School of Population Health

Response to the bushfire crisis and climate change emergency

Image bushfire response

The recent Australian bushfire emergency has had unprecedented impact on Australian communities and the environment. The public health ramifications, which may not be known for years, need immediate addressing.

The School of Public Health and Community Medicine (SPHCM) recognises the urgent need for a comprehensive and evidence-based public health approach to mitigate the long term impacts of the climate change emergency on public health.

Associate Professor in Urban Health and Environment, Xiaoqi Feng said: “Exposure to bushfire smoke can be harmful, but the health impacts could be intensified by other factors in communities, such as chronic conditions and socioeconomic disadvantage.   

“Better data on who is more vulnerable, where and when, will aid decision making on allocation of resources designed for prevention and mitigation.”

Professor Rebecca Ivers, Head of the SPHCM, said the School has an important and critical role to play in Australia’s response to climate change.

“We have some of world’s leading experts in public health research, making us well placed to contribute an evidence-based approach to addressing the ramifications of climate change for health outcomes and economies globally,” said Professor Ivers.

“There is a lot we still need to understand about how to most effectively prevent and respond to the looming health crisis from climate change; this means prioritising and growing our research focus and capacity in this area.”

Over recent weeks, the SPHCM has responded to the bushfire emergency with urgency, proactively contributing to public conversation via international and national media, social media, blogs, and podcasts.

The SPHCM recently hosted a staff meeting to discuss a coordinated approach to the bushfire emergency and what else the School can be doing in response to the bushfire crisis and climate change. Plans will evolve over the coming months, include making submissions for grants for research and growing efforts and collaborations, such as through the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Policy Research and the Centre for Climate Change Research.

UNSW response to the bushfires and climate change

UNSW has been responding to the bushfire emergency in a number of ways, such as offering special leave for those whose homes have been affected by the fires. UNSW is working with the Group of Eight to communicate with Federal and state governments to suggest immediate and longer term ways in which we can assist in addressing the impact of the fires on communities in Australia. For more information about the UNSW response, click here.

In the UNSW Environmental Sustainability Plan 2019-21, the University recognises and commits to tackling the complex environmental challenges facing our planet.

Aligned with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and global targets, the SPHCM supports this plan and will be actively working with colleagues across UNSW to help expedite action to meet these targets.

Bushfire media coverage and other commentary

During the bushfire emergency, the SPHCM and other UNSW experts have been providing commentary.

Professor Bin Jalaludin has been providing ongoing commentary, for example:

Professor Guy Marks contributed to a piece in Croakey on Reflections from health leaders.

Professor Rebecca Ivers, contributed a piece in the Conversation: Where is the comprehensive public health response to the bushfire climate emergency?
Professor Christine Jenkins contributed a piece in the Conversation: I'm struggling to breathe with all the bushfire smoke – could I have undiagnosed asthma?

For more UNSW media coverage and commentary on the bushfires, visit the UNSW Newsroom.

Get in touch

For further information about how the SPHCM is responding to the bushfire emergency and climate change, how you can be involved, or ideas, please contact Kate Patten at

Photo Shutterstock: Sydney, Australia - December 19, 2019: Fire and Rescue personal run to move their truck as a bushfire burns next to a major road and homes on the outskirts of the town of Bilpin on December 19, 2019