Health professionals have urged New Zealand to immediately take steps to halve its greenhouse gas emissions. At the moment its emissions are the fourth highest per person of any developed country.
"The pace of climate change is accelerating. We have overspent our atmospheric resources—and now need smart sustainable solutions."
"Halving the current level of emissions is urgent, responsible, just, and possible. Inaction would be negligence and malpractice on a global scale" says the newly formed NZ Climate and Health group.
Writing in the New Zealand Medical Journal
, around 100 concerned health professionals state that "doctors have a professional duty to work to tackle climate change."
"Climate change has been described as the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, and the substantial health benefits of action should be fully included in decision-making, as should the harms of inaction," says spokesperson Dr Alex Macmillan.
"At present New Zealand has the fourth highest greenhouse emissions per person of any developed country."
"On grounds of fairness, and responsibility for past emissions, New Zealand should take its share in setting climate change targets. This means aiming to at least halve our present levels by 2020 (40+ per cent of 1990 levels). This is necessary, based on powerful scientific and ethical arguments," she says.
"If anything a target of halving is too little. Climate change is moving even faster than has been predicted by the worst projections of the 2007 IPCC assessment, and things are going to get substantially worse than has been anticipated. Reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change may require even deeper cuts."
The NZ Climate and Health group says however there is a silver lining on the particularly dark cloud of climate change. Responsible emissions reduction presents unrivalled opportunities to improve population health, according to Professor Alistair Woodward.
Policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could also bring about substantial reductions in heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, road deaths and injuries, and air pollution.
The group refers to the recent high profile review in the prestigious UK medical journal The Lancet
which discussed at length the major threats—both direct and indirect—to global health from climate change.
These include profound threats to food and water supplies, conflict and health problems associated with the displacement of large populations, more severe natural disasters, and increases in serious infectious diseases.
The costs of reducing greenhouse emissions are affordable, the group argues, and have been widely overstated in public debate. In arguing that the costs of not acting are much higher they quote the World Bank's warning that "while financial crises may cause serious hardship and reduce growth over the short to medium term ... the threat of a warming climate is far more severe and long-lasting."
They also note that the World Bank has called for advanced countries, which have produced most of the greenhouse gas emissions of the past, to act now, cutting their emissions aggressively and helping the poorest and most exposed countries to adapt to the changing climate.
"As health professionals and scientists, who continue to access the latest scientific findings about climate change, we're gravely concerned about the consequences for human health and in fact survival," says Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman.
"New Zealand doctors and nurses have gone to Samoa to help our Pacific neighbours living on low-lying islands. But weak targets and weak policies, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme as currently proposed, will be far more damaging in the medium and long-term that any single tsunami. We must act now if we are to save vulnerable lives," she says.
Finally, the group says that to delay action while waiting for technological innovation is unacceptable. Large reductions are achievable if we mobilise New Zealand society and let technology follow a responsible target and realistic fiscal signals.