An iwi leader is suing the Government over its "failure" to protect Māori from climate change and wants the courts to force dramatic action "immediately".

Climate Change Iwi Leaders Group chair Mike Smith said he filed proceedings in the High Court "on behalf of my children, grandchildren and the future generations of Māori children, whose lives are threatened by the climate crisis".

Smith, of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Kahu, said the Government was failing in its duties under the Treaty of Waitangi to protect Māori, who were particularly vulnerable, from the "catastrophic effects of climate change".

He acknowledged the proposed Zero Carbon Bill, which sought to reduce net greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050, but said it did not go far enough as it made exemptions for methane, which through the agriculture sector contributed around half of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.

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Smith wanted the courts to declare the Government was failing unless it reduced total greenhouse gases by half by 2030, and to zero by 2050.

Climate Change Iwi Leaders Group chair Mike Smith is seeking a declaration in the High Court the Government is
Climate Change Iwi Leaders Group chair Mike Smith is seeking a declaration in the High Court the Government is "failing" Māori through inaction over climate change. Photo / File

Treating climate change as a political issue meant action could be thwarted by coalition partners, or pandering to lobby groups and voters come election time, Smith said.

"We don't have time, we need action now. Courts tend to shift with the morality of the time, and I think lately we have seen a massive uptake in social awareness putting climate change squarely in the public domain."

The Government's Adapting to Climate Change Stocktake, published in 2017, identified Māori as among the most vulnerable groups to climate-change impacts due to their "significant reliance on the environment as a cultural, social and economic resource".

The Māori economy relied heavily on primary industries, and many communities were near the coast. Already many urupā (burial grounds) and marae were being flooded or washed into the sea.

"Rising sea levels, coastal erosion, flooding and storm surges will irrevocably damage low lying coastal communities, and warming oceans and ocean acidification will damage traditional resources, including fisheries," Smith said.

"Māori are also disproportionately represented among the poor, who will be the hardest hit.

"The Government not doing all that it can to reduce emissions immediately means that it is failing its duty of care, for Māori - and all New Zealanders - to be able to continue their way of life."

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Climate Change Minister James Shaw, alongside Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson. Photo / File
Climate Change Minister James Shaw, alongside Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson. Photo / File

The case argued breaches of duty under the Treaty of Waitangi, the Bill of Rights Act and general law.

Smith made the announcement today while speaking at the release of the Interim Climate Change Commission report.

That report announced the end of a 20-year stand-off with farmers over charging for emissions, with sector leaders signalling support for a new system as soon as 2025.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said the Government "absolutely understands the urgent need for action on climate change".

"I have been saying for a long-time that Māori are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. It's why we are implementing an ambitious and unprecedented programme of work, which we want to see last beyond any one government."

Smith's is not the first case to be brought against a New Zealand government over climate change.

Hamilton law student Sarah Thomson took the Government to court in 2017 over what she argued was a lack of action over climate change. Photo / File
Hamilton law student Sarah Thomson took the Government to court in 2017 over what she argued was a lack of action over climate change. Photo / File

In 2017 law student Sarah Thomson challenged the former climate change minister Paula Bennett and her government in the High Court over targets under the Paris Agreement.

She said slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 11 per cent below 1990 levels and 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, was "unreasonable and irrational" against the seriousness of the issue.

She alleged that the setting of our climate targets had been unlawful and requested a judicial review.

While the legal bid was dismissed, Thomson told the Herald at the time she felt the case had been "a big win" in some areas - namely that it showed the courts were able to hold ministers to account when making important decisions on climate change, and raised awareness of the issue.