She spoke of the country’s horrific extinction record, the invasion of foreign plants that overrun the local landscape, the vanishing of kelp beds and worrying loads of plastic at sea, the clearing of the land and the steady decline of koalas.
What you don’t explain in the same detail is what’s at stake for Australians who depend on an environment that is already in poor condition and on its way to further deterioration.
The 2,000-page report is full of references to human survival, the irreversible consequences for humanity, and the potential for societal collapse unless planetary punishment ends.
Liz Hanna has crafted a career studying human health responses to environmental changes and says Australians should understand that this week’s report is about them too.
“If we destroy the planet, it is suicide…the writing is on the wall,” says the chair of the Environmental Health Working Group of the World Federation of Public Health Association.
How many species should disappear?
People talk about the canary in the coal mine. Well, how many animals must become extinct before we realize “Oh my God, we’re also an animal.” If we keep doing that, we’ll be next at the end.”
It seems obvious that human health depends on the health of the planets, but Dr. Hanna says it’s hard to get people to think that way.
“We are sitting comfortably, plunging into this privileged country of Australia, and living a nice life. Until people participate directly they do not understand.
“I think the people most able to recognize that would be those who had a nice life when the fires broke out, the people of Lismore and all the other people who experienced the floods.”
These big, dramatic events are too visible and impossible to ignore, unlike the creeping effects that humans experience when the environment is sick.
Things like chemical reactions driven by heat in the atmosphere that will be exacerbated by climate change and cause more urban smog in summer.
Smog will exacerbate the burden of disease related to air quality, which caused more than 3,200 deaths in 2018.
This number is expected to rise steadily as global warming causes more intense bushfire seasons that may make poor air quality a frequent feature of Australian summers in the future.
Dr. Hanna points to her own experiences with the Millennium Drought to illustrate the many ways in which the less visible impacts of environmental degradation may be coming at the gates of Australian families.
The drought lasted for more than a decade, and had devastating effects on much of southern Australia.
The dramatic effects of the Murray-Darling Basin drought have included threats to water supplies in cities and towns, widespread crop failures, losses of live livestock, dust storms and wildfires.
Wetlands, droughts and disasters
Significant environmental impacts included the temporary separation of 33 wetlands in southern Australia to help save water.
As the lower lakes began to dry up, the acidic soil was exposed and the Murray estuary closed and parts of Coorong became too salty for many of the local flora and fauna to survive.
At the time, Dr. Hanna was in rural Victoria and noticed the less visible revelations of human suffering in the communities around Lake Eldon, a dammed reservoir on a major tributary of the Murray River.
As the water disappeared from the lake, so did the tourists with their money.
“Poor tourism operators, they stayed there for as long as possible. But the cities ended up like ghost towns. People had to leave one by one because they could not live without any income.
“And of course (it affects) the people who used to cut their hair, the teachers, the milkshakes, the person who makes hamburgers. When a drought occurs the whole community unfolds.
“Property values go kaput. People are giving away anything behind and it is very difficult to go and buy a new home if you cannot get anything for your current home.”
As bleak as such scenarios are, Dr Hanna wants Australians to turn their minds to the interconnected web of life and says there is no place for Little Old Man syndrome.
“You see this when people wave their arms in the air about climate change and say ‘He’s a little old man, what can I do?’ ”
Plenty, says Dr Hanna, who is also associate professor emeritus at the Australian National University.
She tells her students that it is human consumption behavior and the resulting waste that has thrown the environment into chaos.
“Collectively, we put ourselves in this problem through the actions of each of us.
“So it is the actions of each of us that will get us out.
“We can’t keep ignoring her because she will come back to bite us.”