Earth is a dynamic system, made up of four central components known as subsystems – the hydrosphere, geosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. These subsystems are interconnected by processes and cycles like the carbon cycle. Climate is influenced by these cycles, and we are part of these cycles.
The greenhouse gas emissions we create are changing the climate, and the changing climate is affecting us and our wellbeing. We are observing changes to weather patterns and the impacts this has on biodiversity and infrastructure and to our general wellbeing. Understanding these impacts will make us more resilient and help us reduce the risks associated with climate change.
Aotearoa’s natural environment has been shaped by climate. It has influenced the physical environment. Patterns of rainfall have created rivers that have carved valleys and floodplains. Regional climates influence biodiversity – the species of plants and animals that have adapted to life in particular locations.
Warming temperatures can have a direct effect on species. Many of our native fish and macroinvertebrates have adapted to survive in cooler water temperatures, and they struggle to survive in water that is too warm. There are indirect effects too. Predators like possums, stoats and wasps are more common in warmer low-elevation areas. As the climate warms, predators may expand where they live, restricting some native bird and insect species to smaller areas of cooler forest and alpine areas. This would reduce the amount of habitat with the ideal conditions for these species to survive.
Mātauranga and tikanga Māori are impacted as taonga species and resources come under threat from climate change. Sea level rise has the potential to displace iwi and hapū in coastal areas. Kaimoana and mahinga kai may become less plentiful, impacting manaakitanga.
Activities that are part of the Kiwi way of life are impacted. Summer vegetable gardens can be affected by water restrictions in some locations. Activities like fishing and swimming in lakes and rivers are off limits due to increased algal blooms.
Many regions, cities, and towns are currently dealing with impacts of climate change. For example, Wellington had a hot, dry summer in 2017. The ground dried out and put stress on the old and brittle water pipes, causing a number of leaks.
Drought is affecting urban and rural water supplies in some parts of the country, while floods wash out roads and bridges in other regions.
In some places, especially coastal areas that are vulnerable to high tides and sea level rise, insurance cover may become difficult or impossible to acquire, with properties becoming difficult to sell. This leads to ethical questions about who should be responsible for costs to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Primary production is an important part of our country’s economy. Agriculture, horticulture, forestry and viticulture require unique sets of environmental conditions for optimum production. Temperature and rainfall influence where crops and pasture grass grow well. Farmers and growers are having to contend with variable and changing weather conditions. Aquaculture and deep-sea fish stocks are affected by warming oceans and marine heat waves.
Tourism operations are also impacted. Bush tracks and coastal walks suffer damage due to floods and slips. The long-term sustainability of glacier tours is also in danger due to ice loss.
The New Zealand Ministry of Defence has identified climate change as one of the greatest security challenges for the country in the coming decades. It is planning for more humanitarian and disaster relief operations to help our Pacific Island neighbours. Rising sea levels, drought and stronger tropical cyclones will likely cause increased climate-induced migration.
In 2019, the New Zealand Medical Association declared climate change to be a health emergency. This recognises the threats to health from higher temperatures and extreme weather, changing patterns of disease and potential social impacts. Climate change is also impacting our mental health. Many of the concerns outlined in this article have the potential to cause anxiety and depression in people affected by the impacts.
Our wellbeing is enhanced when we feel that we have a say in the systems that govern our day-to-day lives. Throughout Aotearoa, regional councils, cities and towns have declared climate emergencies. Growing number of companies have committed to measuring and limiting their emissions.
Nature of science
Aotearoa’s people have a deep connection to the environment. Mātauranga Māori is valued by our scientific community.
Find out more about the Earth’s systems.
NIWA is working on solutions for effective action on climate change.
The Ministry for the Environment is leading climate change action.
The Ministry of Education's Climate Change Learning Programme is a level 4 programme focused on climate change and includes specific student activities. The wellbeing guide focuses on student wellbeing and hauora when navigating climate change as an area of learning and action. Many of the suggestions are relevant to other learning levels.
See the 2021 report He huringa āhuarangi, he huringa ao: a changing climate, a changing world from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga and Manaaki Whenua providing guidance for Te Ao Māori on climate change adaptation and mitigation.
This resource has been produced with the support of the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ. (c) Crown Copyright.