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Still fighting for a cool planet

Dr John Gleisner outside the climate change shop on Queen St, Masterton. He says of his grim expression – “climate change is nothing to smile about”. PHOTO/SAM TATTERSFIELD

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern characterised climate change as “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”.

Masterton’s Dr John Gleisner has lived a similar shift.

In the 1980s, he helped found the British branch of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning anti-nuclear organisation, and he’s now staffing the climate change resource centre on Masterton’s Queen St until the end of
this week.

The tall, mild-mannered retiree, 83, who speaks with a faintly British accent has had a full life.

Born in Denmark, Gleisner earned a medical doctorate from Cambridge University, and then went on to be a mental health clinician at two Manchester hospitals from 1973 to 1985. He then moved to New Zealand to continued working as a psychiatrist.

While in England in 1980, he started the British chapter of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, originally called the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons, before merging with IPPNW when that became an international organisation.

When Gleisner started the British IPPNW, it only had a handful of members, but it grew through publicity from the Lancet medical journal, with the international IPPNW winning the Nobel-Peace Prize in 1985.

Gleisner is humble about the organisation he helped bring to the UK, saying he could only take “a tiny, tiny bit of the credit”, despite being a founder of the British branch of an organisation that grew from only a handful of members to being part of a Nobel Prize win.

In 2000 he retired to Masterton, though he still volunteers as a clinician.

There was no single event that made him shift his activism focus from nuclear disarmament to global warming.

“It was a gradual understanding of the seriousness of global warming, and that, inevitably, was slow.

“I suppose it’s becomes clearer, almost every year there are reports that show it’s worse than people thought.

“I have grandchildren, and if we continue as we are, when my grandson – born last year – is my age, it’ll be a new century, and if we continue as we are, it’ll be a most terrible world to be
living in.”

He said they were similar threats in terms of scale.

“They’re both very serious threats to billions of people

“If there’d been nuclear war it would’ve been totally, unimaginably terrible, and it’s the same here with the climate threat, it’s equally big and serious and it’s very urgent that people respond.”

Last year, he was getting very pessimistic after discovering how much of the world’s energy supply came from fossil fuel.

“It seemed impossible.”

He gained a renewed sense that his activism was worthwhile after listening to an interview by Radio NZ’s Kathryn Ryan with David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.

“He made just one point that made me feel it was worth continuing to fight and not be nihilistic.

“If you could do anything that would stop the temperature going up a further degree or half a degree, that would make such a difference, no matter how bad it gets.”

Gleisner thinks the largest impact on New Zealand in the short term, dwarfing seasonal problems for farmers, will be climate refugees.

“Thirty years from now, there will be climate refugees who will want to find places to come to and live and feel that they should be taken in.

“New Zealanders, depending on the attitudes here at that time, are very likely to be resistant to that.”

In the time the Times-Age was at the climate shop, a few people gave positive comments and asked how they could support.

There was only one man who told Gleisner it was stupid to say humans were affecting the climate – change had always been happening and was nothing to do with us.

Gleisner didn’t rise to the public argument the man clearly wanted.

“I don’t find it very interesting continuing to talk with people like that, they’re not naive.”

He thought it was a small minority, much smaller than it was 20 years ago, whose understanding of the world didn’t change when new information was presented to them.

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