Tamatha Paul (23, Ngāti Ata, Waikato Tainui): “Climate action now is the essence of being a good tupuna.”

What do we need to do to be good tūpuna for our descendants? In this chapter from the new book Living with the Climate Crisis: Voices from Aotearoa, Tamatha Paul, 23, a Wellington city councillor who grew up in Tokoroa, outlines some of the challenges — particularly for a community like Tokoroa with its close Pacific ties and its reliance on emissions-heavy industries.



Long ago, the Aotea, Te Arawa, Kurahaupō, Mātaatua, Tainui, Tākitimu and Tokomaru waka set out for Aotearoa from Ngātangi’ia in Rarotonga, an island paradise belonging to a cluster of 15 islands in the Pacific, known as Kūki ‘Āirani or the Cook Islands.

Few people know that there is, in fact, a sixteenth island of the Cooks which can be found in the South Waikato: Te Kaokaoroa-o-Pātetere, or Tokoroa.

One of my favourite teachers at high school describes Tokoroa as a cultural paradise with economic challenges. Those economic challenges were the reason I left about six years ago. I always felt there was a magnet pulling me down to Wellington, and although I had been to our capital a total of two times in my whole life, something told me it was where I needed to be.

I came down to Te Whanganui-a-Tara by myself, not knowing what university would hold for me, being the first in my whānau with the privilege to have that opportunity.

Intuition is a powerful feeling that can override judgment or logic, depending on your appetite for risk. I’m constantly learning that intuition is both a push from your tūpuna in the direction they’ve laid out for you through their sacrifices, and a pull from your uri whakatipu who need you to make sacrifices of your own.

I wonder if our tūpuna felt the same way when they set out on Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa to find our home, Aotearoa. I believe we all have these intuitive feelings that compel us to make decisions well into the future, even if, in our lifetime, we never see the impacts of our decisions.

This is essentially what living in the climate crisis looks and feels like. Climate action, and filtering our everyday decision-making through a climate and ecological lens, means that those people four or five lines down the whakapapa tree will be able to enjoy a pāua pie because ocean acidification will have reversed.

They’ll be able to visit their tūrangawaewae in Niue, Tokelau and Tuvalu because these will still be above sea level. They’ll spend hot summers swimming in the Whakamaru or Mangakino lakes because their intricate and delicate ecosystems will not have been irreversibly damaged, since we managed to limit global average temperature rise.

Their educations will be coloured by the thriving biodiversity of Tānemahuta — they will learn about the natural environment through observing insects and birds, and they will be able to compare their emotional responses to the natural and unchanged weather patterns described and passed on through pūrākau.

Climate action now is the essence of being a good tupuna. At 22, disillusioned with politics at all levels, I decided that the issues ahead of us called for a young, Indigenous perspective at the decision-making table, so I stood for Wellington City Council. Now, at 23 years old, I am a city councillor, and I have the city-wide portfolio for climate change.

Soon, we will be adopting our Climate Implementation Plan, Te Atakura — First to Zero, which will show how we will reduce emissions by 43 per cent by the end of the decade, and then become carbon-neutral by 2050.

I’m excited about this project because I believe that a majority of people in Wellington believe in climate action. We only have a few hurdles to overcome in order to reduce our emissions — transport, building energy efficiency, and waste — and we have the potential to foster and replenish native ngahere across the capital, which can do some of the heavy lifting.

Wellington has the potential to be world-leading in terms of being the first carbon-neutral capital city; however, when I think about the rest of Aotearoa, I don’t feel as much optimism.

Much of our plan depends on the private sector, central government, and the uptake of electric vehicles. I know that Wellington’s transition to carbon neutrality is relatively straightforward and doesn’t present the same challenges as in rural New Zealand.

Kinleith pulp and paper mill, Tokoroa.

