iDEA18 “Health in a changing climate” A review of the conference

13-15th  April, 2018

For those who could not make it to Newcastle, you missed a momentous event. A diverse range of speakers highlighted the health effects of climate change, but it went well beyond that:

iDEA18 brought together people at the frontline of climate change. We heard from Karrina Nolan, an Indigenous woman, who showed us how people’s lives have changed irreversibly due to climate change and how their culture is damaged. We heard from Dennis Ward from Farmers for Climate Action (FCA) who says that 90% of farmers are concerned about climate change and that they are already seeing a 20% decline in grain production in Australia.

The effects of climate change were summarised by Prof Tony Capon, the inaugural professor of Planetary Health at the University of Sydney. If you take nothing more from this newsletter, you must watch this 3 minute video.

Tony set the scene for the next 2 speakers, Hon Mark Butler and Dr. Bob Brown.

FRIDAY NIGHT “Protecting Our Futures”

The opening of iDEA18 at Newcastle City Hall was unique for DEA in that we collaborated with the Bob Brown Foundation and the Wilderness Society to host the event. We had good media prior to the event with articles by Joanne McCarthy and a radio interview by Bob Brown on ABC1233 Newcastle on the Friday morning. As a result, we virtually filled the City Hall and created an amazing atmosphere.

We opened with a brilliant Welcome to Country by Uncle Bill Smith from the Awabakal and Worrimi nation. His presentation sent shivers down my spine as he told of his history and the damage that is occurring in his nation. This is where the recurring themes in iDEA18 of “greed” and “a lack of respect for the environment” were first mentioned. He also entreated us all to “sit still and listen” –an important take home message.

Secondly, Naomi Crystal Hodgson from the Wilderness Society spoke about the proposed coal seam gas development in the Pilliga. This is a terrible proposal which will cause damage to the water table as well as numerous other impacts. There is huge concern in the community expressed by the vast majority of the 23,000 submissions to the NSW Department of Planning. It is unconscionable to think that this development would proceed, particularly in this age of reducing the dependency on fossil fuels. Once again the theme of “greed” comes to mind. There will be many more protests about the Pilliga proposal. Particularly for those in NSW, this is an issue that must be fought “tooth and nail” as it is the frontline of the fight against climate change.

Dr. Dimity Williams from DEA’s Forests and Biodiversity subcommittee then spoke about the importance of forests and nature for our health. The evidence is overwhelming – we should all prescribe “nature as medicine” as Dimity already does in her medical practice. Some countries such as Japan have a type of nature therapy -Shinrin Yoku (tree immersion) - used to treat anxiety and depression. Dimity then introduced Bob Brown;-

Bob Brown was very impressive. He really enjoyed the evening’s union of not only members of DEA but also the wider community brought together to focus on environmental issues. Bob spoke about the importance of the community being more active to protect their own futures. He spoke of the lack of leadership in politics and that it is up to us to make the change. This is obvious in the Tarkine where there the threat of ongoing logging is extending to untouched wilderness. Ironically (since John Howard is not known as a conservationist), the Tarkine was protected from logging by the Howard government butut it is now threatened again. If we are to save ourselves from the effects of climate change then forests such as the Tarkine must be preserved.

The video of the Tarkine is compelling and if you want to visit in person then stay in touch with the Bob Brown Foundation. They do regular trips as well as a “Bioblitz” towards the end of the year. A trip to the Tarkine will change your life.

We then had the Inaugural Award for services to DEA made to Dr. Steve Robinson who has been actively protecting the people in his local community of Gloucester from the effects of mining, fracking, and climate change for over 20 years. See the full citation on the DEA website. Steve’s work is an inspiration to all of us.

Finally the night ended with immediate activism. After speaking so much about the importance of being active, the community was able to act immediately! We merged on the stage at the City Hall where a photograph was taken with the banner, “Save the Pilliga”. This image will be used in upcoming campaigns and was a great way to end the night.


And so the stage was set for Saturday’s program. As mentioned, Tony Capon spoke first followed by Hon Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy. He spoke very well and as a group, the delegates were impressed by his knowledge of the science of climate change. The obvious question was “Why doesn’t the government do more about it?”.

Mark Butler was in absolute agreement. He spoke of a lost opportunity ten years ago when the Labor government had the opportunity to call a double dissolution election over the “carbon tax” issue but Government didn’t think they could win. The next election was lost anyway and Tony Abbott was elected. We can only wonder what the world would be like if that election result was different!

