Monday 21st March 2016
Participants in today’s direct climate change action outside the Petroleum New Zealand conference at Sky City will no doubt be labelled radicals and worse. But they are a group of careful individuals with legitimate concerns. Among them are individual health professionals whose job it is to treat the sick as well as to act on the underlying causes of illness and death.
Most of the time, that action takes institutionally acceptable forms. We spend much of our time communicating with patients and the public about risks to our health, as well as attempting to improve public policy for health by generating convincing evidence, providing advice, and taking part in democratic policy-making processes.
But there are rare occasions when our professional ethics demand we go further. Climate change is now one of them. It’s now more than a quarter century since industry and governments have known about the relationship between burning fossil fuels and the existential threat climate change poses to humans and other species. Continued inaction globally, including in New Zealand, has meant we may already have passed some dangerous thresholds – last month blew global temperature records out of the water. To protect health globally (including here) we must now leave 80% of the fossil fuel reserves we already know about in the ground, safely unburnt.
Optimistically, all governments, including our own, signed up to the Paris Agreement in December, promising to eliminate our greenhouse pollution as rapidly as possible to protect human health and address the right to survival of many island states. Then our negotiators came home and our government continued with business as usual. This includes continuing to court the fossil fuel industry, encouraging and supporting them to explore for new reserves of oil, coal and gas in New Zealand. These are radical and dangerous actions, acknowledged widely to be incompatible with future human wellbeing.
Like the threat of nuclear war and the world’s collusion with apartheid in previous decades, climate change is an issue that combines a real, present and urgent threat to health and survival, coupled with knowing inaction and radically harmful government and industry activities. Legitimate concerns across the whole spectrum of society have long gone unheeded, making climate change a justifiable issue for peaceful direct action by affected communities, including by health professionals.
Media Spokesperson: Dr Alex Macmillan, Mob. 021 322 625
Alex Macmillan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Public Health Physician and Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago and Co-Convenor of OraTaiao: The New Zealand Climate and Health Council.
OraTaiao: NZ Climate & Health Council is a growing movement of doctors, nurses and other practicing health professionals in New Zealand who recognise climate change as the one of the most important threats to population health facing us, and who also know that strong, well-designed action on climate change can protect health while providing an exciting opportunity for improving health and fairness. Our Health Call to Action is backed by 12 of New Zealand’s leading health professional organisations, including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the NZ Medical Association and the NZ Nurses Organisation.
Information about climate change and health in New Zealand is available in the following open access paper from the 2014 NZ Medical Journal:
Health and equity impacts of climate change in Aotearoa-New Zealand, and health gains from climate action
A new report summarising why COP21 is important to health from the Global Climate and Health Alliance:
Health and climate at COP21 and beyond