When Tanya Plibersek released a shocking state of the environment report this month, she warned that Australia could lose the places, landscapes, animals and plants that make it feel like At her place.
She spoke of the nation’s appalling extinction record, the invasion of alien plants overtaking native landscapes, the disappearance of kelp beds and alarming plastic loads in the sea, land clearing and the steady decline of koala.
What she didn’t explain in the same detail is what’s at stake for Australians who depend on an environment that’s already in disrepair and on the path to further decline.
The 2,000-page report is peppered with references to human survival, irreversible consequences for humanity, and the prospect of societal collapse unless the planetary punishment ends.
Liz Hanna has forged a career studying human health responses to environmental change and says Australians need to understand that this week’s report is about them too.
“If we trash the planet, it’s suicide…and the writing is on the wall,” says the chair of the World Federation of Public Health Associations’ environmental health task force.
How many species must disappear?
“People talk about the canary in the coal mine. Well, how many animals have to go before we realize “Oh thank God we’re an animal too”. If we keep doing this, we will eventually be next.
It seems obvious to say that human health depends on planetary health, but Dr. Hanna says it’s hard to get people to think that way.
“We are sitting comfortably, wallowing in this privileged country of Australia, having a good life. Until people are directly involved, they don’t understand.
“I think the people who can recognize it the most would be those who had a good life when the fires happened, and the people of Lismore and everyone else who suffered from the floods.”
These big dramatic events are highly visible and impossible to ignore, unlike the creeping effects that humans experience when the environment is sick.
Things like temperature-related chemical reactions in the atmosphere that will be exacerbated by climate change and cause more summer smog in urban areas.
Smog will aggravate the burden of disease associated with air quality, which caused more than 3,200 deaths in 2018.
That toll is set to rise steadily as global warming fuels more extreme bushfire seasons that could make poor air quality a recurring feature of future Australian summers.
Dr Hanna brings up her own experiences of the millennium drought to illustrate the many ways the less obvious effects of environmental decline could be knocking on the door of Australian families.
The drought lasted for more than a decade, with devastating effects for much of southern Australia.
The dramatic effects of the drying up of the Murray–Darling Basin included threats to water supplies to towns and villages, widespread crop failures, loss of livestock, dust storms and bushfires.
Wetlands, drought, disaster
Big environmental impacts included the temporary disconnection of 33 South Australian wetlands to help save water.
When the lower lakes began to dry up, acidic soils were exposed and the mouth of the Murray River closed and parts of the Coorong became too salty for many native plants and animals to survive.
At the time, Dr Hanna was in rural Victoria and observed the less obvious unfolding of human suffering in communities around Lake Eildon, a dammed reservoir on one of the Murray’s main tributaries.
When the water disappeared from the lake, the tourists disappeared with their money.
“The poor tour operators, they stayed there as long as they could. But the cities ended up as ghost towns. One by one people had to leave because they could not survive without any income.
“And of course it (affects) the people who cut their hair, the teachers, the milk bar, the person who makes the steak sandwiches. When drought occurs, the whole community unfolds.
“Real estate values are going kaput. People give up with nothing behind them and it’s very hard to go buy a new house if you can’t get anything for your existing house.
As bleak as these scenarios are, Dr Hanna wants Australians to look to the interconnected web of life and says there is no room for little old me syndrome.
“You see that when people wave their arms in the air around climate change and say ‘it’s kind of me, what can I do’?”
A lot, says Dr Hanna, who is also an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University.
She tells her students that it is largely human consumption behavior and the resulting waste that has thrown the environment into a mess.
“Collectively, we have found ourselves in this problem through the actions of each of us.
“So it’s the actions of each of us that will get us out.
“We can’t keep ignoring him because he’s going to come back to bite us.”