The Government is being urged to heed health advice on climate change, as it did with Covid. David Williams reports

On March 23 last year, a grim-faced Jacinda Ardern told the country the trajectory of Covid-19 was clear, and it was time to act.

With two mystery cases in the community, if the virus was allowed to spread unchecked modelling suggested tens of thousands of people would die.

“Together, we must stop that happening, and we can,” the Prime Minister said, announcing a nationwide lockdown within 48 hours.

New measures would slow the virus, prevent the health system being overwhelmed, and save lives. And while the moves would cause unprecedented economic and social disruption, Ardern declared: “They are necessary.”

Even now, as the Government drops its elimination strategy and readies the country for suppression, with vaccine mandates and a 90 percent target, last year’s bold call has left New Zealand with relatively few Covid deaths and a reasonably strong economy. (Only last week, Ardern again called the response “world-leading”.)

Now, a group of health professional organisations is telling the Prime Minister the trajectory of climate change is clear and it’s time to act.

“We are concerned that, going into COP26, New Zealand’s response and commitments thus far have been inadequate,” says Dr Dermot Coffey, a Christchurch GP who is co-convenor of OraTaiao, the Climate & Health Council.

“As a health crisis, climate change absolutely dwarfs Covid – even the absolute worst-case scenario for Covid is a fraction of what climate change will cause.”

OraTaiao and six other health bodies – The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Society of Anaesthetists, College of Nurses, Australian College of Emergency Medicine, NZ Nurses Organisation, and the Medical Association – have written to Ardern to express their concerns.

They’re calling for more urgent action and for the country to put health and wellbeing, and indigenous and marginalised voices, at the centre of its response.

“We no longer have the luxury of time to allow for a weak response,” the letter says. “Aotearoa must step up as a climate leader (not laggard), strengthen our contribution 10-fold, and place human health and equity at the heart of our climate response.”

Pressure from health bodies adds a different dimension to calls for the Government to act more quickly – especially as the Covid crisis continues.

Jacinda Ardern has been praised internationally as a master communicator, but when will she bring her formidable skills to bear on climate? Pool photo: Mark Mitchell

Last month, an editorial in more than 200 health journals worldwide, calling for greater action, spelled out the health risks of temperature increases above 1.5°C.

Heat-related mortality among people aged over 65 has increased by more than 50 percent over the past 20 years. “Higher temperatures have brought increased dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality,” the editorial said, while adding harm disproportionately affects the most vulnerable, including children.

Governments around the world have promised to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement, but scientific analyses suggests it’s not enough to rein in temperature rises, which usher in more intense storms, drought and floods, as well as bush fires and sea level rise.

New Zealand’s promises to date – which will be updated by Climate Change Minister James Shaw at the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow, starting on Sunday – are woeful, and viewed dimly by other countries.

While last week, Shaw announced the Government was quadrupling its climate-related international aid to $1.3 billion, it has delayed the release of its emissions reduction plan by five months, and issued a lacklustre consultation document.

The world will be watching Glasgow.

And with New Zealand’s emissions rising 26 percent since 1990, one of the largest increases by a developed country, the country risks tarnishing its international reputation.

Coffey, of OraTaiao, says the Government has used “nice-sounding words” but done the bare minimum. “Until our actual emissions start coming down, they deserve no thanks – in fact, they just deserve criticism.”

“It’s important for our government to start looking beyond our own shores, and think about, OK, how can we help these people?” – Tord Kjellstrom

Surprisingly, there’s a concentration of global experts on health and climate at the top of the South Island.

The Health and Environment International Trust, based at Mapua, just out of Nelson, has launched the ClimateCHIP website to allow people around the world to see how climate change affects their area already – and how that might change in the future.

The trust’s team leader Tord Kjellstrom is an experienced scientist, who spent eight years at the World Health Organisation, and is a former professor at the University of Auckland. For the last 20 years he’s been researching the direct heat exposure effects of climate change.

Kjellstrom and colleagues Matthias Otto and Bruno Lemke contributed to the Lancet countdown report, published last week. The report says: “Even with overwhelming evidence on the health impacts of climate change, countries are not delivering an adaptation response proportionate to the rising risks their populations face.”

New Zealand will be one of the countries least affected by the climate change by dint of its location, Kjellstrom says. The worst affected will be those in the tropics, including Pacific Island countries.

But that doesn’t make New Zealand immune to combating climate change, Kjellstrom says. In this interconnected world, increasing temperatures will affect agricultural and construction workers, in particular. Also, the millions of people producing our shoes, our clothes, our furniture.

“Most of them don’t have air conditioning and are working in extremely hot conditions. It will be more and more difficult for these people to actually carry out their daily work.”

Last year tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record, and the past seven years have been the hottest seven years recorded. Since the start of the industrial era, the world is estimated to have warmed 1.2°C.

Concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are now 50 percent higher than in 1850.

The Lancet report says last year’s record-tying temperatures resulted in 3.1 billion more “person-days” of heatwave exposure among people older than 65, and 626 million more person-days affecting children under the age of 1.

