Media Releases

Doctors urge Government to catch up to Australia and avoid half measures on climate

With the Government announcing a go-slow on the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), New Zealand’s Climate and Health Council, OraTaiao, is calling on Minister Tim Groser to explain just how the Government will deliver its promised climate pollution cuts.

OraTaiao co-leader, Dr Rhys Jones, asks whether the Government understands the science and urgency of the global climate crisis. Dr Jones explains that the independent UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) review team reported eighteen months ago that New Zealand did not have plans to meet two-thirds of our promised climate emissions cuts. ‘Climate change is the most important global health issue of the 21st century, already causing significant deaths and misery. Watering down the already inadequate Emissions Trading Scheme as announced yesterday only makes this situation worse.’

‘The reality is that we don’t have an effective Emissions Trading Scheme, because prices are capped at what amounts to $12.50 per tonne, about half of the Australian carbon tax’ says Dr Jones. He explains: ‘Taxpayers will bear most of the costs of highly polluting companies who are escalating emissions and mocking the efforts of many New Zealanders to live more sustainably’.

The New Zealand Climate and Health Council calls on the Government to move beyond limiting the climate crisis to a ‘greenie’ issue and face up to the broader implications for New Zealand. It explains that ignoring the threat of climate change will impose enormous social, economic and health costs on current and future generations of New Zealanders. Dr Jones says a large body of research shows that smarter, sustainable lifestyles can lead to significant improvements in health. ‘By subsidising polluters, we forego these opportunities to improve health and wellbeing, while further entrenching a 20th century, fossil fuel-based economy. The changes announced yesterday to our so-called Emissions Trading Scheme are yet another disappointing step backwards for New Zealand’ ends Dr Jones. 


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Saying No to coal in Westport would help restore confidence in our international environmental promises and save hundreds of lives, senior doctors argue

Senior doctors are in Westport today calling for a halt to proposals for new coal mining on the West Coast. Applications by Solid Energy before the West Coast District Council and Buller Regional Council are to open new areas of the Stockton Plateau to open cast coal mining. These doctors represent OraTaiao, the New Zealand Climate & Health Council. They are there to highlight the clear and present dangers of new coal mining to local, national and global health.

“New coal extraction has to be one of the worst things we can do for social, environmental and economic wellbeing as well as going against our international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, says Dr Alex Macmillan, co-founder of the NZ Climate & Health Council. “The WWF report released today highlights our failure as a nation to meet any of our international commitments to the environment over the past two decades. Allowing any new coal mining really makes a mockery to those commitments and supports the WWF claims.”

The International Energy Agency (IEA) last year stated that if fossil fuel infrastructure is not rapidly changed, the world will lose forever the chance to avoid dangerous climate change. “All political parties in New Zealand acknowledge the seriousness of climate change and the need for action to protect the planet from the devastating effects of runaway climate change. Yet the Government is pursuing an aggressive increase in coal mining”, Dr Macmillan says.

“Climate change is the most important public health issue facing us this century. We need to get back to a safe energy balance for the health of today’s people and tomorrow’s”, says Dr Macmillan. “This is possible with concerted effort on the parts of all governments and communities. But the only way we can leave a healthy climate is to rapidly phase out coal extraction and burning.”

Adds Dr Macmillan: “The legal frameworks in New Zealand are failing to protect human health from climate change in this country”. She argues that the combination of weak resource management and an ineffective emissions trading scheme effectively brush the dangers under the carpet during resource consent hearings. “But despite attempts to silence the most important arguments against coal, as doctors our duty to protect the health of their patients, as well as the health of the wider community, is clear.” 


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Government not tackling climate change management says Māori academic

The Public Health Association’s (PHA) annual conference at Lincoln University was told today that developing strategies to manage climate change is one of the most critical issues faced by New Zealand’s public health professionals.

“Climate change is the defining public health issue of the 21st century,” Dr Rhys Jones (Ngti Kahungunu) from the University of Auckland told the conference today.

Global climate change threatens the very foundations of health for human populations. Our health and wellbeing depends on having stable social, cultural and economic conditions, and sustainable natural ecosystems. Climate change will have major adverse effects on all these things”, Dr Jones said.

Examples include unprecedented spread of infectious diseases, a dramatic reduction in global food production, and more natural disasters.

“It’s real and it’s happening. Globally, we are already experiencing more frequent and severe weather events, including extremes of hot and cold, floods and droughts. The effects will become much more serious as the temperature increases.

Dr Jones stressed that action to prevent the worst effects of climate change is urgently required.

“We know exactly what is required to avoid these catastrophic outcomes we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions dramatically and quickly. The longer we leave it the more difficult it will be to stay within safe thresholds.”

Public health professionals have expressed frustration that this critical action is being obstructed by vested interests.

“One of the major problems is that, despite overwhelming scientific consensus, many New Zealanders remain unconvinced about the threat of climate change and the need to act urgently. This is largely due to a formidable public disinformation campaign that seeks to foster doubt in the public mind. Our government therefore lacks the mandate from its citizens to take necessary action.

