I rise to support this important motion because the summer bushfires that my electorate endured have shown in stark fashion that climate change is a health issue. Last summer, beautiful towns like Bright, Walwa and Harrietville edged out the world’s megacities like Beijing and Delhi for the sad record of having the planet’s most toxic air. For weeks and weeks our kids, our pregnant women and our elderly breathed in this toxic mix of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
Researchers are identifying the impacts of this exposure. Across Australia, last summer’s bushfire smoke resulted in over 1,100 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems, over 2,000 hospitalisations for respiratory problems and 1,300 for asthma presentations in emergency departments. On top of this, 445 deaths can be attributed directly to the deadly smoke—445 deaths! These health costs are estimated to total almost $2 billion. That is almost 3.5 times higher than the next worse bushfire season in 2002.
But this is not about dollars and cents; this is about people. Today I will focus on our youngest people. A few days ago I spoke to Dr Rebecca McGowan, a local GP based in Albury-Wodonga. Dr McGowan had phoned me, alerting me to this story, a story that she said entailed a recent case review of one of her patients who had given birth after spending the summer in the alpine region of north-east Victoria, which was badly affected by bushfires. This woman’s baby was small, Dr McGowan said, but the horrifying thing was her placenta. She had worn a mask, and she has never smoked in her life, but her placenta looked like that of a pack-a-day smoker. The placenta was in such bad condition—grey, grainy and coming apart—that the woman needed surgery to remove it. As a midwife, I am familiar with seeing such placentas in smokers or in people with severe hypertension, but not in healthy women such as this.
We can’t jump to conclusions. N of 1 does not make a study. But perhaps it wasn’t just a one-off. When we look to the literature, we can see that there is more than one. The Royal Australian College of GP’s news from February reported an almost identical story from a GP whose own baby was born with low birth weight, with a shocking granulated placenta, after weeks of bushfire smoke exposure. Again it is just a case study, but the article goes on to quote multiple similar cases reported and observed by midwives.
It is such cases that lead to much bigger studies being undertaken, like the 2019 study by Abdo et al. of almost 600,000 pregnant women in Colorado who were exposed to wildfire smoke in their second trimester. This study found a significantly increased risk of preterm birth. This large study concluded that as climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires, so too it will increase the health burden on expectant mothers and their babies.
The government’s own royal commission found that our warming climate will drive more intense bushfires into the future. It’s crystal clear that if we are serious about protecting the health of our kids, building the resilience of our communities and avoiding mounting health crises in the future, tackling climate change should be our top priority.
The member for Warringah has put forward her climate change bill, which would set a framework to drive down emissions in the long term and grow new, clean industries. This is an important and practical bill that we can all get behind. The member for Warringah is leading here in Australia what the entire UK government achieved over there. This is a huge accomplishment. She’s good at winning medals, and I reckon she should get a gold medal and for this one!
I’ve put forward my own Local Power Plan, which would build locally owned renewables in regional Australia. You see, we actually have some solutions in front of us, and the regions stand to benefit the most from taking climate action seriously. So, for the sake of protecting the health of our kids and the liveability of our communities, I commend this motion to the House.