Climate change is creating disproportionate challenges for Māori. Cultural taonga, iwi economic investments, and whānau wellbeing are uniquely vulnerable to our increasingly extreme weather in Aotearoa. 

Dr Shaun Awatere is a resource economist whose job is to help Maōri landowners face up to these challenges. He talked to Connie Buchanan about how Māori thinking and values could lead the national response to climate change — if racism and resistance to co-governance don’t get in the way.


The atmospheric river we saw last week — that great surge of water vapour in the atmosphere which dumped those huge quantities of rain — was amazing to watch. But it’s the second one this year. They’re becoming more frequent. And they’re not so amazing if you’re feeling the effects of them. 

The historical records are just getting blown away each time these weather events come through. We may not be seeing widespread situations like Cyclone Bola in 1988 — but we’re seeing impacts that are much more severe, and much more localised.

Now it’s, boom, 200 millimetres of rain dropped overnight in Tokomaru Bay. Or 150 millimetres dumped on Northland in just a few hours.

Our national assessments of the risks from this pattern of climate change tend to focus on threats to infrastructure and threats to industry. 

A lot of the work is on what’s important in an economic sense. We ask, what’s going to be the impact on pines? What’s going to be the impact on dairy? On our ability to pump out milk solids for export? We don’t look in detail at what the impact might be on the wellbeing of our whānau. 

Tokomaru Bay is a classic case. The top of the bay has been inundated by frequent and quite severe tropical storms that have caused serious flooding. 

And what you would have seen reported is: “Oh, the bridge is out. The infrastructure, a connection on a nationally significant highway, is gone.” That’s the type of narrative that dominates. 

But what gets forgotten is that, down the road there, at Anauru Bay, there’s an urupā that’s been partly washed out and there’s further damage to a marae that’s close to the stream. Furthermore, there were people cut off from medical supplies. Which means that climate event is damaging things that are important to our spiritual and physical wellbeing.

So part of the work that I and other Māori scientists and researchers are trying to do is to broaden out the criteria. To take into account what’s important for whānau when we look at risk.

Sea level rise is a slow-moving disaster for our Māori communities. They’re disproportionately at risk because our wāhi tapu, our urupā, our marae, are generally in the more exposed erosion prone lands in low-lying coastal areas, or in river valleys. 

And, at a community level, there are starting to be tough conversations about coastal retreat.

Where you’ve got a settlement on vulnerable deforested land that’s being inundated by one-in-100-year storms every six months, there’s no choice but to have serious kōrero about relocating.

And I don’t think we’ve talked nearly enough about what approaches are required. Because coastal retreat means something different for different populations.

For middle-class Amy, it might mean: “Please compensate me for my bach and then I’ll go and buy another whare a bit further inland.” But that’s a privilege and an approach that’s out of reach for a lot of whānau and hapū.

For Māori, it also means conversations about our wāhi tapu and urupā. We might need to talk about collecting up our bones and relocating them. For some hapū, that might not be a problem, if they think of it as a practical decision. But others may be stuck on the tikanga for doing that. Or they think it sounds too tapu — and it just doesn’t seem right to them. 

And information is limited around those practices. We have a population that’s often unaware of some of the practical tikanga that our tīpuna had in place to solve issues. 

But we need Māori to be able to decide on their terms what might be the options for them, rather than have a government telling them: “You need to relocate, and this is the spot that is selected for you.” 

What’s empowering is if you have whānau looking into the past and learning from how our tīpuna used to respond to climate impacts on specific locations.

In the old days, there was more transition from one area to another, from season to season. During the warmer months you’d go down to your summer location in the coastal areas to fish. Then, when the weather got cooler, you went back inland. I know these stories from my own hapū around the East Coast. We used to go into those coastal settlements and then back up into the hill country during the winter.

Our tīpuna were smart enough to say: “Well, this place is very vulnerable during this season. Let’s be careful and relocate up to a safer environment.” 

We’ve lost touch with that more mobile way of living because of colonisation and the new values that were brought here. So, Māori value the ownership of our coastal properties now, just like our wider society does. We’ve come to think: “This is my beautiful spot by the beach and I’m going to keep it no matter what.” 

It’s so difficult to have that shift in thinking if you’ve been colonised into thinking that the house, the asset, is the be-all and end-all of life. How do you shift thinking towards the idea that you can leave that now, and relocate to somewhere safer, that’s far away from the beach? 

There’s also that traumatic experience historically of being forced off whenua. And now all those emotions can be dragged up again if you’re told: “Nah, you’re going to have to get off this whenua, too.” 

But these are the hard discussions that we need to front up to now.

Then, from an economic point of view, there are other significant challenges for Māori. 

We have a lot of Māori enterprise invested in commercial fisheries. But more carbon in the atmosphere means that our oceans are becoming more acidic. Which is not good for carbon-based life-forms and things with shells. The shells start to weaken, they become more prone to disease, and their growth rates are limited. 

We know that nearly half of our Māori fisheries investments are at risk. That includes species like pāua, koura and hoki, because of the potential for further ocean acidification. 

And then, at the same time, most of our Māori land, over 80 percent of it, is in hilly and mountainous areas susceptible to major erosion including landslides. Our whenua is more vulnerable and needs to revert back to forestry or native regeneration. We need to transition out of sheep and beef and towards trees. 