“As a result, instead of promoting active transport and moving to renewable energy sources, our government is investing heavily in major motorway projects and supporting proposals to extract lignite. These actions encourage increased emissions, the direct opposite of what we know we should be doing.”

Dr Jones argues that public health professionals have an important role to play in confronting the denial industry’.

“We are used to challenging corporate interests that clearly endanger public health – tobacco control is an obvious example. Climate change is an even bigger threat, and we have a responsibility to speak out in order to protect the wellbeing of current and future generations.

[Dr Jones is co-convenor of OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate and Health, an organisation comprising senior doctors and other health professionals concerned about the effects of climate change on population health. The group is part of a worldwide movement of health professional authorities seeking to address the daunting health challenges posed by climate change.]


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Kiwi ‘can do’ at Cancun?

Heart disease is the leading cause of premature death and ill-health for New Zealanders. As health professionals, we take monitoring, advice and treatment very seriously so that our patients can enjoy the best of health. The good news these days is that with healthier lifestyles, early detection and rapid treatment, the outlook is much better for all of us. Early detection of risk factors like smoking and cholesterol have been particularly important, and communicating honestly and transparently about risk factor levels is vital so that people can make the necessary changes to prevent heart disease.

Would we change how we measure cholesterol so individual results look better and changes appear unnecessary? Like measuring the “good” cholesterol (HDL-C) and ignoring the “bad” cholesterol (LDL-C)? Absolutely not. That would be dangerous and unethical. People have the right to accurate information on their health so they can make wise choices that help themselves and their communities.

Right now, the New Zealand government team at the international climate negotiations in Mexico is doing just that. The team is negotiating changes to how greenhouse gas emissions are measured so that New Zealand emissions appear better than they really are, so that it no longer seems necessary to reduce them. This masks the fact that New Zealanders have one of the highest rates of emissions per person in the world, and that our greenhouse gas emissions trends are heading in the wrong direction.

Our transport emissions have increased 70% since we committed to zero emissions growth under the Kyoto agreement; and we have chosen as a nation to rapidly expand our most emissions-intensive export: dairy. Government-funded emissions reduction programmes have been axed starved by public sector funding cuts, and new government funded programmes such as the $8-10 billion national road-building programme and the plan to convert Southland lignite to nitrogenous fertiliser and diesel will further escalate our country’s emissions.

Up until now, emissions-absorbing native and exotic forests (like the good cholesterol) have helped us ignore these climate change “risk factors” (the bad cholesterol). But the moment of overall emissions-health reckoning is looming and it happens to fall just after a major planned exotic forest harvest. So now the government wants to change how we measure the risk factors. Rule changes sought by the government negotiating team would mean allowing us to count exotic forest trees as sinks even after they have been chopped down.

This may seem like a canny economic move for New Zealand in the short term. But on a wider scale, the changes New Zealand is calling for would mean a loophole enabling other countries to destroy native forests and wetlands and increase emissions by 1 billion

tonnes – that is, one tenth of all the world’s emissions per year.

The problem is that the climate is changing and this is the biggest threat to global health and well-being we face. In 2009, Oxfam estimates 10,000 people died from climate- related adverse weather events, and now this has more than doubled by just the first nine months of this year. Like heart disease, we understand the risk factors and need to act now to prevent climate change-related deaths.

Just as the problem with waiting for a heart attack before action is that half of people die immediately dying from one, so with climate change we cannot afford to wait for even more dramatic signs – it might be too late. We must act now to rapidly reduce emissions and get global atmospheric concentrations back down to a safe level.

Understandably, our neighbour Tuvalu, as the one of the first affected nations with rising sea levels compromising water supplies, has been the most critical of New Zealand’s negotiation stance.

Playing around with numbers like this is a blatant refusal to play our part as a global citizen and deal with the atmospheric health crisis the world faces. We also put our nation’s future economic resilience at risk, as we increase our dependence on emissions-generating fossil fuel transport and exports. Ignoring the numbers and the risks is not in the interests of New Zealanders’ future well-being.

New Zealand is well-placed to make a fair contribution to reducing emissions and create a resilient future for New Zealanders. The campaign for 40% emissions reductions of 1990 levels by 2020 (in other words, halving our current emissions over the next decade) is both feasible and would leave New Zealand in much better health. The kinds of changes needed would result in more active lifestyles with less dependence on animal-based food – changes that would make a significant positive impact on health, reducing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Doctors are urging the New Zealand Government to seriously listen to the voices of the New Zealand Youth Delegation currently in Cancun as they speak out against New Zealand’s efforts to ‘cheat’ on emissions measurements. These twelve young Kiwis will be middle- aged when our country has to deal with the impact of emissions decisions being made now. It takes courage to face up to our climate emissions health data, but we can make the changes to create a healthy future for us all.


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‘Healthy Climate, Healthy People’


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