Historically, emergencies have failed to prioritise equity and fairness when the underlying infrastructure to do so isn’t already in place. Internationally, we saw it in the response to Hurricane Katrina, where Black, Indigenous, POC and low-income communities found themselves criminalised by the media and facing a spiralling set of worse health outcomes, unemployment, perilous living conditions and lack of regard for long-term trauma. In the Australian Northern Territory Intervention of 2007, the government, without warning or consultation, sent the military into remote Aboriginal communities to seize Aboriginal land and strip people of their rights.

Here in Aotearoa too, emergencies and their responses typically widen the gaps for communities already disadvantaged, failing to centre the tikanga of tangata whenua and the rights of other marginalised groups. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the legality of iwi-led community checkpoints was unfairly criticised, tangihanga customs were not accounted for in the government’s isolation protocols, and the the Covid-19 Response Bill gave police powers to enter marae and homes without a warrant, despite concerns raised by Māori and Pacific groups who have a coercive and traumatising history of police searches and raids.

It doesn’t need to be this way. If the government had listened to its own Welfare Expert Advisory Group last year and raised core benefits to liveable levels, not to mention paying essential workers a living wage, much of the Covid-19-induced poverty could have been alleviated. Migrants facing a raft of unjust working and living conditions, and barriers to residency, could have been spared much of the compounding burden of Covid-19 if the roots of the power imbalances favouring their employers and private educational institutions had been addressed sooner.

Listening to the lived experience of those needlessly disadvantaged by previous emergencies, we are obliged to ask: how will the formal declaration of a climate emergency be different? We must ensure that good intent to to recognise the imperative for swift climate action doesn’t lead to further oppression by prioritising easy wins, but instead works toward transformational climate justice.

Climate justice means focusing on upholding Te Tiriti o Waitangi at the core of our response to climate change. This isn’t a matter of consulting with iwi and hapū while existing colonial governance structures remain in place. It means giving authority and decision-making power to iwi over the hauora (health) of their land and people. For Indigenous peoples, land is central to wellbeing and identity. This connection is evident in te ao Māori, where land and natural systems are associated with hauora. Through continued environmental degradation, the ongoing impacts of climate change are dismantling the relationship that Māori, and Indigenous peoples globally, have with their land. We need a fundamental re-evaluation of the Crown’s responsibilities and role under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, partnering with iwi and hapū and centring mātauranga Māori in our protection of nature.

Even the world bank reports that Indigenous peoples make up only 6% of the world’s population, covering 22% of the world’s landscape, but home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity. The UN acknowledges that “environmental degradation is ‘less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.” This is an understatement and is no coincidence; destructive extraction and burning of fossil fuels is antithetical to Indigenous governance which understands the relationship between tangata and whenua. It is no coincidence that colonisation has spurred such a catastrophic increase in emissions. Meaningful action on climate must mean reallocating resources and giving land back to iwi and hapū, so they can implement Indigenous-led solutions that we know are effective at fighting climate change.

Climate justice also means a focus on equity and inclusion, so we build infrastructure that dismantles the barriers that marginalised communities face, not add to them. Welcoming micro-mobility devices like e-scooters, while campaigning for them to stay off footpaths to keep children, disabled and older people safe, has been an uphill battle in city after city. In the country’s first National Climate Change risk assessment, disabled people received only a brief, one-line mention, even though disabled-led organisations know their communities and have the expertise to ensure disabled people don’t become an after-thought when resources are scarce. BIPOC, women, rainbow, and disabled people should be at the centre of climate solutions, bringing unique skills and expertise that have been systemically overlooked and marginalised.

Climate justice means a just transition that creates clean, decent jobs where workers are properly valued and treated appropriately. It means planning for the fact that floods, fires and droughts will become more routine and more severe, understanding that building the trust and relationships of coastal communities is a crucial part of giving residents agency in decisions about the future of the places they live and hold dear. Pākehā and tauiwi, as tangata Tiriti, can work to give land and resources back to tangata whenua in a process of becoming better manuhiri who acknowledge and act on the trauma that Pākehā (past and present) have imposed on Māori through colonisation.

A climate emergency declaration will do good only if it means an accelerated path to climate justice. If we acknowledge our colonial history and listen, uplift and resource the structurally oppressed communities whose solutions have been undervalued for too long, we will be headed in the right direction. And we won’t have panicked to get there.

By Áine Kelly-Costello, Kaeden Watts & Adam Currie.