As my son choked on bushfire smoke it was clear our most vulnerable are feeling our climate negligence

07 08 2022 | 08:26Nic Seton

Any new coal and gas projects are incompatible with effective climate action. This egregious compromise has to stop now

Rushing my two-year-old son to hospital, I was overwhelmed with worry: there was no escape from the toxic smoke, even where we lived in inner-city Sydney. It went on and on. As any parents would be, we were terrified about what the next few days would hold.

The call came from his childcare centre. Our baby boy had been choking on the air. For months we felt as though we had nowhere safe to go and no way to adequately protect him.

Our son was just one of more than 4,000 people who ended up in hospital due to the smoke from bushfires that summer – almost 450 people died from smoke inhalation and I’ll be forever grateful that he was not one of them.

I was reminded of just how disempowered I felt at that time when news of the latest state of the environment report came last week.

The report confirmed what we already knew from experience: climate change is having a real impact on the environment and we are seeing the effects now.

Extreme weather events including bushfires are only getting more frequent and more intense – and the health impacts of future bushfire smoke and heatwaves are among my biggest concerns for my children.

The environment we live in and that we are raising our children in is in decline because we have neglected it for generations. That trend is set to continue without substantial nature restoration and ambitious climate action.

While my son was in the hospital it was already clear that our youngest and most vulnerable were feeling the impact of our negligence.

The state of the environment report said: “Environmental degradation is now considered a threat to humanity, which could bring about societal collapses with long-lasting and severe consequences.”

While the natural world is in decline, the impact of extreme weather on all of us will increase, and our food and water security are at risk.

So I have again been thinking about what kind of environment we are trying to raise happy, healthy and safe children in, as well as the world they and their children will inherit. What does the future look like for them?

Today’s world is already deteriorating before our eyes. But it’s not too late to turn this story around.

To keep our children and wildlife safe into the future, we need a covenant that acknowledges two key Australian values: that we love and value our unique natural environment; and that older Australians hold a duty of care for our young people.

Australians are so proud of our environment. We take our international visitors to feed kangaroos and see koalas, or we take our families on bucket-list trips to the Great Barrier Reef and the red deserts of central Australia.

We are also united by our sense of fairness and a desire to protect children and our most vulnerable members of the community.

The federal court judge Justice Mordecai Bromberg described the impacts of climate change as “the greatest intergenerational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next”. He said this during his (since-overturned) judgment in a class action challenging the former environment minister Sussan Ley’s approval of a coalmine expansion. The approval went ahead.

Will the new environment minister honour the duty of care one would expect of the role?

The fact that older Australians are bequeathing this deep ecological debt to younger and future generations should trouble us all deeply.

If we truly hold those values close, we can have an impact. With better education, attention, collaboration and advocacy from all sectors, we can stop the endless destruction and hold our leaders to account.

We can introduce regulations that protect the air we breathe, the soil our farmers work, the water we drink.

But most importantly we can call on our leaders to rule out approving any new coal and gas projects – any new projects are incompatible with a safe climate. This egregious compromise has to stop now.

Any development project approvals must consider the comprehensive climate impacts of all projects and activities that threaten our ecosystems, not each project in isolation.

We could follow the Welsh example of a law that ensures that listed government bodies consider the quality of life of current and future generations in their decisions. The Well-Being of Future Generations Act acknowledges the duty of care that those in power have for young people, and the stewardship we have for our environmental, social and cultural heritage.

The solutions are available but we need bold and decisive action and support at all levels of government and across party lines.

The story I tell my son, who is now four, about our natural environment is simple: if we want to enjoy the beautiful nature that Australia has to offer, we must be the ones to take care of it now.

If our leaders in government and business share our Australian values of fairness, pride in our natural environment and care for our children, they will listen to that same story.

  • Nic Seton is the chief executive of Australian Parents for Climate Action



As my son choked on bushfire smoke it was clear our most vulnerable are feeling our climate negligence