Former Assistant Vice Chancellor Equity and Human Resources (Victoria University of Wellington)
Co-editor of "The People's Report"
“Now,” he said, “I want to talk about something different – climate change. With climate change, the world will never be the same – you will never be the same, we will never be the same. We need to do things differently.” The suited men from the IMF, the World Bank, the government finance ministers and the rest of us looked up, surprised. He was right – but nothing changed.
Around the same time, I listened to the head of the World Health Organisation, which President Trump now refuses to fund, in full knowledge that this can destroy any hope of a global, collaborative, cohesive recovery from Covid-19. Addressing the World Health Assembly, back then, Dr Margaret Chan gave world leaders and health experts a somber warning that climate change would bring new diseases, new viruses, and new vectors of disease. But nothing changed. She was right: we had SARS, followed by Zika from Uganda to the Pacific. We watched, and warned our VSA volunteers – but nothing changed.
When 12 New Zealand NGOs working with Pacific partners wrote to PM John Key, urging New Zealand to make strong climate change commitments at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, a brief response advised us that he had passed the letter on to the Climate Minister, Tim Groser. While this was better than President Trump’s later comment that he didn’t seek to become President just to please the people of Paris, we heard nothing more, and nothing changed.
Now you may be thinking, this woman should be talking about Covid-19, why is she on about climate change?
As you may know, there are more than 200 species of viruses that cause human diseases, with three to four new species discovered each year. In July 2019, leading virologists, from 29 countries, and 48 centres of excellence warned that…
Their Virology Alert highlighted an additional challenge in viral disease transmission. “The planet’s population growth, urbanization, the globalization of travel and commerce and climate change enhance contact with new environments, climates and new vectors of diseases.”
Recognising that more than half of human viruses can also affect animals, mammals and birds, they pointed out that many emerging infectious diseases come from animals and can be transmitted to people directly or through vectors, such as mosquitoes, if you recall Zika.
They identified the link between ecosystems, animal health, and human health and highlighted the urgent need to eradicate and control emerging and re-emerging viruses in the context of climate change. They also urged a cohesive approach to identify changes and imbalances in ecosystems, and improve our understanding of the imbalances which raise the risk of epidemics. They stressed the need for the work of public health experts, veterinarians and others working in animal health, plant health and ecosystems to come together, to deliver a concept of “One Health.”
Whakapapa, embodying the relationship between everything and everyone, and Mātauranga Māori highlighting the importance of understanding the interrelated connectedness between people, the things they do, and their values.
Now hundreds of thousands have died across the world; families here have suffered loss and our sympathy is with their whānau. Following successful management of the virus here, we, and the rest of the world face economic mayhem. But we can draw strength from these inherited values, and knowing that if we get it right for the most vulnerable, we will get it right for everyone.
Our government has been widely congratulated around the world and deserves recognition, for learning from others’ experiences, for engaging Public Health experts, working with an extraordinarily articulate DG of health, and for having the courage to act decisively.
In contrast, Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times last week, calls on us all to feel pity for Americans, “It is one thing to be powerless in the face of natural disaster, quite another to watch vast power being squandered in real time willfully, malevolently, vindictively…. it will be a long time before the rest of the world can imagine America being great again.”
A friend in New York (my grandson’s birthplace), devastated by 172,784 confirmed cases in New York city, sent me the National Geographic online with Aaron Gulley’s article: “New Zealand has effectively eliminated coronavirus. Here’s what they did right: The island nation chose strict lockdowns and austerity. What’s next? ”
While we can hotly debate the meaning of “elimination,” and a few debate the legal basis for that austerity, it is that question of “What’s next?” that remains stubbornly in my mind.
I believe the answer lies in the concept of a more just, equal and sustainable world, “where no-one is left behind.” This is the clarion call for the Sustainable Development Goals, quoted in Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s first wellbeing budget last May.
The answer is not to return to the “same old, same old” world of our past lives. Nor does it lie in the old arguments of people versus planet, and which matters most. Our call must surely be for a healthy planet and healthy humanity.
Last weekend, Michael Baker, a frequent and knowledgeable commentator on New Zealand’s response to the pandemic, stated clearly that the greatest threat is not the pandemic, in spite of the horrifying number of deaths.
“Climate change and ecological collapse,” are far greater threats. We have a number of severe tipping points ahead, some will be irreversible. We need to act early – not wait till we see them on the horizon.” He urges us to face the reality that far more people will die because of climate change. As we emerge from the inescapable economic challenges following the pandemic, we must think about a green solution and empowering New Zealanders to make a just transition into a sustainable society. We need to listen to what science is telling us.” And surely, we need to be guided too, by the holistic values of kaitiakitanga, whakapapa and Mātauranga Māori.
Yet locally and nationally, governments, businesses and communities which have largely ignored climate change, have generally acted swiftly, decisively and effectively. And most New Zealanders have demonstrated trust and understanding, complying with restrictions that would normally be unthinkable in terms of human rights and our traditional kiwi optimism that “she’ll be right.”
Some five years ago President Obama, and the UN’s Secretary General Ban ki Moon, talked about being the first generation with the power to end poverty and the last to prevent climate change. Climate change, we were told, could prevent us from meeting all or any of our goals. But too little has changed.
As we reset, reflect and rediscover, it will be time to do things differently, locally and globally. Time to ensure a just transition towards a healthy planet and a healthy society. Many ideas that are now circulating resonate with this thinking. Others, however, will challenge us to “get rid of ideology” in order to resolve huge economic challenges.
A hard reset will require even more determination and resilience, collaborative action in new ways at local, regional, national and global levels. Only then can we begin to ensure that we do not slip back into the “same old, same old.”
This will require political will and courage, global citizenship, trust, and resilience as each of us takes steps to “do things differently,” for the sake of our children, and theirs. As a visiting American geologist remarked on RDNZ last weekend “We know the planet will survive, but can humans survive on the planet?” We have been warned, and others have paid too high a price for that warning for us to ignore it.
The next time I write, I know that it will be easier to find the words; it’s time to explore some of the many options which can make change happen.
Kotahi te hoe, ka ū te waka ki uta Paddling in unison, the waka will reach land
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