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The summer everything changed

In September last year, Rachel Green went on maternity leave. By the time she returned to work, running a mental health and disability service provider, she was committed to embedding climate action within not only her organisation, but across the sector.

The story below is published as part of Croakey’s contribution to the global media collaboration, Covering Climate Now.


Rachel Green writes:

Rachel Green

As a mum of three young kids living in Sydney’s inner west and the CEO of a mental health and disability service provider, Independent Community Living Australia (ICLA), I am seriously worried for the future.

In September 2019 I began maternity leave and thought I might try cloth nappies to do my bit for the environment.

Within a short time I found myself trapped at home in Sydney through extreme heat with a newborn and two other little kids unable to escape the smoke.

I felt terribly worried about my family and friends, especially my younger sister who was pregnant with her first baby and living in country NSW under a constant blanket of smoke.

As Chair of Sands Australia, I know only too well the dangers of smoke exposure for foetal health and newborn safe sleeping, but this was the first time I had considered the intersection of climate change, bushfires and potentially combined impacts.

There was little that could be done to reduce the risk; well before the panic buying of toilet paper during COVID was the first wave of mask shortages and panic buying of air purifiers – something many people on low incomes cannot afford.

I already have a lived experience of anxiety, but this was a whole new ball game.

The gravity of the natural disaster combined with the realisation that in the 30-plus years since scientists first began to raise the alarm about the greenhouse effect driving an unstable and warming climate, we have achieved almost nothing in terms of transition to a low carbon emitting society.

The author’s sister, midwife Angela Green, on a farm in NSW in December 2019

Extreme conditions

Although I’m originally from Canberra, if you ask me where I grew up, I’ll tell you it was spending every spare moment on a block of bush out the back of Malua Bay and summers at Mossy Point in a fibro shack built by my Grandpa on the NSW South Coast, or visiting my Mum’s place in Surf Beach.

With famously beautiful beaches and hundreds of kilometres of bush, the South Coast is the peace I imagine when I’m feeling stressed out. Or at least it was.

It was here on the South Coast where my best friend Janine lives, just behind Mogo. In the lead up to Christmas, she and I shared Rural Fire Service (RFS) updates over Messenger as they grew more and more concerning.

When the fires went over the top of her home near Mogo, I watched the grey outline of the fire on the RFS app expand over her house, unable to get through to her or know she was safe.

She made it to safety, but I’ll never forget the feeling of not knowing.

It soon became clear that most of Australia was completely unprepared for this level of crisis, despite thirty years of warnings that a changing climate would lead to hotter and more intense fires.

There were no fully stocked evacuation centres. For weeks afterwards my friend, like most on the South Coast, was stuck without power, petrol, food or outside help. Few people or services could get there to help due to the road closures, downed power lines and ongoing fire threat.

Even as the direct threat of fires seemed to fade and we were able to stay in contact, new threats continually emerged for her – tree trunks still burning from the inside out and looters looking for generators had her anxiety stuck on extreme for weeks on end.

Trees still burning from the inside several weeks after fires raged through Mogo

Tweets by the author from January, 2020:

A better plan

If this is the reality of our future, then we have to have a better plan. But is adaptation all there is left? Or can we still head off the worst of climate change?

By the time I finished maternity leave in February 2020, I’d gone from ‘cloth nappies’ to climate activism.

Climate change had gone from an ambiguous threat to something I can see, breathe, smell and taste.

It was everywhere, from the dusting of ash on the laundry to the difficulties at ICLA supporting people living in the homes we provide through power outages and days of extreme heat. Just as things seemed to settle, COVID-19 emerged as a new threat.

It is important to recognise that while coronavirus isn’t climate-related, there are plenty of diseases that will spread further as it gets hotter and we should be really worried about our lack of preparedness for simultaneous disasters.

Come this summer, on the increasingly frequent 40-degree days, I wonder will the current health advice to head to a crowded shopping mall still be the main public health recommendation in light of COVID-19?

And if not there, then where to for people who are homeless or on low incomes?

What will it mean for mental health, domestic violence and child protection when the bushfire season overlaps with disease spread, extreme heat and economic stress? Where is our plan?

Sometimes from the most difficult times comes inspiration.

To help support people coping with isolation at ICLA we developed a new program of mental health support called eFriend delivered by trained peers and supported by the federal government. Feedback on the service has been overwhelmingly positive with many people experiencing loneliness and isolation able to reach out to our eFriend Peers, to talk to someone who understands and can empathise with their situation.