Interestingly, Mark spoke of the upcoming members of the Labor government. He points out that the debate about climate change has been in the media for over 20 years, and closer to 30 years. Many of the younger members of the Labor party are this age. They have grown up with climate change as a “given” and are keen to do something about it. Hopefully, this will result in some significant outcomes.

Bob Brown spoke again and was hard hitting on how important it is for doctors to be involved in activism to protect the environment and against climate change.  

There was then a panel discussion led by Dr Selina Lo who did a marvellous job.

Tony Capon, Selina Lo, Mark Butler and Bob Brown


Dr Eugenie Kayak was Chair of this session in which she outlined DEA’s position statement on Greening Healthcare. Healthcare in Australia causes 7% of Australia’s total emissions. So if we are to mitigate against climate change then we need to change the way we deliver medicine. A simple example was the use of some anaesthetic agents which are cheaper and just as safe but have significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than others.

Megan Shaw is the Sustainability Project Officer at Sydney Children’s Hospital Network. They have already been actively trying to reduce their carbon footprint. They see this as their responsibility as they spend their time treating children who will grow up in a world damaged by climate change. Doctors initiated this process and Dr Sujata Allan needs special mention as she was working at Westmead at the time and helped get sustainability on the agenda.

Matt Hanrahan, the National CEO of Little Company of Mary Health Care Ltd, spoke of the challenges of trying to switch to a low carbon system as a large organisation. Discussions on sustainability were an everyday event and he found the session useful in giving him information to help reduce his company’s carbon foot print.

It was noted that the annual conference for the Royal Australian College of Physicians has climate change as its main theme and is bringing Professor David Pencheon of the NHS to speak about “Greening Healthcare” in the UK. He is also speaking at an event co-hosted by DEA.

Prof Ben Marais spoke of “intergenerational equity” and the “third dimension” of health which is the impact that we are having on future generations due to our current activities. Prof Tony Capon (who works closely with Ben Marais) was travelling to Wales to discuss how the Welsh government has created laws to take into consideration future generations when making approvals for new developments. This is an issue that Australia (and especially New South Wales) desperately needs to incorporate.

Many of you are probably unaware that there is a push for a whole new set of environmental laws in Australia, which comes under the banner of “Places You Love”. This process would take future generations into account when make decisions regarding new developments.

Dr Ingo Weber spoke briefly about the “No Time for Games” (NTFG) initiative regarding “Children’s health and climate change”. As Professor Fiona Stanley states, “Climate change poses a significant and growing threat to public health. However it’s our children who, despite being the least responsible for causing it, unfairly bear the brunt of the impacts.” Ingo will be leading the advocacy for the NTFG and has already formed a sub-group. If you would like to be involved then contact Ingo.


A sensational talk was given by Dr. Nick Watts who kindly made significant changes to his schedule to come to iDEA18. Nick works for the Lancet Countdown which is tracking the significant impacts that climate change is already having.

He wanted to get across 3 main points;-

Joanne McCarthy, who has received numerous awards for journalism, is well known for her work in exposing child abuse in institutions such as the Catholic Church. She spoke about the media and how it has changed since 1980, and of the importance of doctors speaking up for their advocacy on climate change. The doctor’s voice gives other groups confidence to continue with their own advocacy.

Joanne reminded us that, as doctors, we hear the “frontline” stories of how people are affected by climate change. We hear the stories of difficulty dealing with hot days. We see the difficulties managing medications such as diuretics. We see the exacerbations in asthma and sinusitis when air quality deteriorates. We should use these patient stories to make the rest of the population realise that climate change is real.

Julie Lyford OAM, Chair of Groundswell Gloucester, told the remarkable story of the small township of Gloucester, NSW that took on AGL and stopped the CSG development, after it had already been approved!! This is a great story of community activism and the ability of people power, and is an example of what needs to happen if we are going to protect our environment and subsequently our health. The story is well documented in, “The Town That Said No” by John Watts. It’s a good read.

A/Prof Linda Selvey then told us about another great battle against the fossil fuel industry – the fight against Adani and the Carmichael mine. Linda was arrested protesting against this mine. She told us her story and the efforts to slow progress on work on the railway to the proposed mine. The fight is far from over and DEA members need to continue advocacy against the mine. However, DEA does not condone breaking the law when protesting. If a person is arrested and is identified as a DEA member, it will create significant problems with our ability to function as an organisation.

Dr. Ingo Weber spoke again. Once again there was more to be said than time available. However, he gave us a quick overview of the successful Port Augusta campaign. Well done Ingo and the South Australian team.

