Michael Mills, a Partner and Public Policy Lead at MartinJenkins, looks at how central and local government are positioned to support our communities to adapt to the effects of climate change 

Initially, back in the late 1980s, contemplating climate change was an exercise of the imagination that involved projecting ourselves into a still distant future. Doing something about it required a commitment to make changes in the now so we could have jam tomorrow. In 2024, we no longer have the (weak) excuse that work on climate change is about jam tomorrow.  

In 2015 world leaders promised to try to limit long-term temperature rise to 1.5°C. Last year average global temperatures broke through this limit, and weather records are now being broken all the time – in London in mid-July 2022 it was 40°C out at Heathrow.  

Severe weather events, atmospheric rivers, and droughts are now the new normal, and they’re going to become more frequent and more severe. In 2023 here in Aotearoa, much of the North Island and the top of the South bore the brunt of Cyclone Gabrielle and other weather-related events. The toll included 11 deaths, more than 10,000 people displaced from their homes (some will never be able to return), lost GDP of between $400 and $600 million (or more), and destruction of critical infrastructure estimated in the billions of dollars.  

We know the Earth will continue to warm (potentially by up to 2.9°C by the end of the century according to the UN), ice will continue to melt, and sea levels will continue to rise. Over our children’s lifetimes, global warming and gradual sea-level increase will change where we can live and what we can grow and do on our lands.   

looding in Wairoa during Cyclone Gabrielle, February 2023.   In 30 years, parts of Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, and other urban centres   could periodically look a lot like this (Source: Wairoa District Council)

Flooding in Wairoa during Cyclone Gabrielle, February 2023. In 30 years, parts of Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, and other urban centres could periodically look a lot like this (photo credit: Wairoa District Council)

It’s time to adapt to living with the effects of climate change

It’s too late to undo the changes already in train – we need to adapt to living with climate change. We’re making progress in reducing emissions (and must continue to do so), but we’re well behind in our efforts to adapt. Unless we get better organised and more proactive, we’ll find ourselves constantly scrambling to recover from the devastation caused by the latest record-breaking weather event. 

The financial, economic, and social costs of inaction are beyond comprehension. As a father, I don’t want my children to inherit the consequences of our inaction. Each year of delay means less time, more cost, and more misery for future generations.  

Currently a certain amount of useful strategising and planning for adaptation is going on in Aotearoa. We have a National Adaptation Plan that provides a national-level assessment of the likely impacts of climate change and what adaptation will probably entail. At local levels some councils and businesses have begun assessing the expected impacts of climate change for them, and some have developed adaptation strategies and early plans. In areas damaged by Cyclone Gabrielle we are busy repairing damage and have started work to improve future resilience and, in some cases, to relocate communities and infrastructure.  

But to date, most of the activity in Aotearoa has been, and continues to be, focussed on mitigation (reducing emissions) and on response (cleaning up the messes after weather events). We’re a long, long way from the concerted action needed to support our communities to successfully prepare for and adapt to climate change. Central and local government leaders need to step up here.   

Every community in Aotearoa needs to plan for the likely climate-change effects in their area 

Small increases in sea level will have big impacts for land use and will drive cumulative flooding from increasingly frequent coastal flood events. According to NIWA’s Dr Scott Stephens, “By 2065, there could be 0.4m of sea-level rise, based on the current trajectory…." If that’s so, then in just 30 years – or 10 government terms – we’ll probably have experienced a rise of around 0.3 metres, resulting in 30% more land area regularly flooding.  

The increased exposure to coastal flooding will affect many of our major urban centres, most of which have been built on low-lying land, sometimes on flood plains and close to rivers.  

Other climate-change effects are just as sobering. A third of the ice volume in the Southern Alps has already melted over the past 40 years, with serious implications for the supply of water for irrigation, power generation, and drinking in large parts of the country. Ocean acidity has increased 30% in the last 250 years and is likely to increase a further 200% by 2100. Combined with rising sea temperatures, this will affect marine food chains and seafood supply, including aquaculture. 

All our local communities need to take stock of the likely effects of climate change in their area and plan how to adapt to them.  

For communities in low-lying coastal areas, like Christchurch’s eastern suburbs, Dunedin’s southern suburbs, and Petone in Lower Hutt, it will be the effects of sea-level rise, storm surge, and flooding. For inland farming communities it will be the implications of more drought days and higher average temperatures for what can be farmed, especially for areas like Central Otago that are also expected to experience the most heating and drought.  

For operators of transport, water-services, and other infrastructure, it will be the effects on that infrastructure of more frequent and severe storms and gradual sea-level rise and inundation.  

Planning for adaptation will mean some difficult choices, including about residential land use, and some costly decisions about the strengthening or shifting of roading and other critical infrastructure. Sometimes large investments in infrastructure work will be needed in order to successfully adapt, and sometimes whole communities will need to shift.  

Our most vulnerable communities will need a lot of help 

Communities will vary in their abilities to adapt, depending on their demographic, socio-economic, financial, geographic, and other circumstances. Some are going to need considerable support.    

