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Health professionals condemn government bailout of Solid Energy

Health professionals are highly critical of the recent move by the New Zealand government to bail out Solid Energy. The bailout involves a direct cash injection of $25 million of taxpayer money and another $130 million in loans.

“It is counterproductive for health and social goals, as well as representing extremely poor economic management”, claims Dr Rhys Jones from OraTaiao: The New Zealand Climate and Health Council.

“Climate change is the number one threat to public health in the 21st century”, says Dr Jones. “In order to avoid the worst effects, we need to dramatically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. This requires us to leave the overwhelming majority of known fossil fuel reserves, including coal, in the ground.”

Dr Jones continues: “What this means is that the writing is on the wall for coal, and that the future lies in renewable energy any other scenario spells disaster for humanity. Countries that become leaders in clean energy technology will prosper, while those that cling to outdated fossil fuel-based economies will fail. The current New Zealand government insists on taking us down the latter path, which is economically irresponsible, if not suicidal.”

“The bailout is the exact opposite of what the government should be doing to achieve health, social and environmental goals”, argues Dr Jones. “Burning fossil fuels, particularly coal, results in serious risks to human health. On the other hand, actions to reduce emissions and promote low carbon lifestyles can have enormous gains for health and wellbeing.”

The bailout decision comes just days after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest scientific consensus report. The report highlighted, with even greater certainty than before, the threat of climate change, and reiterated the urgent need for substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Despite the clarity and magnitude of the threat of climate change, the New Zealand government has failed to take appropriate action” says Dr Jones. “This bailout represents yet another attempt to bury our heads in the sand and continue with a doomed business-as-usual model.”

Dr Jones believes that rather than subsidising fossil fuel exploitation, the government should be investing in forward-looking economic development. “Global investment in new renewable energy is already overtaking investment in fossil fuels and nuclear combined. The technology is here now, we can do this easily we just have to make the right choices. Reliance on coal mining is not what towns like those on the West Coast need. What is needed is investment in a resilient economic future.”

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Another step towards a healthier climate

Doctors are praising the Biodiversity Defence Society’s legal steps yesterday to stop another new coal mine. The Biodiversity Defence Society filed declaration proceedings with the Environment Court on Wednesday, arguing that Solid Energy no longer holds resource consents for its Cypress Mine. The resource consents for the mine gained in 2005 were due to expire at the end of 2012 if mining activity had not begun. Seven years later only a road has been built.

Dr Russell Tregonning from OraTaiao: The New Zealand Climate and Health Council, says ‘For the sake of our health, we need to overcome our addiction to fossil fuels, and that includes not opening new coal mines. Every tonne of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere makes our future that much harder to manage’.

This step to declare the Cypress Mine consent as lapsed coincides with Bill McKibben’s tour of New Zealand this week. Bill McKibben is one of the world's most respected speakers and activists on climate change, and co-founder of global movement 350.org. His message ‘Do The Math’ makes it very clear that we need to emit less than 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide to stay within two degrees of global warming. Existing fossil fuel reserves are more than five times that. In other words, we need to leave at least 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to avoid the most serious effects of climate change.

International organisations including the World Bank, PriceWaterHouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency have already warned us we’re on track for 3-4°C warming - the time to act is now. New Zealand’s economy is heavily dependent on our natural environment and we simply can’t afford to open up new coal mines, nor permit oil exploration.

‘For the sake of our health and our economy, New Zealand needs a just transition away from carbon- intensive coal mining’ says Dr Tregonning. The Climate and Health Council calls upon local and central government to support the West Coast to move away from coal mining. ‘The Coast needs healthier choices for employment, not a boom-and-bust industry that’s destroying the safe environment we all depend on’ says Dr Tregonning.

The lapsing of Solid Energy’s Cypress Mine resource consent is another step towards a healthier future without coal dependence.

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Doctors Welcome Decision On Treacherous Temperature Case

The New Zealand Climate and Health Council welcomes Justice Geoffrey Venning's rejection of the New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust's (NZCSET) case against the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

Spokesperson Dr George Laking says the medical profession recognises human-induced climate change as the number one threat to health this century. Health risks of climate change start with injury from heatwaves and storms, more tropical illnesses, and ultimately threaten collapse of food supplies and political insecurity from crop failure, coastal inundation and ocean acidification. Global food prices are already rising with the extreme drought affecting half of the United States.

"Yet it has been incredibly frustrating for us as medical scientists to see political action on climate change repeatedly obstructed by groups such as the NZ Climate Science Coalition and their wealthy backers, apologists for the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel and mining industry."

Dr Laking says climate sceptics have pretended there is scientific doubt where it does not exist. “They are no different from tobacco company executives, who as recently as 1994 testified that “nicotine is not addictive”.