Dr. John Van Der Kallen then read out a media release regarding the upcoming COAG negotiations on the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) which DEA does not support as it will deter transition to renewables and maintain coal usage, resulting in ill health and deaths. The delegates voted overwhelmingly to support the statement in the media release which was accompanied by this photograph.


On Saturday night delegates let their hair down. Sujata Allen organised for her band, “Daisy and the Activists” to play their unique music, and a few wines were consumed. Was that Kingsley we saw on the dance floor?

SUNDAY 15th April, 2018

On Sunday, we woke to images of Sydney burning due to the effects of a hot, dry and long summer. If ever there was a time to be actively trying to stop climate change, then that time is now.


This session was chaired by Emeritus Professor John Boulton. He gave an important overview of the link between the land and indigenous culture. He highlighted the fact that until the truth about the past atrocities against Australia’s Indigenous people are accepted, it will be virtually impossible for Indigenous people to move forward.

The concept of climate justice evokes the urgent need for an ethical response from responsible professionals to support Aboriginal people as they deal with the effects of climate change, and the threat of destructive mining practices in fragile environments.

Dr Anne Poelina is the Managing Director of Madjulla Incorporated which represents the people and environment of the Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River, WA). Anne gave a brilliant talk regarding the Mardoowarra’s “Right to Life” and how a healthy river will mean a healthy population. However, the region is under threat from mining, damming, and irrigation. In NZ, the Whanganui river (Te Awa Tupua) has been given legal rights and now has two guardians (one from the Maori and one from the Crown). The same is being sought for the Mardoowarra.

It is difficult to find partners and finances to protect the river. Given the state of the world environment, this river system has international significance and needs protecting. Definitely worth watching the beautiful video.

Anne described being recharged by “lying on the ground near her billabong” when she has been under a stress, a good example of nature as medicine! She spoke of the collective knowledge of her people and that the land is giving them signs that the environment is stressed. “Nature has a right to life”, and it is hurting.

Anne described the concept of Liyan. “Liyan is a Nyikina word, which can be translated as ‘feeling, emotion, spirit’. Some also refer to it as ‘intuition’. Liyan is the ‘life force of place’, it enables people to ‘feel’ their environment. Physical boundaries of country are not to be found on maps, but within oneself.”

Anne describes herself as an “actionist, not an activist” and would like to see more people being active. However, “how do you wake the snake?” and get people more active.

Indigenous and non-indigenous people need to work together and with the knowledge of Indigenous people we may be able to stop the decline into “climate chaos”. We need to “slow down and listen to nature”.

Dr. Rosalie Schultz has extensive experience in working with Indigenous health and is currently undertaking a PhD exploring issues of Aboriginal wellbeing and health of people and country. It is clear that Indigenous health and the land are closely connected. A good example was a trial done where Indigenous people with type 2 diabetes were taken back to the land and had a traditional diet for 7 weeks. Consequently, their diabetes significantly improved.

Karrina Nolan has worked for over 20 years alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as an organiser, strategist, campaigner and facilitator. Karrina is a very impressive presenter and her presentation was brilliant. Karrina showed the first hand damage to the environment and subsequently culture due to climate change. Currently, she is working on stopping coal seam gas development in the Northern Territory for it would cause immeasurable damage to the environment and significantly affect people’s health.

Karrina suggested that we contact the NT Ministers Gunner and Vowles. At least one member did on the following Monday and sent information regarding the dangers to health from coal seam gas. Unfortunately in the same week the NT government has opened parts of the state for gas development!


This session was beautifully chaired by Georgia Brown, a medical student at Newcastle University. First to speak was Dr. Susan Miles who gave a masterly review of the health impacts of coal mining and subsequent transport and burning of coal. Susan has an interest in occupational lung diseases and is on the Dust and Diseases Board. Watch her presentation if you need a quick reminder of the health damage coal has done.

Dr Ben Ewald presented his recently published data regarding the true health costs of the mining, transport and burning of coal. Essentially, the cost to health and to the community are not factored into the price we pay for electricity. In NSW there is a scheme called the Load Based Licencing scheme which is a cost paid for by the electricity producer, for the pollution they create. However, the fee does not accurately reflect the cost to society which is $1.94 per MW of electricity from coal fired power stations. Currently the power stations pay $0.13. Imposition of true cost would help the transition to renewable energy.

