Coastal hazard risk, compounded by climate change, is escalating. Efforts to address this challenge are fraught and ‘success’ is elusive. We focus on this impasse and recommend ways to improve understanding, reduce risk and enable adaptation. Two Aotearoa New Zealand coastal communities, Mercury Bay and Kennedy Bay, on the Coromandel Peninsula, serve as case studies. Ethnographic fieldwork underpins this analysis. Despite close proximity, local perceptions are ‘worlds apart’. Poor understanding of climate change, and preoccupation with everyday issues, is commonplace. Moreover, there are countervailing community narratives. In Kennedy Bay, which is undeveloped and Māori, climate change is not a manifest concern. Local narratives are rooted in Māori culture and under the shadow of colonization, which shapes contemporary perceptions, practices and prospects. In Mercury Bay, a rapidly developing resort town, seashore property owners demand protection works—ignoring sea-level rise and privileging short-term private interests. Despite laudable regulatory provisions, static responses to dynamic risks prevail and proactive adaptation is absent. Recommendations are made to improve understanding about local cultural-social-ecological characteristics, climate change and adaption. Enabling leadership and capability-building are needed to institutionalize proactive adaptation. Strengthening Māori self-determination (rangatiratanga) and guardianship (kaitiakitanga), and local democracy, are key to mobilizing and sustaining community-based adaptation governance.