The Herald is looking at how our cities and towns can cope with more extreme weather in the latest instalment of our series The New New Zealand: Rebuilding Better. Here, Max Harris examines how this country should prepare for climate change and managed retreat.
Silicon Valley billionaires and Hollywood celebrities have bought land in Aotearoa New Zealand, viewing the country as a hide-out from the ills of the rest of the world. As polar ice caps melt and temperatures rise along with sea levels, as the world faces more and more severe weather events, the thought goes that New Zealand will be protected from the extremities of global trends.
But Cyclone Gabrielle and extreme flooding in the North Island have driven home the point, already obvious to many, that New Zealand isn’t immune from climate change. New Zealand has contributed to climate change and our lives will have to change significantly to mitigate temperature rises – and adapt to changes that are already locked in. One area of adaptation is ‘managed retreat’: the purposeful relocation of people and infrastructure to avoid damage caused by severe weather events and climate-induced disasters.
Eroding land – and history
Climate activist India Logan-Riley has been following the impacts of climate change, and managed retreat, for some time. “Where I grew up, Haumoana, the first house fell into the ocean in the 2000s,” Logan-Riley says. Until recently, Logan-Riley tells me, the local plan for the area said coastal areas would have to start managed retreat in 2050. “We all knew that was too late.”
Logan-Riley has dedicated much of their life to calling for greater urgency on climate action, attending six annual United Nations climate conferences and speaking at the opening plenary of the Glasgow 2021 conference. Logan-Riley, who hails from Ngāti Kahungunu, is clear that climate-induced relocation poses particular challenges for Māori.
That’s not just because land is no longer available for iwi and hapū relocation: “We don’t have the finances or the resources or the capacity to pick some whenua somewhere else,” observes Logan-Riley.
It’s not just because sudden land loss is a reminder of colonial impacts: “there’s a deep grief and pain,” Logan-Riley says, “that comes from knowing that legacies of colonisation have brought us to this situation where land is being taken again through the impacts of climate change.”
It’s also because land that Māori may have to move from holds marae, as well as centuries of histories, burial sites (urupā), land central for ancestral and cultural significance (wāhi tapu), and mātauranga (knowledge).
Logan-Riley, who’s studied archaeology, shares that sites that could be lost are “places where we can find out more” about history. When the coast is eroded, Logan-Riley points out, there’s erosion of culture, taonga, communities.
Logan-Riley returned to Hawke’s Bay to help out with recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle and the floods.
It “proved my ongoing suspicions,” Logan-Riley says, “about how ill-equipped current governance structures are to prepare people for crisis”.
Logan-Riley saw that people employed on the crisis response didn’t know who was at risk, how much food was stashed away, or what was needed immediately. The Government hadn’t reckoned with the loss of the power grid, internet, and access to communications and transport.
So what should be done?
When considering what can and should be done, there are short-term risks to avoid. Calls to halt consenting in at-risk areas could result in over-broad rejection of intensified housing development. The need to acquire land for relocation should not lead to confiscation of Māori land, as has occurred historically.
In the medium-term, three priorities require attention.
First, Te Tiriti o Waitangi should be at the heart of the response. It’s our country’s founding document. It requires that the Government share power with Māori, who have lived on these lands longer than the rest of us. It specifically guarantees tino rangatiratanga: as Logan-Riley told me, that means allowing iwi and hapū to plan the relocating within their own spheres, just as the government can undertake planning within its own sphere of influence.
Iwi and hapū should be resourced properly to undertake relocation – given the commitments in Te Tiriti, and the fact that they are not the most responsible for climate change. But, as Logan-Riley said, resourcing will not in itself create “ongoing resilience” without sharing of power, and “it’s all well and good for Māori to be resourced ... if the Crown continues to make bad decisions for everyone”.
“It’s important,” Logan-Riley added, “for local and central government to recognise they need to be good leaders as well, in a way that aligns with knowledge and intergenerational expertise of mana whenua.”
Secondly, as part of good local and central government leadership, there must be recognition that those with resources and economic security will be differently positioned for managed retreat compared to those without resources and security. Some will have access to alternative accommodation, other homes, or insurance.
The government response cannot rely on the insurance market, which is likely to be increasingly prominent in promoting cover for adverse weather events. Commentator and writer Ben Thomas has correctly queried how well the market signal of higher insurance premiums will work in communities like Wairoa, “where the majority of residents are without insurance”. Nor can the government provide a compensation scheme that entrenches the wealth of the super-affluent.
The Environmental Defence Society has published a working paper on a public compensation scheme for managed retreat, with policy options (drawing on a separate report by Jonathan Boston). Property values could be compensated based on replacement cost or comparable values, compensation could be capped (with or without a contribution from property owners), and difficult choices will have to be made about whether compensation should be affected by prior knowledge of risks or remaining life of the property or the property’s status as a principal place of residence.
Another model is our accident compensation scheme. The Woodhouse Report that preceded ACC’s establishment said: “a fragmented and capricious response to a social problem which cries out for co-ordinated and comprehensive treatment cannot be good enough”. It noted that a comprehensive scheme, with costs of administration and the need for a generous approach, could not be left to insurance companies. The same is true of managed retreat.