Some of our communities that are most exposed to climate-change effects are also among our most vulnerable communities generally. And some are exposed to seismic and other risks that will make adaptation even more difficult. These communities will need support to understand and make difficult choices about whether to adapt, whether to invest in expensive infrastructure, or whether to retreat.   

Cyclone Gabrielle’s impact on remote communities in Tairāwhiti highlights the difficulties and costs. It also shows how vulnerable the infrastructure connecting some of our communities is to the effects of climate change. The West Coast Regional Council and the Buller District Council, even with a considerable government contribution, face costs in the tens of millions of dollars in order to improve flood defences around Westport, and with a rating base of less than 10,000 people. 

The hard bit in adapting will be achieving social consensus on what needs doing and achieving the necessary coordination

Understanding the implications of climate change is relatively easy – there are scientific tools, models, and experts to inform this. Most councils are already onto this.  

The really hard bits in adapting will be achieving a broad social consensus on what to do, how to do it, and how to fund it, and achieving coordinated action across all those who have parts to play.  

An effective approach to adapting to climate change will be proactive, systematic, inclusive, and well-coordinated, and it will need to be sustained over a long time. It will be characterised by strong leadership (both at national and local levels), inclusive decision making, and high degrees of coordination between local and central government, communities, industry, and mana whenua. 

It's time to prioritise and get organised for the work that needs doing 

Our children won’t be able to afford the costs of us kicking the adaptation can down the road. Our leaders need to commit now to protecting the necessary resources, so that adaptation efforts aren’t crowded out by the latest political crisis of the day.  

Our leaders across central and local government also need to organise themselves to work better together to support a systematic approach to achieving adaptation across all our communities.  

Currently, we have a Minister of Climate Change outside Cabinet, with a focus on mitigating climate change. There’s no government agency with the necessary mandate and authority to lead and coordinate central-government operational support for adaptation. The focus has been on providing some of the policy and legislative settings needed for adaptation.  

To make meaningful early progress on adaptation, we need an operationally focussed central-government agency, properly mandated and equipped to provide central leadership and support for adaptation across Aotearoa. This won’t be a policy function – it should be tasked with and accountable for coordinating and directing central-government support to councils, local communities, and industry, to help them develop and implement their own local adaptation plans. The agency tasked with this would also maintain and give operational effect to the National Adaptation Plan.  

At the local level, councils need to prioritise and organise themselves to do the heavy lifting needed to support community adaptation. A good start for many will be appointing capable staff to support adaptation, including, in the first instance, working with their communities to ensure they have effective adaptation plans.  

The question of funding for adaptation needs to be urgently addressed 

The reality is that the costs of adaptation – or of remediation if we fail to adapt – are beyond the capacities of many communities to directly fund through local rates.  

Risk transfer through insurance will become increasing costly and uncertain and is in any case only useful after damage has occurred; without a proactive approach to adaptation, insurance will become less available for many New Zealanders. 

As with large earthquakes, unfunded costs will come back to the taxpayer. Now’s the time to identify and agree on a sustainable approach to funding adaptation. A good start will be to actuarily assess the likely costs of future climate-related events as a basis for establishing a fund to support proactive adaptation – similar to how we fund the costs of injury through ACC and of superannuation through the NZ Superannuation Fund.   

We need an all-in team effort – with some new ways of working together 

New Zealanders are good in a crisis, and we also understand the benefits of a good team. Adapting to climate change requires a team effort like no other. We can do it through collaboration and partnership, through new ways of working across government agencies, between central and local government, and between mana whenua, communities, and industry.  

Local councils are best positioned to work with communities to assess options and to develop and implement district and regional adaptation strategies and plans. But central government needs to provide councils with consistent leadership, including setting expectations for and monitoring the roles of councils in leading the work, but also providing tangible support for locally led adaptation.  

Central government needs to ensure its policies, laws, and regulations, like those providing for land-use planning and building, enable effective local adaptation. It must also clarify its role in providing funding and financial support for local adaptation, including funding and coordination of road transport and other infrastructure works and investments. Central government needs to ensure its own investments in communities and infrastructure are well aligned with local adaptation strategies and plans.   

Central government will need to work differently  

Central government is not well-organised to support locally led adaptation. Government departments tend to operate in functional silos and will struggle to work together to provide the necessary support. The government machinery needed to provide for close working between local and central government requires urgent attention.   

Leadership and role clarity are largely lacking, including for governance of and design of the programmes needed to ensure comprehensive and systematic approaches to adaptation and their funding.  

When it comes to working collaboratively, local and central government have a chequered track record, and relationships have been strained. In Aotearoa we are largely lacking the governance, strategies, and plans, the organisational infrastructure, systems and processes, and the people and resources needed to enable effective local and central government collaboration in support of community adaptation. 

As an immediate next step, central and local government need to agree on how they’ll work together  

Climate change is happening and will increasingly impact our communities. Our central and local government leaders urgently need to make some foundational decisions – to prioritise adaptation, to decide how adaptation will be funded, and to agree on how they will work together and organise themselves to support our communities to adapt.

You can receive our insights delivered directly to your inbox  



Back to Insights