Ironically, NZCSET is part of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, which links with Big Tobacco. Tobacco giant Philip Morris funds the Heartland Institute in the United States, which funds climate deniers worldwide – including the NZ Climate Science Coalition. “Having tried to confuse and deny the evidence with tobacco, they are now doing the same for our destabilising climate, through people like the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition. Still peddling lies that kill, they are delaying action essential to protect human health”, says Dr Laking.

The artificial climate of pseudoscepticism has made it very hard for the New Zealand public to understand how urgently we must move to a low carbon economy. Yet there are real health gains from low carbon measures including sustainable transport and local production of food and renewable energy.

"It is our responsibility to decarbonise the economy right now" ends Dr Laking. "The technologies already exist. We owe it to the health of current and future generations. New Zealanders should see Justice Venning's ruling as a wake-up call, and not be lulled into complacency by the fossil fuel industry and its helpers".

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BERL’s healthy Southland vision welcomed by doctors

Doctors have welcomed a report released yesterday on how Southland can grow good jobs without destroying the climate.

NZ Climate & Health Council spokesperson Dr Scott Metcalfe says “The ‘View to the South’ report, by leading economics consultancy firm BERL, is a healthy vision for Southland’s future. This is welcome news because our future health and survival depends on greenhouse gas emissions reductions to protect our climate.”

BERL’s report outlines diverse growth areas of forestry, engineering, education and horticulture/crops creating more than three thousand new jobs. These draw on Southland’s tried- and-true strengths and give healthy reasons for young Southlanders to stay. Forestry expansion is the biggest suggested job generator, soaking up carbon emissions and potentially building renewable energy independence.

OraTaiao: The New Zealand Climate and Health Council are senior doctors and other health professionals concerned with climate change as a serious public health threat, and say that New Zealand needs to rapidly reduce its lethal greenhouse gas emissions. The Council, alongside world health authorities, states that climate change’s impact on health and health services is the leading risk to global health this century. The burning of fossil fuels, including the risk of mining Southland’s vast reserves of dirty lignite, is the main cause of this health crisis.

“Meeting our international responsibilities to addressing climate change means rapidly moving to a low carbon economy. Doing so can have sizeable health and economic gains by reducing major diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as create a fairer society”, says Dr Metcalfe. “Keeping new coal and lignite in the ground is vital to this transition”.

In contrast to BERL’s report, ailing state-owned company Solid Energy threatens to mine and process Southland’s lignite. Southland has about 3.5 billion tonnes of this low energy, low value form of coal. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has warned that mining Southland’s lignite means greenhouse gases equal to about 70 years of New Zealand’s current emissions. “This completely undermines everyone else’s efforts to reduce emissions”, says Dr Metcalfe.

“Our farming and fisheries exports also rely on slowing the changing climate and acidifying ocean. This means leaving lignite deposits in the ground.”

Dr Metcalfe concludes: “BERL’s report confirms Southland’s natural advantages as a valuable food basket and generator of renewable energy. We support Southlanders in choosing a future that is rich in jobs, healthy and hopeful for everyone.”

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Doctors call for investment in real cycling facilities

OraTaiao: The New Zealand Climate and Health Council is calling on Councils to create real cycling facilities on key commuter routes. Yesterday’s coroner’s inquest into the tragic death of British nurse Jane Bishop on Tamaki Drive highlighted the dangerous infrastructure widespread in our cities.

Whether or not the crash investigators decide that the road layout at the site of Jane Bishop’s death contributed to her death, the road layout in all New Zealand cities increases the risk of cycling death and injury every day. Successive national and local governments have failed to acknowledge the important and legitimate role of cycling as a mode of travel. They have also failed to create an environment that is safe, based on accepted international best practice.

Inadequate investment in cycling and poorly developed cycling infrastructure continues despite the well-documented health gains from cycling. “Creating environments that encourage safe everyday cycling in cities is one of the important steps local governments can take to address climate change while benefiting health”, says Dr Macmillan. She adds: “As well as building healthy exercise back into people’s lives it is also a very low cost form of transport, which helps create a fairer society.”

The spoiler is New Zealand’s shameful cyclist injury rate – which is currently the subject of the joint coroner’ inquiry being held around the country.

“Jane Bishop’s tragic death was not an ‘accident’, brought on by unfortunate circumstances, as argued at the hearing”, she said. Nor was it confined to a case of personal error, as was also argued. Her death was preventable, like all the deaths being investigated in this inquiry.”

“The bottom line”, says Dr Macmillan “is that we need a significant investment in safe road design and cycle facilities now, and that issues such as high visibility clothing and cyclist education are peripheral.”

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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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