Published in Newsroom, 3rd. December 2021.
Generations of New Zealanders born in the 1920s and earlier experienced the Great Depression and the Second World War in quick succession. These were cataclysmic global events that live on in our folk memory. Fast forward 75 years, and current generations are witnessing two global crises of not dissimilar magnitude in Covid and Climate change.
The figures are striking. Within a year the Covid pandemic has inflicted on Europe a decline in life expectancy not seen since the Second World War, including an estimated 15 million deaths worldwide. Similarly, climate change threatens over this century to result in disappearing ice shelfs and snow cover, rising oceans, shrinking temperate zones, drought, extreme weather events, mass population movements, and a planet increasingly hostile to human habitation.
These are major, existential, global and national crises by any measure. And they are concurrent.
The impacts of these two global crises are very different. Covid spread globally within months, governments were ill prepared, but interventions are clear and readily applied, and the course for the future looks feasible. Indeed, there is a good chance that the world will come out of the pandemic severely chastened, but still functioning effectively as a community.
Climate change, by contrast, is well signalled and slow-moving, and the global community has accepted the problem, but the interventions while clear – a transition to an emphatically decarbonised society and economy – require political will that is hard to garner. There is a very real chance, as shown by the outcomes of CoP26 at Glasgow, that the world may just fail to address this issue adequately in time to head off its worst effects.
In New Zealand we can see these two dynamics playing out.
Through a combination of luck and good management, the government has managed to date to prevent the worst impacts of Covid and there is a very good chance of a successful recovery.
This is a big contrast with climate change. New Zealand is in many respects a laggard, with sharply increasing emissions since the 1990s, major carve-outs for the agricultural sector, an excessive reliance on international offsets, and very little evidence that the public is aware of the cultural and behavioural changes it is going to have to make, such as halting suburban sprawl and breaking with car dependency.
The health sector provides a case study in the contrasting impact and response to these two crises.
Take Covid. From a standing start the sector has built a whole immunisation system from scratch, and then gone on, within a few months, to provide first doses of vaccine to 90 per cent of the entire New Zealand eligible population. In the current combative political and media environment, this will gain no credit – but it is a remarkable achievement nevertheless.
Add to this the fact that the system in Auckland has had to deal with over 800 boarding houses and hostels, many if not most unregistered, and few with functional contact lists for occupants. Furthermore, the vaccinating teams throughout the region – yes, they existed! – discovered that ten per cent of those they contacted were not properly registered with the health system. That’s 100,000 people that were unknown to our functioning health system, among the vaccinated, leave alone those who have yet to be reached.
And, despite some 200 new cases a day in Auckland, the system is coping – just. Hospitals are not (yet) overrun and intensive care has had plenty of spare capacity.
The health system, therefore, has found wellsprings of resource and resilience with which to respond to the short-term, unpredictable, and rapid impacts of Covid. That again is in marked contrast to our climate change responses.
Take traffic congestion. Auckland City Hospital is in gridlock. There are 11,000 staff, together with hundreds if not thousands of contractors, patients, and visitors every weekday. The car parks are full by 9 am, the Domain is parked out, and long lines of cars fill the surrounding roads at key moments waiting for parking spots or trying to gain access to the site for deliveries, pick-ups and drop-offs.
A fundamental problem is car dependency. A survey of staff found that nearly half lived within eight kilometres – that’s five miles – of the site, and yet few walked, cycled, or used public transport. This is not just a health sector problem, but an Auckland and New Zealand one. The Helen Clark Foundation – the think tank of which I serve as chair – has recently released a major report into how we can reduce car dependency in an equitable manner.
To repeat: Covid and climate change are both existential, global crises that are unfolding and testing the resilience of humanity. New Zealand has responded effectively to the pandemic, but it has failed so far to address the planetary threat of the climate crisis in a consistent, proportionate, and adequate manner.
When much of the agricultural sector enjoys what seems like almost indefinite carve-outs, and cities like Auckland can contemplate “greenfield” suburban expansion for 40 per cent of future population growth, we can see that the New Zealand electorate – as in many other countries – has simply not grasped the scale and speed of the adjustments required to avoid the worst of the planetary threat that climate change will otherwise inflict on humanity.