If Aotearoa is serious about climate change action, it’s time to include our unsung communities who are developing climate strategies at a local level, yet are overlooked in national climate policies, argue Professor Janet Stephenson, Professor Merata Kawharu and Dr Karly Burch from the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability.

This is the first of a three-part series on COP26 from the University of Otago.
* Part two: Climate-smart food systems should be centre stage at COP26
*Part three: COP26: What business needs to know

Comment: When it comes to climate change, communities are the canaries in the coal mine: the first to suffer the impacts. So it’s not surprising they are also hotbeds of climate action. We wonder why this powerhouse of innovation and change is overlooked in government policy-making in the lead-up to COP26.

Communities are mostly presented in Government and Climate Change Commission reports as:

– groups that need persuasion to change to low-carbon behaviours and technologies,

– victims of job losses that will follow from changing to a low-carbon economy,

– uninformed citizens who require education so as to better understand climate change, or

– people who need to be told to move away from increasingly risky locations.

Nowhere are communities recognised as the locus of climate change initiatives.

Ngati Kawa Taituha chairs the Waitangi marae, runs the Waitangi Te Awa Trust (which works to restore the health of local waterways) and is deeply concerned about climate change. From his own and his tupuna’s long perspective it is clear how treating land as a commodity rather than a living being has decimated local ecosystems.

Severe droughts in Northland in recent years show how easily this fragility can tip communities into scarcity, illness and despair. This year, the marae at Waitangi and Oromahoe hosted two well-attended hui where community members shared their experiences of climate change, and their concerns and aspirations for the future.

They collectively envisioned a future beyond the current state of fragility: communities that are strong, supportive and interconnected, with clean water and healthy locally-grown food. Many of the ingredients for this future already exist in how tupuna lived and the knowledge they passed down. “But there’s huge mahi to make our communities resilient” says Ngati Kawa, “and we need both mātauranga and science to guide us”.


When South Dunedin was severely flooded in 2015, Eleanor Doig was deeply concerned about how there was no collective community voice about its future.

The densely-settled urban area was described by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as having the largest population in New Zealand under threat from sea level rise and increasing storm events.

Eleanor had officially retired from decades of work in the community and education sectors, but started to quietly bring people together to share ideas, especially those whose voices were rarely heard.

With support from the council, she and others set up the South Dunedin Community Network, which today continues to bring the community together regularly to collectively determine its shared aspirations and future directions.

“We’ve got to design our future together as a community” she says, “and make sure no one is left out”.

These are two of the many big-hearted and farsighted Kiwis who are leading action to address climate change in their own communities.

And there are hundreds of others like them: people developing iwi/hapū climate strategies, building community gardens, fixing bicycles for re-use, restoring rivers, planting trees, sandbagging vulnerable homes when storms come, making submissions and leading difficult conversations about the inevitable impacts of climate change on their communities.

They know that climate change is a threat to community wellbeing that requires a committed, collective response. And they are willingly taking on this challenge, generally unpaid.

Policy discussions on climate change in Aotearoa often differentiate between mitigation and adaptation. However, community-based leaders recognise that cultivating climate-responsive communities means taking action on both at the same time. As Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu say in their climate change strategy, it is all part of climate response:

“We stand strong in the belief that amidst change and loss there is also hope, and opportunities to thrive”.

And that’s the thing – communities are looking for how to thrive in a time of unprecedented change. And for many communities the meaning of ‘thrive’ is very simple. It is about food on the table. Clean water. A warm, dry place to live. People that they know personally who can help if there is an emergency. Getting together to korero, to work productively and have fun in the process.

Action doesn’t stop with caring for each other, it includes caring for the local environment. Many community-based climate initiatives involve restoring health to rivers, lakes and ecosystems. They know that if the land is healthy and resilient, so too will be the people: oranga taiao, oranga tangata.

But where are these leaders and communities in the Government’s plans?

Top-down policies and sector-focused actions are undoubtedly critical for Aotearoa’s low-carbon transition. But so too is the largely unsung work at community level. Their work shows what we must all be doing at a local level.

We believe that our national climate response must actively support communities in their initiatives to respond effectively to climate change. Not just the occasional difficult-to-obtain short-term handout, but well-funded programmes that support and grow community-based initiatives for climate response.

We are facing an uncertain future in which connectedness and local resilience will be increasingly important. Community innovators can show us pathways to a future that is less reliant on financial wealth, but instead builds on the social wealth of people who actively care for each other and for their environment.  

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