In Tokoroa, most of the town is employed in emissions-heavy industries — from forestry to farming to working at Fonterra. One of the largest cheese factories in the southern hemisphere is located just down the road in Tīrau, and the iconic Kinleith Pulp and Paper Mill directly or indirectly employs most of Tokoroa’s population.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many people from the Cook Islands flooded into Tokoroa to take up the opportunities promised by the mill. Even though many of the town’s residents hail from the Pacific, climate change isn’t something we talk about at all — but we would all agree that the impacts of sea-level rise and an increasing number of extreme weather events in the Pacific would be absolutely devastating to the collective heart of our town.

Casting our minds back to the decision that our tūpuna made to set out for Aotearoa, it’s now our time to make decisions for those who will come from us long after we are gone.

For some, those decisions are harder to make than others. New Zealand has always been a world leader socially and politically — whether in opposing the Springbok tour, giving women the vote, being nuclear-free, or the way we took bold action to try and handle Covid-19.

We know that, as a planet, if human beings keep doing things the way we’re currently doing them, then we will not have a whole lot of time before we raise the average global temperature, which will have catastrophic, irreversible impacts.

Although I believe that the sturdiest, most sustainable solution would be systemic change away from neoliberal policy and economics, I don’t think time is our friend on this matter. Climate change demands our urgent attention within the system we currently have and, in fact, our climate action might even drive us toward that systemic change.

So, how do we do that?

First, we must accept that the people who have contributed the least to climate change will experience the initial as well as the most devastating impacts. When those of us in positions of power design solutions and make decisions, we must actively keep these people front of mind.

Second, we need to achieve critical mass and ensure that climate change becomes a popular issue with the public, which would enable the major political parties in New Zealand to put climate change and social justice front and centre.

Politicians need to create policy and legislation that provides people with as many options as possible and that makes climate-friendly options accessible and affordable. Then, at an individual level, we actually have to make those climate-friendly decisions.

This requires the majority of people feeling that climate change is relevant and important in their own lives, feeling that the decisions they make at an individual level are powerful in a collective sense, and feeling empowered to make good tupuna decisions.

The Pine Man of Tokoroa.


In order to figure out what this looks like in real terms, I had some discussions with people I know from back home.

I talked to a friend of mine, Te Mahara, who moved down to Wellington for the same reasons as I did — more opportunities and a chance to make some changes. I chatted with my old geography teacher, Mr Tereu. I also talked to my friend Liam, who was born and raised in Tokoroa, worked for the Kinleith Pulp and Paper Mill, and is now employed in the coal mining industry in Australia.

Between the discussions with these three, there were clear themes and potential solutions that stood out. These can give us an insight into how to create a climate response that enables us all to be good tūpuna, and brings everyone along on the journey. I asked each person whether they thought climate change was relevant in their lives.

Te Mahara said that if you had asked her a few years ago, she would not have thought so. However, now she describes how her coastal hapū and marae in Te Kaha are vulnerable to coastal inundation:

Obviously the coast is known for the coast. It’s a big part of their day-to-day lives — it’s where people go for a swim when there’s no hot water, it’s where the majority of people source their kai, a lot of cultural and tikanga practices are linked to the moana. So in terms of sea-level rise and toxins going into the ocean — that would be devastating. 

We do our part to give Tangaroa days of rest where there is a complete rāhui over the moana but that doesn’t stop us from feeling the impacts of mistreating the taiao.

Mr Tereu talked about how living in Tokoroa means that most people are sheltered from the immediate effects of climate change:

We feel that climate change isn’t relevant in our lives, because we are so sheltered from those direct impacts here in the North Island. We’re high up in the middle of a volcanic plateau. 

But indirectly, the people of Tokoroa will be hugely affected by what happens, because we still send enormous amounts of remittances back home to help out with people, and if you factor in that, tourism in the future will not look the same. There is no Plan B tourism-wise, you’re limited by geography in the Cook Islands. 

Tokoroa is effectively a part of the Cook Islands — sixteenth island and all that stuff. So we are inextricably linked, yet we are engaged heavily in an industry, forestry, which impacts those back home.

