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a gif of trees and houses blossoming across and landscape.possibility! colour! trees! a more resilient future!
The block of farm where Huhana Smith is trialling using biochar and wetland restoration (Image: supplied, with additional design by Tina Tiller)

SocietyMarch 13, 2023

What does climate change adaptation actually look like?

a gif of trees and houses blossoming across and landscape.possibility! colour! trees! a more resilient future!
The block of farm where Huhana Smith is trialling using biochar and wetland restoration (Image: supplied, with additional design by Tina Tiller)

Climate change is going to alter natural systems. Preparing means restoring those natural systems, planning for floods – and building resilient social relationships.

At Huhana Smith’s iwi farm in Horowhenua, the threat of climate change is visceral and ever-present. “We have groundwater salination, storm surges, and increasing erosion issues on the coast,” she says. For Smith (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Raukawa ki Te Tonga), an artist and professor at Massey University, the reality of climate change is something in the present. So, with the creativity and attention to the whenua she has inherited from her ancestors, she’s documenting how the farm is adapting. 

Climate change adaptation – the adjustments to prepare for hotter, wetter weather, more floods, and rising sea levels – is the other side of climate change mitigation, the ways that it is possible to prevent climate change from being worse than it has to be. “There are ways to do both – we don’t have time to muck about,” says Ralph Chapman, a member of the NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities, who focuses on transitioning cities to being lower carbon. 

The details of climate mitigation tend to be laid out in earnest documents with titles like “National Adaptation Plan”, last year’s contribution from the Ministry for the Environment, which lays out timelines for how “New Zealanders [can] adapt, live and thrive in a more damaging climate”. But at the ground level, how might it feel to notice climate adaptation in your neighbourhood or community?

lots of people moving around a fire putting twigs in
Building community connections, restoring water systems and sequestering carbon at the same time – making biochar. (Image- supplied by Huhana Smith)

Smith’s experience on her iwi farm offers one example. One practical piece to mitigate flooding is restoring wetland and forest. Salination of low-lying land can be managed by planting salt-tolerant species like reeds. “Natural systems are crucial climate change mitigators, so we’ve been actively revitalising them,” Smith says. Over two decades of careful mahi, paying attention to the water and seasons and soil, small seedlings are now part of a forest, the land closer to how it was before colonisation, ready for a more uncertain future. 

This involves making hard choices; the land is a source of income, too. Restoring one “wet paddock” – a drained wetland covered in grass – from pasture means less food for the cattle. “Returning the land to its natural contours means it’s no longer farmed for the cows,” Smith says. In aerial photos, the land looks lush: blank slots of pasture have become textured greens and browns of native plants.

For Smith, the process of taking care of her land has been helped by knowledge of her ancestors. “Māori knowledge comes from the natural world, it’s critical to our restoration.” As part of a long-term research process, Smith has researched by hīkoi, walking and talking over sand dunes and paddocks to understand the whenua, and made decisions based on knowledge about whakapapa and the atua. When you understand the impact of rising sea levels as a relationship with Tangaroa “it’s a fundamental shift in thinking,” she says – and it’s crucial.

As well as drawing on mātauranga, understanding the way that climate change is shaping the land means talking to scientists, from freshwater experts to alluvial geomorphologists, who study river landscapes. “There are people from all disciplines who are climate change experts,” Smith says. “They come into the context of our culture and take part in a kawa led process, it’s the only way to work.”

The weaving together of expertise helps see the whole ecological system, which is important, because climate change impacts every part of the system from insect life and seasonal migrations and weather extremes. 

a brown pond and lots of bushes - slowly, surely, this paddock is being prepared for the future
Preparing for the future by looking to the past: a paddock becomes a thriving forest (image: supplied)

There are many ways to respond to the challenges of climate change, and the sooner these investments happen, the better, says Ralph Chapman, the urban climate change expert. “Not to be a Cassandra, but we’ve known that climate disruptions are going to be very unpleasant and devastating for a long time. We’re at 1.1 degrees of warming, and there’s no way to avoid 1.5. We’ve only just begun to feel the impacts, but they’re coming.”

As devastating floods in Hawke’s Bay, Tairāwhiti, and Auckland this year show, adaptation to flooding is crucial; about 675,000 New Zealanders live in housing that’s prone to flooding. As the climate changes, cities will need to be spongier, and some places will need to be designed to flood.

Safe, sustainable housing is a key part of adapting to climate change, says Philippa Howden-Chapman, director of the He Kāinga Ora/Housing and Health and Sustainable Cities research centres (and Ralph Chapman’s partner). “We’re building houses on the outskirts of cities – we know it’s not economically sustainable,” she says. House design, too, needs to be changed. “We used to build houses with bay windows to get as much sun as possible and now that will need to change, because they’re much harder to cool.” 

Crucially, climate adaptation and climate mitigation can go hand in hand, says Chapman. New houses can be built out of sustainable materials, while also being closer to transport hubs, and incorporating spongy design. Renewable electricity and microgrids don’t generate emissions and can also be easier to fix after a disruption.

But there’s a bigger picture, too. “It’s not about dykes and walls and floodplains, it’s about how the community responds,” Chapman says. Howden-Chapman agrees – she’s studied how communities supported each other following the devastating Christchurch earthquakes. “In times of huge stress and trauma collective being family and community matter a lot; there’s a lot of support needed around each other after a trauma.” Ideas that come from within a community and respond to specific needs and circumstances, are more likely to be embraced. This social technology is integral to adapting to climate change. 

a wide shot with lots of beautiful art, slightly warped from the panorama effect
Collaborative artistic responses are part of communicating about climate: Te Au exhibit. (courtesy respective artists)

In her work, Huhana Smith has seen the exact same thing. As an artist, she’s been working collaboratively for decades. She’s been part of groups getting their hands into the whenua, seeing the role of a wetland for themselves. “As people, we need to cohere. It’s something that can’t be done alone.” A crucial part of Smith’s research has been creative, artistic interventions, working with artists from her local community and around the world. 

In different disciplines, art communicates stories about the land; Smith’s work is part of an exhibition currently at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Gallery, demonstrating the use of biochar and the role of stream restoration in different, creative ways. “Art allows sensory, emotional, intuitive understanding,” she says. 

Art and strong social relationships can all help with the hardest part of adapting to climate change: imagining different, more sustainable ways to live. Building huge houses on floodplains, relying on fossil fuels for transport, relying on imported food while sustaining the economy with exported dairy and tourism – all of those won’t be possible in the warming future. “We need to learn to think in terms of wellbeing, not economic advantage,” says Chapman. 

That change is within reach, Smith says. After all, 20 years ago, there was no forest on her land, and now the rākau have roots that go deep, and leaves that stretch high. “This is not business as usual; we have to reimagine how we live,” she says. “We can help humans make better systems.”

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