Thirdly, a fulsome response to managed retreat will require us to reclaim planning – and rebuild planning capacity. Not just urban planning, but planning for social and economic purposes. The word ‘managed’ is a synonym for ‘planned’.
A recent book by Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski, The People’s Republic of Walmart, shows how some of the world’s largest corporations effectively use techniques of planning, and argues governments should democratise planning through incorporating these techniques. In practice, this means improving public capacity to track environmental and economic trends, and enhancing strategic foresight capability.
This country once had a New Zealand Planning Council, which acted as a focal point for consultative planning and strategic direction-setting. A revamped Productivity Commission could adopt these functions, and be rebadged the Productivity, Wellbeing and Planning Council. Renaming an institution doesn’t transform planning capacity, but tasking a body with strengthening planning can provide resources and direction to improve capacity over time.
The Environmental Defence Society refers to “transformational retreat”: the notion that in relocating, there’s an opportunity to rebuild communities and infrastructure in a way that addresses longstanding social, environmental, and political problems. Whoever is given responsibility for improving planning, whether the Productivity Commission (with an expanded remit) or another body, could be charged with planning for transformational retreat.
Managed retreat internationally
Managed retreat involves relocation within a state. Internationally, managed retreat from islands and states has become an increasingly important legal and political issue, including in the Pacific. It’s often been talked about in the different language of “climate refugees”, “climate displacement”, or “climate mobility”.
Marco de Jong, a Samoan-New Zealand historian, has tracked managed retreat discussions nationally and climate displacement discussions internationally. De Jong observes that conversations about managed retreat in New Zealand, and in New Zealand about climate change in the Pacific, share troubling features.
In both cases the approach risks being “managerial” and “technocratic”, without a proper focus on climate justice: on the roots of climate change, those most affected by it, and the most just ways to address it. In both cases, places are deemed to be vulnerable, or presented as naturally “susceptible to hazard”, when in reality they have been “rendered as locations in which disaster happens”.
This focus on climate vulnerability, de Jong says, can ignore how people and places are made vulnerable – for example, in the Pacific, by New Zealand’s involvement in phosphate strip mining, unsustainable forestry or devastating species introductions. Talk of climate vulnerability can skate over in-built flexibility and capacity in affected communities.
De Jong adds another risk in talk of “climate vulnerability” without climate justice: it generates its own industry of consultants and others seeking to profiteer from particular managed retreat solutions. But expertise does not always come from outside, de Jong reflects, just as resilience often already exists among affected communities.
Hope for a different approach
Both India Logan-Riley and Marco de Jong have hope. For Logan-Riley, it’s that Māori leadership in planning can result in better kāwanatanga (Crown government). “My hope,” says de Jong, is that Aotearoa from its experience of devastation would “gain understanding and develop solidarity” with others impacted.
Both are familiar with political and economic systems, in te ao Māori and the Pacific, that aren’t structured tightly around individual property rights, where community planning enables greater flexibility. Learning from those communities means going beyond an individualised response, as de Jong says, which is limited to buying out houses and shifting individuals.
But Logan-Riley and de Jong can see that threats posed by climate change reveal interlocking political, economic, and social problems. Logan-Riley speaks of evidence that Māori men are drowning at higher rates, as choppier seas and the rising cost of living threaten lives.
De Jong mentions the Regional Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers stranded on the roofs of Hawke’s Bay houses during Cyclone Gabrielle, one a family member. He asks what our immigration settings might reveal about broader attitudes towards “migration with dignity” informed by climate justice.
Both are firm about the drivers of climate change and who should pay for it. “Indigenous communities, frontline communities, poor communities should not foot the bill,” says Logan-Riley, “when we’ve done the least to contribute to it.” Corporations, polluters, and the Crown should provide the bulk of the funding, given their contribution. De Jong says we can learn from the Pacific “in the way they’ve shaped the climate dialogue” internationally: in their focus on the polluters-pay principle, and common but differentiated responsibility.
Logan-Riley and de Jong worry that the failures of our political and economic order will be starkly exposed as climate change intensifies. Logan-Riley mentions their grandmother, unable to drive, who won’t be able to relocate urgently if trains are cancelled, as they were after Cyclone Gabrielle hit Auckland.
For de Jong, the concern is that as the climate crisis scales up, the “politics of self-interest” will set in: finance will dry up, all sympathy and solidarity with affected communities will disappear, and there’ll be a flattened-out claim that “we’re all climate victims”.
I think back to those Silicon Valley billionaires and Hollywood celebrities, moving to New Zealand to be off the grid when bigger crises hit. I think of how, as Logan-Riley and de Jong remind us, we’re not off the grid. The currents of colonial capitalism flow through many of us, and we’re looped tightly into the circuits of exploitation, profit, property and imperialism that are part of the source of this climate crisis.
There are individuals, and groups, who recognise this and are working to resist these flows – to build a model for a different approach. People like India Logan-Riley and Marco de Jong. ‘Transformational retreat’ offers an opportunity for that approach.
The challenge for us as a community is to be clear-eyed and courageous and coordinated enough to understand what’s being said by Logan-Riley and de Jong, back it, and act on it – before it’s too late.
Max Harris has worked in law, economic policy, campaigns, and academia. He is the author of the book, The New Zealand Project, and now splits his time between legal research and campaign work for ActionStation. He was the campaign manager for Efeso Collins’ mayoral campaign.