I asked why it might be difficult for people to see climate change as relevant in their lives, or as something they feel they need to be conscious of when they make decisions in their everyday lives, such as driving a petrol-fuelled car, opting for reusable items, or using heaps of energy at home.

Everyone said that this was because, for many people in Aotearoa, there are already plenty of urgent issues right in front of them that require immediate attention, and seem possible to solve through targeted, systematic change.

Poverty was one of those issues, as well as drug and alcohol addiction (particularly the P epidemic), mental health and suicide issues, homelessness and precarious housing situations, the prejudicial justice system and Oranga Tamariki, and so on.

These issues are all currently having devastating impacts within our community. As Te Mahara put it:

How are you supposed to care about something far down the road which you might not even see, when you can’t put kai on the table, your kids are struggling with mental health issues, and the systems around you are constantly bringing you down? 

It’s hard for people to cast their minds past the issues immediately in front of them in order to take action on an issue that will be far more catastrophic, but seems far distant in the future.

The urgency around climate change directly links to the second key theme I picked up throughout my conversations, which was that, in Tokoroa, and many rural places like it spread throughout Aotearoa, from Kawerau to Hāwera to Huntly, most of the employment opportunities are in carbon-intensive jobs and industries.

Liam talked about how, when he grew up in Tokoroa, he was always thinking about all of those different jobs that deplete the natural environment around him:

You go work out in the bush chopping down pines all day, which have been planted over areas which must have been covered in native bush once, and then those forestry jobs rely on the mill, and then the areas around the mill can be used, too, in terms of farmlands once they can’t be planted on anymore, and then those farmlands end up [being owned by] Fonterra. These are all your options for work.

He talked about how, for many young men, especially those with young families, it’s about being able to put food on the table and chase the potential for a better life for their whānau. Many of these men will move over to Australia, too, to pursue high-paying jobs in the mines.

Especially for those who are Polynesian or Māori, these industries perpetuate existing health inequities, with Liam noting that it’s “a young people’s game — it’s bad for your knees, hips, ankles, you’re constantly carrying heavy things, constantly putting yourself in awkward, bad positions for long periods of time. Also, the industries you’re in, the coal industry, once you get black lung you’re f—ed forever.”

Mr Tereu expanded on that by adding:

I think because of the economic situations that we find ourselves in in Tokoroa, it’s tough because we’re in low-paying jobs, it will just be exacerbated by what happens back home in the Cook Islands. 

We won’t be able to send money home in great amounts, at the same time the Cook Islands have effectively ground to a halt with Covid, and it’s a bit of a warning sign of what happens when you live in a low-lying country that relies totally on tourism to generate income for people. 

So we do worry about our relatives back home — and by the way, the relatives back home caused none of it.

When asked what solutions might look like, almost everyone said that education and kai were the two most important things. Te Mahara talked about utilising kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa to access whānau in a broader sense:

If you’re talking about people on the ground, they need to be educated — otherwise what’s their motivation to change? Educate rangatahi in schools so they can go home and talk to their parents about it. It starts with education, having wānanga or conferences at your marae. Normalise the behaviour you want to see in society through schools — like have a fat māra kai in school and regular kōrero with people.

Mr Tereu was obviously a big fan of this idea too, and had a few tips for how we can utilise education to raise collective consciousness around climate change:

If we follow the cultural angle first, and touch base with our tūpuna and ancestors, and understand their attachment to the land and get back to some of the basic stuff like growing your own crops and feeding your own family, that gets you a foot in the door. 

And then you can bring in the science and the economics once you’ve been able to rediscover that passion for nature. Little kids are obsessed with nature, they love it! They love the trees, they play with the bugs, they eat the dirt, they jump in the streams and rivers. 

Somewhere along the line we create a disconnect with nature and part of it is the way we’re forced into classrooms and forced to sit there and shut up. Meanwhile looking out the window, there’s the birds and the trees and all the bits that go with it.

Funny that Mr Tereu would say this, because this is exactly how I felt sitting in his class six years ago — staring out the window thinking about how one day I might be a good tupuna like my own tūpuna.

