Policy inaction on climate change will threaten lives

I start by paying my respects to the Bedegal people on whose land we meet, to their elders past and present and to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people present today.

And I warmly welcome the Member for Kingsford-Smith, Matt Thistlethwaite, whom I’m delighted to say is a regular visitor to his alma mater. Matt, thank you for being here today to make this important announcement.

In a country with such extremes of weather as Australia, we are increasingly aware that our changing climate is affecting lives.

It has the potential to have a catastrophic effect on Australia, with the indirect health impacts associated with droughts, heatwaves and storms many and varied.

Our changing climate may see more widespread outbreaks of Dengue Fever in Far North Queensland, for example.

Mental health problems in rural Australia will likely increase, especially as those on the land watch their livelihoods disappear along with their river systems.

And the combination of concrete, bitumen, glass and pollution in our big cities – which sends temperatures soaring in summer – will cause more breathing difficulties and heat-related deaths.

It is not an overstatement to say that policy inaction on climate change will threaten lives.

If we are to find ways to protect our population from what is to come, we need research on where climate and health intersect.

As an alumnus, Matt, you know well that UNSW has been at the forefront of both climate and health research for many decades now, so it is a natural home for a National Health and Climate Centre. We thank you for placing your trust in our expertise.

[Matt Thistlethwaite speaks]

On behalf of UNSW, Matt, I thank you for that commitment to invest so generously in a National Health and Climate Centre here at UNSW.

We’ll have to wait for another week or so before we know if we can pop the champagne, but we will have it on standby.

If I may just take a moment to speak on the climate crisis we are facing.

I had a senior lecturer write to me recently about their despair over inaction on climate change.

They said they’d always seen their work on renewable energy as their contribution to combatting climate change.

They had felt that, given enough time, government action would eventually catch up with the scientific and technological progress being made.

Recently though, they realised that optimism had been misplaced and wrote, ‘We do not have the luxury of time I was counting on.’

University researchers all across Australia are doing outstanding work to stem the effects of climate change and have been doing so for decades.

They have shown leadership on this issue and will continue to do so into the future.

But, we cannot do this on our own.

Regardless of who wins the upcoming Australian election – though I’m sure you have a definite preference on that, Matt – they must, as a priority, unite with their political rivals to find a way to confront climate change as a nation.

The UK Parliament recently reached bipartisan agreement, with a national declaration of an Environment and Climate Emergency.

And public sentiment in Australia would suggest very strong support for our own parliament to follow suit.

There is a moral imperative to overcome partisan lines and declare this as the existential threat that it is.

We have to move beyond the anti-intellectualism that pervades the climate discussion. The ‘my opinion is equal to your facts’ way of thinking. It is dangerous and is what brought us to the brink of no return.

You could argue that we get what we deserve if we don’t act. But the fact is, it is not this generation that will feel the full brunt of our failure to change our ways.

It is those who come after – our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren.

What a terrible legacy that would be to leave them.

I know it is easier said than done, but I implore our political leaders to reach across the aisle and say, this is bigger than our ideological differences.

Our nation – our planet – is at risk.

Universities are hubs of tremendous knowledge and a rich vein of expertise for Government to tap into and we stand ready to assist.

Our researchers are in the vanguard of this battle and your recognition of the crucial work they hope to carry out here, Matt, gives us enormous hope.

I’m now going to ask Associate Professor Donna Green, who is currently with the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, and would take on the role of Director of the new Centre, to now say a few words.

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