Lost work hours reached 295 billion last year, with almost half affecting agricultural workers in countries with low-to-medium standards of living.

Kjellstrom, a Swede who has lived in New Zealand since 1976 (and is now a citizen), says: “It’s important for our government to start looking beyond our own shores, and think about, OK, how can we help these people to be protected?”

Delving into the detail

What do health-centred climate policies mean for New Zealand?

Coffey, of OraTaiao, says eating less red meat, something recommended by the Heart Foundation, is healthier for people but might also lead to less groundwater pollution and fewer methane emissions.

“In New Zealand, these diets are more expensive than the average diet. That is a problem.”

Shifting people out of their internal combustion engine cars and onto public transport, or walking and cycling, is another health benefit with a climate gain tacked on. (Coffey says electric cars still pollute because of tyre wear and brake pads.)

Hundreds of deaths a year are linked to air pollution, a significant proportion from vehicle emissions. That’s not to mention the environmental effects.

“If health was put at the forefront there, there’d be much emphasis and there’d be really clear guidelines and targets that are put in place for mode shift, so shifting from private car transport to active and public transport,” Coffey says. “And they would be ambitious but achievable – these are not things that haven’t been done in other countries.”

One of risks with climate change is the response could potentially widen society’s existing inequalities.

Going back to electric vehicles, Coffey says a thoughtless response would leave poorer people with worthless petrol cars they can’t sell and, with petrol stations closing down around them, find it difficult to fill up.

This will also be the case when managed retreat is required in certain parts of country affected by sea level rise. Marae are extremely vulnerable to rising seas.

“When we speak about inequality, we have to speak about Māori inequality, vulnerability, and the fact that many of the groups that will be most negatively affected will be rural Māori groups, as well as urban Māori groups.”

Climate talks often result in developed countries imposing changes on developing countries, he says. “New Zealand has an opportunity, and really has an obligation, to bring forward our own indigenous voice and to use that to guide the process within COP.”

Status quo is not an option

Many people watching Glasgow will focus on the numbers, including New Zealand’s nationally determined contribution for cutting greenhouse gas emissions – a 30 percent cut on 2005 levels by 2030.

In its letter to the Prime Minister (which will be responded to by Shaw’s office), OraTaiao suggests the country’s cuts should be far, far deeper – 117-133 percent on 1990 levels by 2030. Such drastic cuts, based on an Oxfam report from last year, take into account “our historical cumulative emissions, our privilege as a wealthy country … and our position in the wider Pacific community”.

Reductions of more than 100 percent will require some international action to get carbon credits, but Coffey maintains they’re achievable.

If adopted, cuts that deep would face huge resistance, including from the agricultural sector, which is lobbying hard over methane emissions.

Coffey says putting all our economic eggs in one basket has left the country vulnerable. Until Covid hit, our two biggest exports were long-haul international tourism, and agriculture. (To be fair, the latter is going gangbusters.)

“We’ve seen what happened with tourism – it would be foolish to expect that to return to pre-Covid conditions anytime soon. And the risk would be that a similar situation could transpire with agriculture. There are different arguments about it but it is going to be absolutely essential to make cuts within our agricultural emissions.”

Change is coming, Coffey says. It’ll be up to industries to move or have changes imposed on them by climate change.

“We don’t see why New Zealand should not be taking the lead on this and actually making some decent cuts, because it would put the country in a hugely advantageous position in terms of marketing our products overseas, and actually shoring up and protecting the agricultural industry and the livelihoods that are within it.”

In 2018, Kjellstrom, of Mapua’s Health and Environment International Trust, sent a letter to Climate Change Minister Shaw suggesting another way this country could lead. We could pay our researchers to analyse the costs of higher temperatures in larger countries in the hope they’ll move faster in reducing their much bigger pool of emissions.

“My research team is currently working with Chinese economists to calculate the impact of the increasing heat on the Chinese workforce, and how much this will cost China,” he says.

“If you then compare that with the cost of converting coal-powered electricity stations faster to alternative and sustainable energy sources instead of coal, the savings are so large from the impact on people that it basically pays for the conversions.”

In gross terms, China’s emissions are roughly 150 times that of New Zealand’s – 12,400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent compared to 83.2 Mt CO2e.

Think about it. Pen a report that leads to a 1 percent drop in China, and that would reduce worldwide emissions by more than New Zealand’s entire greenhouse gas tally.

Kjellstrom says the cost of his trust’s research is covered by a close collaboration with scientists in Singapore.

“I’m not talking about getting money for myself. I’m talking about the principle of using scientific reports as a very important influential tool in getting the big countries to go faster in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions – that’s what will save us in New Zealand.”

Using the Covid response as a template, Ardern’s Government has proven it can react quickly to a large international crisis by following the scientific advice for the good of the team of five million. Can it find a similar line on the climate, by extolling the benefits of taking action rather than framing it as a series of sacrifices; of hardships to endure as we change the way we live?

New Zealand might yet inspire larger countries to take greater action on climate change – and that will help everyone.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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