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The Government's climate change policy has come under attack from a long list of doctors, including several senior civil servants.
Twenty-six doctors, mainly public health practitioners, have put their name to the article in today's New Zealand Medical Journal, which says the country "must rapidly halve its greenhouse gas emissions".
A further 69 doctors are listed in support of the article. They include the Ministry of Health's chief clinical adviser, Dr Sandy Dawson, its chief adviser on population health, Dr Greg Simmons, and Dr Martin Tobias, a leading public health researcher based in the ministry. The article argues for a much tougher policy than the Government has adopted, mainly to reduce the potential impact of climate change, but the authors note a positive spin-off would be to improve public health, such as through more cycling leading to reduced heart disease.
The Government in August announced a 2020 greenhouse gas emission target of 10 to 20 per cent below 1990s levels.
Climate Change Minister Nick Smith said then that reaching this target range would be tough owing to the 24 per cent increase in emissions since 1990 and because of the large share of New Zealand emissions that came from agriculture and the relatively large proportion of the country's electricity that came from renewable energy resources. Mr Smith could not be reached for comment last night.
The authors of the journal article, including Professor Alistair Woodward, of Auckland University, say New Zealand "needs to do much more to adequately respond to the climate change threat".
"New Zealand should at least halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, ie, a target of at least 40 per cent less than 1990 levels".
They cite major threats to global health from climate change, including food and water insecurity, population displacement, extreme weather, new disease patterns and war.
The need to avoid global warming in its own right justifies drastic action, they say, but mitigating climate change also presents "unrivalled opportunities" to improve public health. "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."
Reducing carbon emissions and fossil fuels would mean more walking, cycling and public transport use, and reduced intake of animal-based foods with harmful saturated fat, and carbon-intensive fats and refined sugar. The paper says shifting 5 per cent of short urban trips in Auckland from private cars to bikes would annually save about 22 million litres of fuel, 0.4 per cent of transport-related greenhouse emissions, and 116 deaths (due to increased exercise).
The authors urge health practitioners to lobby the Government and educate their patients on climate change action. The ministry's acting director-general, Andrew Bridgman, said last night the views in the journal article were not the ministry's and had been expressed by individuals in their private capacity.