But, if you put in pines and then cut them down in 15 to 30 years, it creates a five-year window of vulnerability for that landscape. If another storm comes through at that stage, it’s going to wash out that land and bring down that hill. 

That’s defeating the purpose of the afforestation. It’s putting primacy on the value of the logs over the non-economic value of preventing landslides. Preventing landslides and improving water quality isn’t something that you get paid for. Only carbon storage is being rewarded at this stage.

So there’s a gap in that market for rewarding people who put in indigenous reforestation to avoid erosion or to provide for hillside stability. 

There’s also the increased potential for droughts followed by wildfires, which we’re now seeing in Europe. In New Zealand, that’s mostly going to be in the more eastern  and northern areas of the country. 

That might affect production yields and the quality of forestry, farming and horticultural operations which so many of our iwi are invested in. 

Then we get to health, and it doesn’t get any better. Māori are already vulnerable to non-communicable diseases. Increased temperatures affect people who have those issues like heart disease, kidney disease or diabetes.

It creates severe problems for them. So, we’ve got a vulnerable population — and they’re less likely to have air conditioning, or they’re living in poorly maintained rental stock without the ability to manage heat stress in their homes. 

Some hapū and iwi are working hard to figure out which of these aspects of climate change might have the greatest impact on their wellbeing and quality of life. Some are developing comprehensive plans that set out what’s important for them to do next.

I’ve got no doubt Māori can be the leaders in our national transition away from damaging activities, and in adapting to these huge challenges. 

As collectives, we do have core values that are different from mainstream enterprise. We’re more likely to embrace approaches that will improve the mauri of the whenua, the wellbeing of our whānau, and which will protect things for future generations, because those things are already an intrinsic part of our values. 

Restoration of the taiao, being good tīpuna for future generations — these are things we understand and want as Māori. 

But achieving them requires significant change in how our society shares power, and the way that we manage our economy. 

Racism will continue to get in the way. Right now, we’re seeing a kind of a backlash from the conservative right to anything Māori at all. David Seymour’s racist messages resonate with his base, and with National’s base. That’s always going to be a barrier to co-managing our whenua, and to looking after and restoring our taiao.

And, so, I think we’re really in a tenuous and delicate position. 

I think there’s a willingness among other sections of society to share power. But that sentiment can be fleeting. With a change of government or a change of policy, it can be gone, just like that. 

And if we really want to manage the impacts of climate change, there needs to be a significant transformation in the way that we manage our economy. It means a shift away from export-led production and expectations of continued growth.

That requires a lot of shifting and thinking from the mainstream. 

It means widespread acceptance that there are limits to growth, that there are negative impacts from growth, and we’re living through those already. We already have poor water quality, biodiversity decline, damage to our oceans, coastal inundation and erosion.

Even within our own Māori institutions, transformative thinking comes into contest with thinking from people who sign off on our investments. 

Our governors are still being trained in a mainstream way to prioritise the health of our finances. We put a lot of weight on a financially astute skill set, such as an MBA. We devalue approaches based on our own mātauranga Māori. 

So, the ability for our decision-makers to incorporate the impacts on our social context, our metaphysical and spiritual context, is reduced. They look at the spreadsheet. They say: “Oh, if we do this, we still get return on equity — that’s good. We still get shareholder value — that’s good.” They’re led by analysts who present mainstream information on the best investments to take. 

We still leave out the impact on our tamariki. We don’t ask often enough how we can be good tīpuna in terms of our investment approach. We still think that quantitative measurements, or a measurement tool that comes from a consultant or from Deloitte, is the most valid. 

At the end of the day, the incremental progress that we’re making towards a mainstream acceptance of mātauranga Māori (and incorporating tikanga Māori into governance and into our political responses) won’t keep up with the pace at which our climate is changing.

Everyone wants to hear that we can do fluffy stuff at the edges, do the Māori stuff at the edges, but, at the core, we can maintain our current ways of doing things. We can maintain our export-led economy and our expectations for perpetual growth. 

No one in power wants to hear that we need to “de-grow”. That we need to cut back on the amount of production. If you say this out loud, within the current political context, you’re toast. But we need that paradigm shift.

I do find a sense of hope through our rangatahi. They’re the ones who are standing up because they’re the ones who have the most to lose. The next generation know where they want to head and, hopefully, they’re going to drag all of us along with them. 

Then the other side of me is like, well, there’s such a short timeframe that’s required to keep the warming below two degrees. And things are happening at a snail’s pace. And there’s such reluctance among people to make a change. It’s so disheartening. 

For Māori, co-governance is what’s required to manage these challenges of climate change, mitigation, adaptation, and coastal retreat. Because of our values, that can create benefit for all.

If we don’t do it that way, it’s going to create a whole new legacy of trauma.


Dr Shaun Awatere (Ngāti Porou)is Senior Kairangahau at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Pou Patai Mauri at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence. He supports Māori to manage collective assets consistent with kaupapa Māori principles of kaitiekitanga, manaakitanga and whakatipu rawa. He is currently engaged in research and policy to help prepare iwi and hapū for climate change mitigation and adaptation planning. 

Shaun and a team of Ngā Pae o Te Māramatanga researchers have recently summarised the latest research and guidance surrounding observed and projected climate change impacts on whānau/hapū/iwi and Māori business in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

As told to Connie Buchanan. This piece was made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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