Op Ed in NZ Doctor, 12 October 2023: Throwing fuel at the bonfire no substitute for climate action

Op Ed in NZ Doctor, 12 October 2023: Throwing fuel at the bonfire no substitute for climate action

The piling up of threat upon threat as global warming accelerates is not matched by political will to reduce and mitigate climate change effects, writes OraTaiao Co-convenor Dermot Coffey in New Zealand Doctor Rata Aotearoa. We are grateful for permission to now republish his op-ed here. 

Throwing fuel at the bonfire no substitute for climate action

outdoor burnoff
One leader has thrown policies on a bonfire and another is welcoming fossil fuel exploration in New Zealand waters [Image: Chuttersnap on Unsplash]


It has been a dispiriting time for climate and health advocacy in Aotearoa.

On one hand, our national emissions have shown an ongoing drop from 2019, with that year likely to be the peak emission year for the country.

However, the drop is far too slow at present to achieve our intermediate climate targets in 2030 as we move towards an overall target of a zero-carbon country by 2050.

Our government’s Emissions Reduction Plan and National Adaptation Plans are nearly devoid of any consideration of the health risks from climate change and the health (and health economic) benefits from well-designed climate action. Antarctic winter sea-ice is at all-time recorded lows, and this summer’s El Niño will almost certainly make 2023 the hottest recorded year ever…so far.

Global shocks like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and cost-of-living increases have shifted media and political attention here away from climate change. Climate disasters such as the flooding in Auckland and on the East Coast this year were again treated as mostly one-off incidents rather than examples of what will become more and more frequent in years to come.

Prime minister Chris Hipkins’ “policy bonfire” earlier this year included many of the already-insufficient policies Labour had brought in over the past three years. The International Energy Agency, hardly an organisation at the forefront of environmental protection over the years, has highlighted in the past month how quickly a switch to renewable energy production is happening internationally, and that further development of gas and oil fields is not necessary. And yet, we have our main opposition party, National under leader Christopher Luxon, looking to reopen and expand fossil fuel exploration in New Zealand waters.

Climate change missing from campaigns

As I write this, we are two days away from Election Day, and this election campaign has been a perfect example of the lack of political leadership on climate in New Zealand. The flatness of the overall campaign aside, what has been remarkable has been the utter lack of discussion of climate change throughout. With the occasional exception of the Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, no politician has made any attempt to express a vision of what a low-carbon New Zealand could look like.

However, the absolute low point came during the first leaders’ debate on TVNZ when both Chrises used recycling as an example of how they are personally taking on the climate challenge. As worthy as recycling is, it’s a well-worn truism that anyone using it as an example of an effective climate-mitigation tool is woefully ignorant of how important it actually is. Recycling ranks about 60th among changing consumption options for mitigating climate change. That our next PM, whoever he is, doesn’t understand this, is a terrible indictment of their party’s climate ambition. Blame must lie in part with our media, who have simply not asked the necessary climate questions, and allowed weak answers like the recycling example to pass unchallenged.

It's much more serious than we’re told

Political leaders who portray a climate-secure future as essentially the same as how we live today, but with electric cars instead of internal-combustion engines, are doing the country and the voters a huge disservice.

Addressing the sources and causes of climate change in New Zealand – cows, cars, coal and colonisation – will not be achieved without major societal changes. Internationally, our trading partners are moving much more rapidly, and the vulnerability of a country whose export income is dependent on dairy food, beef and lamb and long-haul international tourism hardly needs to be stated. Nestlé, of all companies, is seeking to reduce the emissions that originate in their providers’ activities and have expressed dissatisfaction with Fonterra’s greenwashed climate mitigation attempts. We can expect much more of this in future. New Zealand should be an absolute world leader in low-carbon and sustainable food production, yet our political response has been to seek to uphold the farming status quo.

‘What can I, myself, do?’

A question that is continually asked at talks and conferences around the topic of health, healthcare and climate change is, “What can I, myself, do?” For some people this arises from the frustration of inactivity and lack of agency in the face of a vast and overwhelming issue and the apparent intransigence of our politicians. Of course, there is no one simple answer. The effects of climate change and our efforts to mitigate it and adapt to it will fundamentally change society and our economy from the base. The only question will be how much of that change is imposed by climate change itself, and how much will be due to our own efforts. To start with, however, maybe we should fall back on the old medical cliché, “First, do no harm.”

An example I use frequently is that of the Christchurch Charity Hospital, which has consistently opposed plans for a safe cycleway on the road outside it. The hospital’s concerns include loss of on-street parking and “congestion” (private vehicle congestion). This opposition has extended to threats of legal action against the city council. This attempt to prioritise private car use over safe, healthy, low-emission active transport is deeply inappropriate from a healthcare provider.

Our ethical obligation

Our role as health providers does not stop in the consultation room or the operating theatre, and we have an ethical obligation to advocate for a healthy and sustainable climate.

WHO has called this year’s international COP28 conference at the end of November and beginning of December a “health COP”. The event gives a fantastic opportunity for the importance of health to be brought to the fore, both from the point of view of health risks and health improvement opportunities, and within climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience-development. We expect our new government to prioritise this and ensure the New Zealand delegation to COP28 has appropriate health representation and expertise.

Dermot Coffey is a Christchurch-based specialist GP and co-convenor of Ora Taiao – New Zealand Climate and Health Council

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