Coordinating a response to bushfire and climate change crisis

By David Templeman, former Director General of Emergency Management Australia and President of the Public Health Association Australia

As states across Australia slowly lift COVID-19 restrictions and we inch closer to ‘normal’ every day, there is a cautious sense of triumph that we may have survived a public health emergency.

If we look back at what helped us ‘flatten the curve’, we can attribute a big part of Australia’s success to the fact that leaders heeded the advice of medical experts like our Chief Health Officer.

When they delivered tough truths about the need for severe lockdown measures, and despite the economic consequences, politicians listened. They enforced strict measures to stop the spread, and it worked.

Now, I hope they deal with the other biggest health threat of our time—climate change—with the same urgent deference to science and expert advice.

The horrors of this past summer bring home the reasons why climate change is the biggest public health threat today.

The fires (as predicted) were fuelled by climate change and killed 33 Australians and billions of fauna and stock. The smoke alone killed 445 people and sent thousands to hospital, as recent research shows.

To protect people, animals, businesses, and our economy, we need to stop bushfires from worsening, and learn how to build resilience to the climate damage that’s already been locked in.

This conversation must start by acknowledging the urgent need to stop digging up and burning coal, oil, and gas so that we can get to net zero emissions; but it also involves a wide range of other matters. The silent killers of climate-related deaths in Australia, heat and smoke, claim nearly 1,000 Australian lives annually.

We should also fund firefighting operations and bushfire research to how worsening extreme weather affects our national security, to the economic impacts of climate change, to how best we can strengthen regional communities.

It’s a complex conversation, with complex answers.

That’s why the growing coalition of 33 former fire and emergency chiefs I’m part of, Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, brought together experts for a virtual Bushfire and Climate Summit on 9 June.

During the summit we heard from former fire chiefs, Aboriginal leaders, former Defence personnel, climate scientists, and more about the solutions we need to implement to keep Australian people, businesses, and animals safe from worsening bushfires.

Climate change is a massive threat that affects everyone, but together, we can solve this crisis.

First published in The Canberra Times

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