Councils: Are you overcoming these barriers to climate change engagement?

Community engagement is crucial for climate change adaptation, according to Local Government NZ. Yet almost no councils are engaging with communities on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Most are currently “planning to plan”.

In this article, we summarise an excellent webinar series sponsored by LGNZ and facilitated by The Deep South Project and the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability. If your council is wondering how best to approach climate change mitigation and adaptation, this article is here to help. If you want to dive deeper, we do recommend the webinar series which LGNZ has made available on its website.

What are councils saying and doing about climate change?

At the moment, almost no councils are engaging with communities on adaptation yet; most are “planning to plan”.

So what are councils doing?

Most are identifying and managing risks

This is something councils are well set up to do. Councils are structurally and culturally risk averse. They are ruled by the might of the Audit, Finance and Risk Committee. Climate change is another risk councils must manage - with little or no extra funding from central government to enable them to step up their game.

Councils are also providing information and educating communities about the reality

This is also something that councils are often well placed to do. Most councils already have communication channels they can use - whether that’s in the newspaper, through Neighbourly, Facebook or through connections with community organisations.

Is your council hesitant to engage because of these perceived barriers?

What we heard in the webinars is that councils are hesitant to engage. At the very time when residents need their councils to step up and engage with them, councils are hesitating.

And there are many good reasons to hesitate!

In the table below, we set out the barriers discussed in the webinars and the suggested ways forward.

Perceived barriers - and ways forward    Lack of clarity about central vs local govt roles   Engagement with communities can help identify issues that need to be addressed nationally vs locally   Internal confusion within council about roles   Take an integrated approach to engaging with the community so people don’t get mixed messages   Lots of uncertainty about timing and scale of impacts   Being honest about uncertainty builds trust  Communities need to understand uncertainty   Nervous about engaging when solutions aren’t clear   Coming to the table with a pre-determined solution isn’t helpful anyway  Community hold knowledge/skills to help with solutions  Partnering with communities can lead to more creative solutions   Afraid of community opposition or litigation   Early and ongoing engagement builds trust  Communities involved in solutions are less likely to push back   Nervous about financial costs   Early action to build community resilience will reduce costs of impacts   Staff unsure about how to engage   Take a community development approach  Both participation  and  engagement are crucial

Engaging with communities on climate change will require new approaches from councils. Normal consultation processes work reasonably well when you are asking your community to have their say on the design of a new library, a roading layout or a decision about parking meters. But they will not be enough if you are engaging communities on how to prepare for unpredictable weather events.

What are communities saying and doing?

While councils are preparing to engage with communities on climate change, communities have been taking action. And that’s taken many different forms around the country.

The webinars emphasised the importance of remembering that communities are diverse.

Some communities have not been feeling the effects of climate change, while others have been grappling with adaptation for years.

And some communities are well-placed to adapt, while others are not. You need to bear this diverity in mind when engaging with the “community”. Some communities can’t afford preparedness, let alone adaptation. Emergency kits, pumps and insurance are too expensive for some, or simply not a priority with other more pressing concerns in their lives.

How are communities adapting?

Many groups and individuals are concerned and taking action, using their existing strengths and networks:

  • Some are pushing back against unilateral council decisions. In Kapiti, for instance, residents were up in arms about their council’s decision to rezone land.

  • Other are leading their own adaptation initiatives. Consider, for instance, the Ngāi Tahu Climate Change Strategy or the Seniors Climate Action Network.

  • And some are taking individual actions to adapt. This includes actions such as changing fences, redesigning gardens and clearing garage floors.

How can councils work better with community?

Successful adaptation requires long-term relationships

...public participation refers to ‘episodic’ relationships between civil society and government authorities as opposed to public engagement where relationships are ongoing and active...
— Serrao-Neumann, S., Harman, B., Leitch, A., & Low Choy, D. (2015). Public engagement and climate adaptation: insights from three local governments in Australia. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 58, 1196-1216, p 1196

The webinars emphasised the difference between ‘public participation’ and ‘engagement’.

Most councils are familiar with ‘public participation’. This is where they ask residents to have their say on a one-off decision.

Many councils have adopted the Core Values of the The International Association of Public Participation. The first of these Core Values talks about “the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process”. So it’s about a one-off decision. Should we build a swimming pool here? Should we invest in a new dam over here? Yes or no…?

But humanity is struggling to predict the impacts of climate change. Sometimes it won’t be as simple as asking people to decide between Options 1, 2 or 3. And that means councils also need to have ongoing conversations with their communities on:

  1. Emergency response

  2. Building resilience

  3. Planning together for the future.

Both participation and engagement are crucial

That doesn’t mean that councils should throw away their public participation playbook altogether.

Screen Shot 2019-08-22 at 10.11.44 AM.png

Community development approach required

So what does this all mean for councils? Well, the webinars advocated for a community development approach. In English, that means:

  1. Get to know the whole community: You need hard data but also a small team who can take time for conversations and deep engagement.

  2. Be inclusive: Engage with iwi/hapū from the start; work with diverse groups; go talk to people who don’t come to public meetings; create new spaces for conversations.

  3. Be supportive: Co-develop accessible information; fund community workers; support groups already taking action; build new partnerships.

  4. Focus on delivery: Involve community in identifying options and solutions; don’t just focus on adaptation; address inequities; deliver on agreed solutions.

Without a doubt, engaging with communities on climate change is going to be one of the core challenges for councils in the coming decades. Those councils which engage openly and honestly with their communities now will build trust and resilience for climate shocks in the future.