Seven health professional organisations groups have written an open letter to Jacinda Ardern ahead of COP26, demanding a huge increase in Aotearoa’s international climate contribution. Here Dr George Laking, Aotearoa New Zealand president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, introduces the letter, which runs in full below.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
– HP Lovecraft
From Sunday through to November 12, the United Kingdom hosts the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow.
It’s hard to write positive words on this. The first Conference of the Parties was in 1995, in Berlin. Everything we needed to know about climate change was known at the time. The world could already have its low-carbon future, if only the advice of scientists had been followed.
The 15th Conference of the Parties was in 2009, in Copenhagen. That was the year we formed OraTaiao, the New Zealand Climate and Health Council. Human-induced climate change is the number one threat to health this century. Many people are used to thinking of health as cancer and other chronic conditions. But the things that truly decide health are such basic matters as a food supply and political stability, that in turn depend on the environment.
That was also the year of so-called “Climategate”, the sham attack on integrity of scientists based on out-of-context quoting of hacked emails. At the time I wrote “although some climate change sceptics are just plain contrarian, most turn out to have a stake in fossil fuels. This includes the oil and coal industries, and in New Zealand, fossil-fuelled agriculture and transport”. Such powerful interests continue to control our politics, despite all the rhetoric of a Labour-Greens coalition. Our middling status on such scales as the Climate Change Performance Index makes this obvious for any to see. We sit at 28 in a field of 58, where no one scores very highly.
What is there to hold us back? I see mainly fear, and a failure of imagination in many of our leaders. Acumen in business depends on vision and self-confidence – qualities that our legacy economic systems seem to suck from the mind.
Things had seemed to improve a little with the resolutions from COP21 in Paris in 2015. But then the US lost its collective mind for a presidency. And then along came Covid, to remind us all of the relevance of health.
So starting this Halloween, New Zealand has a 26th chance. OraTaiao and six leading health organisations, including my own College of Physicians, have written a letter to the prime minister and the climate change minister. We urge Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw to significantly step up Aotearoa’s climate contribution, to limit global warming within 1.5 degrees. Health and wellbeing must be at the heart of our climate response. Health gains will help fund a strong response. Aotearoa must proactively place Indigenous and marginalised voices at the centre of COP26. Aotearoa’s new contribution must be ten times more than our 2016 contribution.
The trick will be if we can dispel our business and political timidity. The treat will be that our children and grandchildren have a liveable future. Aotearoa New Zealand, please can we avoid a 27th Halloween sequel.
Open letter from OraTaiao, the New Zealand Climate and Health Council, to the prime minister
Tēnā koe Rt Hon Ardern,
OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate & Health Council, the College of Nurses Aotearoa, New Zealand Nurses Organisation, New Zealand Medical Association, Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and New Zealand Society of Anaesthetists welcome climate minister Shaw’s in-person attendance at the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow this November. This is the crucial chance to significantly strengthen Aotearoa’s international climate contribution, build on the Climate Change Commission’s recent advice, and keep the capacity to limit global warming within a humanly adaptable 1.5 degrees.
Our three recommendations below let Aotearoa lead at last with a healthy fair climate response:
1. Health and wellbeing must be at the heart of our climate response
• The UN Declaration on Human Rights recognises the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and hauora is guaranteed to all citizens as a taonga under te Tiriti o Waitangi.
• We strongly support the recent editorial simultaneously published in over 200 medical journals worldwide, which highlights that climate change is a health crisis that will dwarf Covid-19 in the years to come.
• The WHO Manifesto on a healthy and green recovery from Covid-19 gives a six-point plan for urgent climate action. This will be added to with a WHO COP26 Special Report which will be a focal point of the conference and highlight the health benefits of climate change action.
• Modelling published in The Lancet Planetary Health this year demonstrates that health-centred NDCs can increase ambition and realise substantial health co-benefits. NDC health co-benefits till 2040 were modelled for nine representative nations with half the world’s population, three-quarters of global emissions, and key global or regional influence. Here in Aotearoa, our stretched health sector takes up one-fifth of government spending.
2. Aotearoa must proactively place Indigenous and marginalised voices at the centre of COP26
• This is particularly important this year as the Covid-19 pandemic and inequitable vaccination access has created major difficulties for representatives from poorer nations to travel.
• We must acknowledge both our own Indigenous voices from ngā iwi Māori and our position in the wider Pacific community, and centre these voices in all negotiations.
3. Aotearoa’s new contribution must be 10 times more than our 2016 contribution
• Our new nationally determined contribution (NDC) must take full account of our historical cumulative emissions, our privilege as a wealthy country with the resources to make the necessary changes, and our position in the wider Pacific community.
• We urge a 10-fold increase as Aotearoa’s fair share contribution (as outlined in OraTaiao’s Climate Change Commission submission, this means 117-133% cuts in 1990 levels by 2030).
• This increase means prioritising accelerated domestic decarbonisation and strong methane cuts, through Tiriti partnership and just transitions, and including health-centred climate policies that self-fund in health gains and health sector savings.
• The balance of our better contribution must be also significantly more climate finance, real support for developing nations’ loss and damage claims, sharing emissions cuts expertise, and minimal offshore emissions credits as costs inevitably soar.
• We urge our government to signal the overall direction of Aotearoa’s delayed Emission Reduction Plan (ERP) by signing the Global Methane Pledge (to cut global methane by at least 30% of 2020 levels by 2030) prior to COP26, plus committing to enforceable climate
protection in all our trade agreements.
The difficulties encountered with COP25 and the time lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic amplify this November’s crucial global Conference of the Parties. We no longer have the luxury of time to allow for a weak response. 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.
Nāku noa, nā
Dr Dermot Coffey, Co-convenor, OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate & Health Council
Dr George Laking, Aotearoa New Zealand President of The Royal Australasian College of Physicians
Dr Sheila Hart, President, New Zealand Society of Anaesthetists
Professor Jenny Carryer CNZM, Executive Director, College of Nurses Aotearoa (NZ) Inc
Dr John Bonning, President, Australasian College for Emergency Medicine
Mairi Lucas, Acting Chief Executive, New Zealand Nurses Organisation Tōpūtanga Tapuhi Kaitiaki o Aotearoa
Dr Alistair Humphrey, Chair, New Zealand Medical Association