Bushfire catastrophe provides evidence climate change is real and impacting our lives

Australian Public Health Conference 2020

Plenary 2: Planetary and Climate Health


  • Ms Amanda McKenzie, CEO, Climate Council
  • Professor Peter Sainsbury, Sydney Medical School, University of Notre Dame
  • Associate Professor Donna Green, Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales


The second plenary of the Australian Public Health Conference 2020 explored the impact of climate change, the urgency to address it and the implications if we fail.

Associate Professor Donna Green described the catastrophic bushfires which devastated so much of Australia last summer as the visible and physical symbol of the impact of climate change.

She said the choking bushfire smoke alone blew out our nation’s health costs by nearly $2 billion and the overall damage was 3.5 times greater than Australia’s previous worst bushfire season.

Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, said the bushfires demonstrated the urgency to take action.

‘This is a contemporary issue, not something we will only need to worry about in future years,’ Ms McKenzie said. ‘Climate change is damaging the places we love and it is hurting the people we love.’

She said all Australians were ‘shocked by the sheer scale of the bushfire disaster.’

‘As a community we didn’t have much of a chance to process the damage that was done, because COVID impacted so soon after. This might change come the approaching summer when we start returning to the places that were so severely impacted.’

Ms McKenzie said for public health officers it will be multifaceted in its impacts and how they will have to grapple with the consequences and how to respond.

She said that from a position not so many years ago when influential politicians denied the very presence of climate change, ‘It’s now very hard for politicians not to acknowledge the impact on our environment and on our lives.’

Professor Peter Sainsbury said that while the outlook was bleak there are some signs of good news. These included: that more people were understanding the problem; there are a range of technological and economic solutions available; the price of renewable energy is falling; an increasing number of nations are setting emissions targets; and there is growing support for climate action from businesses, investors, and the public.

He stressed, however, that by delaying ‘real action’, governments face the inevitable consequences of more global warming, more extreme weather events, many places becoming uninhabitable for humans, ecosystems starting to collapse, and the beginning of mass migration and conflict.

Professor Sainsbury said a series of important steps must be taken urgently to avert a global climate change disaster. This needs to begin by reducing the causes of climate change, focusing on results in 2030 (not in 2050 or 2100), and concentrating on the supply side of clean energy alternatives.

Amanda McKenzie believes everyone with an interest in climate action should adopt four communications principles:

  1. Make it clear that the impact is happening right here, right now
  2. Make the complex scientific issues relevant to everyone
  3. Make it about local communities, not about polar bears and melting glaciers
  4. Keep the messages positive and explain how everyone can be a part of the solution

‘There are lots of good initiatives to reduce emissions,’ Ms McKenzie said. ‘It’s up to us all to play our role to tell the story, advocate for change, and to play our part to reduce emissions. We must all keep a level of optimism and hope.’


Image credit: AAP/Dean Lewins

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