Tokoroa’s Talking Poles sculptures.


That leads me to think of what steps I might take now. How will I fully utilise the breadth of understanding, real-life experience and desire to do better that only Tokoroa could instil in me, while also bringing along the technical expertise and access to resources, relationships and decision-making power that Wellington has gifted me?

First, I’m gonna tell our stories. It turns out that many of the solutions and innovative ideas lie nestled in our own ways of understanding the world.

The way we understand the weather through Atua Māori; the way we understand the forests, the birds, the ocean, the days, the insects through the adventures of Māui; the traditional ways that we cared for Papatūānuku, our Earth Mother, and how this kaitiakitanga naturally extends into the domain of Ranginui and all of their children.

These stories and the insight they give us are what guided our tūpuna across the Pacific Ocean, across the world! These are the stories that sit comfortably and find homes within our memories, these are the tales we remember as we grow older which allow us to make the emotional connection.

If we want people from Māori and Pacific whakapapa to see climate change as relevant and important in their lives, then we (other tangata whenua and mana moana) need to rediscover those stories and solutions, and never stop telling them.

Second, we give people all the tools they need to be good tūpuna in their everyday lives. That means that we get the story right in the way we communicate about climate change and its potential impacts. More importantly, we effectively communicate the potential for positive change that we can derive from collective action.

We can do this through young people’s formative years by interweaving the importance of climate action, mātauranga Māori and environmental sustainability throughout the education curriculum, like a whāriki.

We can make sure that people have access to a range of different jobs that give them options to not work in industries that deplete the earth. For every carbon-intensive job we take away, for example in mining, we should replace it with a carbon-positive job such as cultivating sources of renewable energy.

We enable whānau and communities to localise their food production through communal māra kai and community composting facilities, and we enable the local economy to thrive so that people are purchasing locally sourced and locally made items rather than cheap imported plastic crap.

These behaviours are normalised through education and community wānanga and talanoa. All of these tools and options enable a just transition to carbon neutrality and enable communities from Tokoroa to Wellington towards self-determination. Nobody is left behind.

Third, we manaaki our whanaunga from Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Our ties to the Pacific Ocean and all of the whenua that resides above it go back thousands of years prior to the waka migration from Rarotonga. Our histories, understandings and future are intimately intertwined. Therefore, we must try our absolute hardest to reduce our emissions to prevent sea-level rise.

We must utilise strategic international relations with other countries to compel them to take climate action. We have to use every tool in the toolbox to prevent the ocean from swallowing up islands to which we owe so much.

In the meantime, we ensure that our Pacific whānau living here in Aotearoa continue to find places to call their own, like Tokoroa, and we carve out spaces where those sacred cultures can be preserved, nurtured and cherished forever.

Finally, we imagine, we create, and we act beyond the current constraints we’ve placed on ourselves, which tell us that we must wait till 2050, or even 2030, to totally curb our emissions.

We harness the ability for Tokoroa to be the most sustainable small town in the whole world.

Wellington will be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city and will attract international crowds due to it being a huge green metropolis where native birds and insects hum throughout the city, you can get anywhere you need to go within 15 minutes, and we all live together intimately in high-density, energy-efficient communities but have access to abundant communal spaces and māra kai.

If we begin with harnessing our imagination, and work together so that everybody — truly everybody — in Aotearoa recognises this future as deserving of all our efforts and energies, for the people who will come long after we are gone, then that is the truest essence of being a good tupuna.


This chapter from Living with the Climate Crisis: Voices from Aotearoa, edited by Tom Doig and published by Bridget Williams Books, is republished here with permission. 

Tamatha Paul (Ngāti Awa, Waikato Tainui) is a Wellington city councillor, who holds the city-wide portfolio for climate change, city safety, and young people. She was elected in October 2019 after serving as the first wahine Māori president of the Victoria University of Wellington Students Association, and graduating as the first person in her whānau to attend university. Tamatha also serves on the board for JustSpeak and other social justice kaupapa. 

© E-Tangata, 2020

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