Leadership

As a business leader I also have a role to play and in January I surveyed our workforce to find out what issues were important to them. Climate change was listed as their top concern.

In response, our Board made a commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, but the reality is that, as a not for profit NDIS provider, we have limited funds to invest in emissions reduction.

We are working to set up our first zero emissions mental health service and are exploring the feasibility of converting our fleet to fully electric vehicles, but the availability and cost for such a conversion is limited by a lack of government incentives to boost the electric vehicle market and a lack of support for NGOs to transition generally.

Drastic changes must begin now and accelerate fast. Fortunately, there are serious economic gains in a renewable economy and COVID-19 has proven we can change society rapidly.

Wanting to connect with other organisations on this issue I then wrote to all the CEOs I know and formed a climate leadership group.

On 6 July, the one-year anniversary of when the bushfire crisis began, ICLA – along with 13 other mental health, suicide prevention, homelessness and disability organisations – released a joint statement calling for stronger action to reduce emissions.

It’s worth noting that to date there is no national strategy on climate, health and wellbeing, something for which the Climate and Health Alliance has been strongly arguing.

Health and homelessness community-managed organisations are always called upon to support the community following a crisis or natural disaster – we need to be consulted on both preventative and adaptive strategies, and resourced to prepare for a future in which everything is impacted by climate change.

A national strategy built with the health, mental health, homelessness and social sectors would be a good place to start.

Actions to consider

There are things you can do that will have an impact, like switch your superannuation to a fund that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels, asking your employer to consider switching to green energy and switching to a bank that doesn’t fund coal.

You can join Australian Parents for Climate Action and support their Solar Our Schools Campaign – a plan which would have clear benefits for jobs and emissions reduction, as well as freeing up resources for education with the power savings from renewable energy.

We also need to invest in mental health services for the future and in local communities to be able to respond. We have the prospect of a massive mental ill health curve increasing post COVID, but an even larger one into the future with climate change impacts on mental ill health. Just ask those struggling to cope with last summer’s bushfires, 10-year drought and recent floods across NSW.

But more than anything else – more than better coping strategies, adapted buildings and health strategies, we need to urgently and rapidly halt emissions and be a leader for global action to cut emissions.

While it is often argued that Australia’s emissions are insignificant compared to larger emitters, our influence is anything but. Take COP-25, for example, where Australia was actually part of a push against stronger targets to reduce emissions.

On coping with climate anxiety whilst raising children I believe our job now is to prepare our kids for a future in which we’ve left consumerism and a disposable culture behind. It is also to help them cope with the mental health impacts of what is likely to be a continuing experience of major events and climate impacts.

For our part, we are trying to teach our kids to grow plants and fix things. There is something especially healing about planting trees and introducing kids to caring for the environment.

I try to teach them that worn is better than ‘on trend’. That it’s people and experiences that matter, not stuff and that there is no “away” to throw things to.

The author’s son, Jim, planting a forest giant Eucalypt, Jan 2020

Creating hope

But to do that, I (like most people), need hope.

Hope that Australia will step up and be a leader on this issue by committing to net zero emissions by 2050 and encouraging other countries to do the same; after all, we are all in this together.

Hope that it isn’t too late to stave off the worst-case scenarios. Unfortunately, so far Australia remains uncommitted to net zero 2050 and some analysts calculate that our current strategy will not see Australia reach net zero emissions for another 300 years.

I’m asking you to join me in taking action.

If you work for an NGO, ask them to sign our open letter.

Make this an issue at your workplace, ask your employer what their climate change strategy is, join the Climate and Health Alliance and sign the call for a National Strategy for Climate Health and Well-being. And maybe plant a tree.

Rachel Green is Chief Executive Officer, ICLA, and Chair, Sands Australia

Follow on Twitter: @thinkasklisten


This article is published as part of Croakey’s contribution to the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented global media collaboration launched last year to put the spotlight on the climate crisis. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian.

See Croakey’s archive of climate and health articles. If you value our coverage of climate and health, please consider supporting our Patreon fundraising campaign, so we can provide regular, in-depth coverage of the health impacts of the climate crisis, taking a local, national and global approach.

All funds raised go to a dedicated fund to pay writers and editors to put a sustained focus on the health impacts of climate change. Please help us to produce stories that will inform the health sector, policy makers, communities, families and others about how best to respond to this public health crisis.

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