A new report from the Helen Clark Foundation and engineering consultants WSP is calling for significant change to the way communities are engaged in climate adaptation planning. With climate change reshaping our lives, culture, and public health in profound ways, this issue has never been more urgent.

“Communities must urgently develop adaptation strategies that consider the voices of those most affected, to avoid ongoing costly and traumatic recovery efforts from climate disasters.” says report author and WSP Fellow Kali Mercier.

Titled ‘A Shared Future: Working with communities to adapt to a changing climate’, the report finds that involving communities in adaptation efforts is just as crucial as finding the right engineering solutions. Adapting to a changing climate will be disruptive and intrusive for many. If meaningful community engagement is neglected, it’s likely to create division, weaken the effectiveness of adaptation efforts, and make them less credible, says Kali.

“Engaging with communities on climate adaptation cannot be considered a one-off as consultation processes often are. It needs to be a long-term, iterative process where communities have a real say in the decision-making that will affect their lives.”

The report features a range of best-practice principles, tools, and case studies that central and local government authorities and practitioners involved in climate adaptation can use to better engage communities in the process.

WSP Technical Principal for Engagement Gemma Greenshields says community engagement in climate adaptation is essential for crafting effective and enduring solutions – even though it can be complex and resource intensive.

“Working with communities leads to better policy decisions and more durable solutions to the risks climate change presents. It can also be messy, challenging, and time consuming. However difficult it may be at times, it’s much easier to have those bold conversations when people are in a warm, dry home than when their houses are full of water, and no one has showered for a week.”

“Creating adaptation plans that actively engage the public and are tailored to their specific needs leads to stronger, more sustainable communities,” says Kali. “While taking this approach can be challenging it’s also an opportunity to regenerate our communities, not just for resilience from a changing climate but for the role communities can play in making their places and spaces more sustainable, inclusive, environmentally friendly, and vibrant.”

A suite of innovative solutions already exists to help engage communities, from the development of climate-related ‘serious’ games and simulations to citizens’ assemblies and digital visualisations.
However, Kali says the country is currently operating under decades-old laws that often require only minimal community consultation. Given the urgent need to adapt to more frequent and intense climate change-induced weather events, this approach is no longer sufficient.

“We must consider legislative changes, especially for local councils, to ensure they engage communities effectively in preparing for our shared climate future and are supported in doing so.”

“Passing the Climate Adaptation Bill or similar legislation that provides clear guidelines for meaningful community engagement should happen promptly. Other legislative amendments in laws like the Local Government Act should be made to clarify local authorities’ community engagement responsibilities.”

The report also highlights the disproportionate impacts of climate change on iwi, hapū and Māori. Ensuring the process of adaptation honours the spirit of partnership set out in Te Tiriti o Waitangi is another of the report’s key recommendations.

“By involving communities that have the most to lose in the decision-making process, adaptation strategies will be more just, more equitable, and more likely to consider the needs of everyone. That way, we can hope for a shared future where we don’t just survive, but thrive,” says Kali.

Report recommendations for Government and councils include:

• Meaningfully involve communities in long-term planning and implementation, in the spirit of collaboration, partnership, and empowerment.
• Honour the spirit of partnership set out in Te Tiriti o Waitangi in climate adaptation, proactively working with Māori and weaving Māori knowledge into risk assessments and adaptation planning.
• Adopt and foster innovative approaches to strengthen engagement and participation, including deliberative democratic approaches and creative methods to help community members understand the science.
• Support community engagement at the central government level through funding, tools, resources, capacity building, and the passage of relevant legislation.

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