Greg Bourne from the Climate Council reviewed Australia’s current position in dealing with climate change. Essentially, Australia is falling way behind in its ability to fulfil its commitment to the Paris agreement and Australia’s emissions are increasing. The land clearing in Queensland has significantly contributed to the increase in emissions. If Australia continues along this path then after 2030 Australia’s emissions will have to be reduced impossibly quickly. Unfortunately, our current government has “a big black hole” for its post-2030 policy.

Greg spoke of a “procrastination penalty”. By not dealing adequately with our current emissions this will only make it harder later. Similarly, he said “hope is an excuse for inaction”. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of hoping that it will sort itself out. We need to get on and act now.

Glen Klatovsky is from, an organisation co-founded by Bill McKibben which aims to keep the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere below 350ppm. Unfortunately the earth has gone well beyond that and is now over 410ppm. Glen spoke of the significant impacts that climate change is already having for instance, Hurricane Katrina, which hit New York City, caused $61 Billion in damages and many of the citizens are still affected. He told the story of an elderly woman who can’t walk up or down stairs, whose apartment no longer has a functioning elevator because the basement was flooded in the hurricane. To get outside, she needed her neighbours to carry her down eight stories in a chair. This is occurring in the richest city in the richest country in the world!

The City of New York is suing the fossil fuel industry for damages. There is evidence that the fossil fuel industry knew these outcomes would occur over forty years ago and yet they continued. There are four other jurisdictions beside New York City which are involved in the litigation. This will change the world.

Similarly, the insurance companies are worried about their bottom line. Soon, they may not insure property that has a basement. Apparently, most New York buildings have a basement of some sort. This will dramatically affect property prices and will have huge implications worldwide.


Dr Kristine Barnden, the Chair of the Food and Agriculture Sustainability subcommittee of DEA, chaired the final session and presented the new DEA policy, “Health, Sustainable Diet and Agriculture” policy.

Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop gave a quick overview of the limits to sustainable agriculture. We are rapidly nearing the limits of the earth’s ability to sustain agriculture. Much of the food that we produce is used to feed animals that we subsequently eat. Consequently, much of the land and water that is used to feed the population is used to provide meat. A Vegan diet is much more sustainable.

We are quickly getting the limits of phosphate supply and without phosphates it is going to be difficult to maintain food productivity. Similarly, the nitrogen cycle is reaching its limits.

Garry Egger gave a brilliant talk on the epidemiology of Gaia’s disease. The “cause of the cause of the cause” is unfettered growth. We have moved beyond a “sweet spot” which is when the population might live in a sustainable way and is less stressed. No country in the world has been able to achieve this! In the end, much of what is driving human disease is due to damage to the environment.

To palliate the problem there needs to be a major shift to a “steady state economy”. But don’t worry, Gaia will correct herself – it is humanity that is going to need saving.

Dennis Ward represented Farmers for Climate Action (FCA) which is a relatively new organisation of farmers who are concerned about climate change. Dennis is not a farmer but a grain handler and in the last decade there has been a 20% decline in grain production in some areas of Australia with 90% of farmers concerned. FCA is making those concerns heard and points out that climate change is having an impact on the health of their population, and is likely to be related to the suicide rate amongst farmers. DEA is planning to work closely with FCA in future advocacy.


Dr Selina Lo, DEA’s new Executive Officer, gave some concluding remarks regarding the conference and future advocacy. DEA is lucky to have Selina with her extensive experience in planetary health. It is an exciting time for DEA and we are looking forward to a big year ahead.

Vienna Tran put together a quick video summary of the conference which is available on DEA's YouTube channel.

There were a number of recurring themes over the weekend:

  1. Greed and consumption. The earth is living beyond its means and we are rapidly reaching the limits of sustainability. Greed is a major driver to this unlimited development.
  2. There are many individuals and organisations working to make an impact on climate change. Sometime it can feel quite isolating but it is important to remember that you are not alone. It was a great weekend for getting together and we should value those individuals working to make a difference.
  3. Doctors can make a huge difference. We are a trusted profession and we are at the “coal face” of the impacts of climate change. We have the authority to make change. We just have to get out there and do it!


Front Row, left to right: Georgia Brown, Amanda Zhou, Vienna Tran, Henness Wong, Kim Loo, Peggy Xie. Back row: Anthea Katelaris, John Van Der Kallen, Sujata Allan, Sophia Hill, Clancy Read, Jeffery Wang. Absent: Nicole Sleeman, Gail Curby. Jacqueline Hall, Manprit Kaur

To see videos of the conference, click here

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