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Youth strikers gather in  London to protest against the government’s lack of action on the climate crisis (Photo: Getty Images)
Youth strikers gather in London to protest against the government’s lack of action on the climate crisis (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyAugust 24, 2020

Covid is not just a disease – it’s a symptom of the global environment crisis

Youth strikers gather in  London to protest against the government’s lack of action on the climate crisis (Photo: Getty Images)
Youth strikers gather in London to protest against the government’s lack of action on the climate crisis (Photo: Getty Images)

We must not squander this wake-up call. We must take action now to avert a climate catastrophe, write Dr Mike Joy and Dr Catherine Knight of the Better Futures Forum.

Many New Zealanders will likely be feeling very uneasy about the resurgence of the coronavirus in our community. Just when we thought we were out of the woods, the threat of this pandemic is again very real. But as a colleague of ours recently quipped, “We are not out of the woods, because we have destroyed all the woods!” Because at the root of the pandemic is the unprecedented destruction of indigenous forests, rapid urbanisation and population growth, bringing wildlife and human activities into constant and dangerous proximity and making wildlife-to-human transmission of new diseases increasingly likely.

We have been warned repeatedly that the Covid pandemic, like climate change, the global biodiversity catastrophe and many other ecological and social crises, are all symptoms of our exceedance of planetary boundaries. The tens of thousands of scientists in the Alliance of World Scientists couldn’t have made it more explicit with their blunt admonition: “If the world doesn’t act soon, there will be catastrophic biodiversity loss and untold amounts of human misery”. Well-respected UK environmentalist and author Sir Jonathan Porritt, who has spent much of his life cajoling politicians and industry leaders to take action to the protect the environment, is now warning that the window of opportunity to avert humankind from catastrophic climate change is fast closing; he says the time for polite persuasion is over – civil disobedience may be the only means to spur our political leaders into action quickly enough.

From the August 2020 National Climate Change Risk Assessment, an infographic showing the effects of climate change on New Zealand – many of which are now unavoidable (Image: Ministry for the Environment)

Right now the Covid pandemic is foremost in everyone’s minds, but it is crucial we realise that as bad as it seems now, Covid is just a gentle warning. Much worse will come if we fail to heed this warning and make fundamental changes in the way we live. The pandemic is just one facet of a wicked set of problems all potentially devastating but with a common cause. All these converging crises stem from humankind having gone through a period of unprecedented growth powered by a one-off fossil fuel bonanza, based on the false conviction that we can have limitless growth. We have outstripped all the natural limits, and for many reasons this will not and cannot continue. We either accept this and manage the change, or it will be forced on us in with more ecological disasters and pandemics.

The Better Futures Forum was founded earlier this year, just as the country was grappling with the unprecedented experience of lock-down. For the first time in many New Zealanders’ lives, we experienced overnight how different life could be. We saw the opportunity – to not go back to “normal” after the crisis was over. Some may accuse us of being radical in our quest for fundamental change. But we would argue the contrary; it is the way we are currently living – our over-consumption of non-renewable resources and our huge ecological and energy footprints – that is radical, but not in a good way.

We don’t want to return to the “old normal” – we want to prosper in a world where we live within planetary boundaries and working to restore the damage of the past. This cannot be achieved by small, incremental changes. We need fundamental, system-wide change in the way we live and interact with the world. Our manifesto sets out how we must act immediately to transition to a climate-neutral, zero waste economy, in which our land, water and oceans are protected and restored. We must create an equitable society that prioritises wellbeing over monetary wealth. We make proposals across all areas of our mission: including the economy, Te Tiriti, transport and urban planning, land use and energy.

In recognition of the fact that we must act now to avert the climate and ecological catastrophes we face, we have proposed a number of actions that can be taken immediately to take us towards a better future, including legislation requiring all government bodies or publicly owned enterprises to meet zero carbon targets, the protection of our best food-producing land and central government direction for achieving walkable cities.

In a recent survey of Aotearoa youth, anxiety around climate change was a prevalent theme. Many young people see the future as bleak and feel that their generation is inheriting a broken world. They also expressed the sense that older generations had created a mess and were leaving it to young people to find solutions. Many of these young people stated they wanted action for a brighter future, including immediate action to address climate change.

There will be those that say: “But even if New Zealand steps up and does its bit, it is all pointless unless the rest of the world does it too”. We say, just look at the recognition that our government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has garnered across the globe. Imagine if we could do the same by tackling the biggest existential threat that we are likely to face in any of our lifetimes – and the rest of the world said ‘If New Zealand can do it, we can too’.

We have an election coming up. Let’s demand a brighter future. Not in a few decades. Not in a few years – but now.

The Better Futures Forum manifesto can be viewed here.

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