided who – if anyone – will pay if their properties flood.

New Zealand’s admirable habit of helping people out of trouble tends to give off the impression that the Government will step in if people find themselves under-insured, but nothing has been formalised, Ellis says.

“We have a history of generously stepping up in times of national emergency and helping people in need,” she says. “But making that just an informal tradition is actually contributing to the uncertainty that we are all suffering under and that we’re all going to pay for.”

One thing Ellis will consider is whether people building new coastal homes today, knowing the sea level risk, should, in fairness, be treated differently from people who’ve lived near the water for ages. Usually, she says, society helps people who are hit by unforeseeable disasters. But we know sea level rise is coming.

The project will look at international literature on the ethics and policies of risk distribution while highlighting New Zealand’s unique history and institutions. It is expected to be completed by mid 2018.

The project is one of three new research projects into who should bear the cost of our changing climate, and when. Together, these projects investigate the legal, economic and ethical dimensions of who should pay for damage caused by climate change events.

Visit the project webpage.