Covid and climate change: the story of two crises



New Zealand may well cope with an existential crisis, but this contrasts sharply with the continued inability to accept and act on the threats of climate change, writes Peter Davis

Generations of New Zealanders born in the 1920s and earlier experienced the Great Depression and World War II in rapid succession. These were cataclysmic world events that endure in our popular memory. Fast forward 75 years, and current generations are witnessing two global crises of no dissimilar magnitude in Covid and climate change.

The figures are striking. In one year, the Covid pandemic has inflicted on Europe an unprecedented drop in life expectancy since World War II, including around 15 million deaths worldwide. Likewise, climate change threatens during this century to cause the disappearance of ice shelves and snow cover, the rise of the oceans, the decrease of temperate zones, drought, extreme weather events, movements. massive populations and a planet increasingly hostile to human habitation.

These are major crises, existential, global and national in all respects. And they are competitors.

The impacts of these two global crises are very different. Covid has spread around the world in a matter of months, governments were ill-prepared, but interventions are clear and easily implemented, and the way forward looks attainable. Indeed, there is a good chance that the world will emerge from the pandemic severely chastised, but still function effectively as a community.

Climate change, on the other hand, is well reported and slowly evolving, and the global community has embraced the issue, but the interventions while clear – a transition to a decidedly carbon-free society and economy – require political will that is difficult to garner. There is a very real chance, as the results of COP26 in Glasgow show, that the world will simply not succeed in addressing this issue adequately in time to avoid 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 succeeded to date in preventing the worst impacts of Covid and there is a very good chance of a successful recovery.

It’s a big contrast to climate change. New Zealand is lagging behind in many ways, with emissions rising sharply since the 1990s, major exclusions for the agricultural sector, overreliance on international offsets, and very little evidence that the public is aware of the changes. cultural and behavioral experiences. going to have to do, like stop suburban sprawl and break away from car addiction.

The health sector provides a case study on the contrasting impact and response to these two crises.

Take Covid. Starting from scratch, the industry built an entire immunization system from scratch and then continued, within months, to deliver the first doses of vaccine to 90% of the entire eligible population of New Zealand. In the current combative political and media environment, this will not gain any credit – but it is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.

Add to this the fact that Auckland’s system had to manage over 800 guesthouses and hostels, many if not most unregistered, and few with working contact lists for occupants. Plus, vaccination teams across the region – yes, they did exist! – discovered that 10 percent of those contacted were not properly registered with the health system. It is 100,000 people who were unknown to our functional health system, among the vaccinated, not to mention those who have not yet been reached.

And, despite sometimes 200 new cases a day in Auckland, the system is coping – right. Hospitals are not (yet) overwhelmed and intensive care has a lot of available capacity.

The health system has therefore found sources of resources and resilience to respond to the short-term, unpredictable and rapid impacts of Covid.

This, again, contrasts sharply with our responses to climate change.

Take the traffic jams. Auckland City Hospital is blocked. There are 11,000 employees, with hundreds if not thousands of contractors, patients and visitors every day of the week. The car parks are full at 9 a.m., the Estate is parked, and long lines of cars crisscross the surrounding roads at key times waiting for parking spaces or trying to access the site for deliveries, withdrawals and drop-offs.

A fundamental problem is car addiction. A staff survey found that nearly half lived within five miles of the site, yet few walk, cycle or use public transport. It is not just a health sector problem, but an Auckland and New Zealand problem. The Helen Clark Foundation – the think tank of which I chair – recently released a major report on how we can reduce car addiction in a fair way.

I repeat: Covid and climate change are both existential and global crises unfolding and testing the resilience of humanity. New Zealand has responded effectively to the pandemic, but has so far failed to address the global threat of the climate crisis in a consistent, proportionate and adequate manner.

When much of the agricultural sector benefits from what appear to be almost indefinite exclusions, and cities like Auckland can envision a “greenfield” suburban expansion for 40% of future population growth, we can see that the neo electorate Zealand – as in many other countries – simply failed to grasp the scale and speed of the adjustments needed to avert the worst of the global threat that climate change would otherwise inflict on mankind.


About John McTaggart

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