The following speech was delivered by Dr Jeannet Kessels, in Canberra on the 5th of February, 2020.

Good afternoon.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we stand, and their elders past, present and emerging. I recognise that, very painfully, this land has never been ceded.

 I am Dr Jeannet Kessels, a veterinary surgeon from Ipswich, west of Brisbane, and chair of ‘Veterinarians for Climate Action’.

I have a story for you. 

500 years ago, Halley’s comet was predicted to fly over the Earth. So the story goes, the Pope at the time, Callixtus the third, wrote a personal declaration to say ‘We have banned the comet from earth. It will not be allowed to fly over the earth.’  

But, of course, it was empty rhetoric. The comet came anyway. Because such is the law of physics. Similarly, rhetoric like, ‘meeting and beating’, is not going to keep global warming under 2 degrees. Only through a sharp turn in our behaviour will this be stopped. For such is the law of physics.

Excuses of uncertainty, the defence of ignorance, has no influence. We don’t have control over nature, and however we speak of her, we must deeply respect her power, which, over these last few months we have seen and experienced, first-hand; immense, raw and devastating.

We are gathered here in respect for the billion animals lost in these terrible fires. To share our love for nature, on whom we rely for both our joy and our very existence. Together we think of the spectacular and relentless power of nature. 

But most of all we are gathered here today, to mourn the billion animals who have been lost; to mourn the loss of all of this biodiversity, the seen and the unseen. 

Veterinarians are well versed with death, with loss and displacement. With grief. We are there to say goodbye to the 18-year-old cat who has seen the family through all its ups and downs; births, celebrations and tragedies. I remember a particularly gorgeous family who called me out on a Sunday afternoon. They had run over their family dog on the way to a fancy-dress party. There was a pig, a snow white, a ninja and perhaps a pirate. And I cried with them all as we helped their dog to pass.  And I remember the soldier, strong, handsome, fine and tattooed. His dial tone was a machine gun popping, but he sobbed inconsolably at the loss of his beautiful little dog. So, Vets understand grief, a few losses per week. We also understand displacement. Pets are lost every day.

A client called about a little lost bird resting on a door in his house. He thought it was somebody’s pet. But when he sent me a photo, it wasn’t a budgie or a cockatiel, but a plain little bird with a black face. A beautiful, tiny, exhausted black-faced monarch who belongs in the rainforest, not in suburban Brisbane. A wild bird who should not be allowing a pat. That little bird weighing 25 grams must fly thousands of kilometers from Papua New Guinea to NSW and back again, through heating temperatures, through and around the smoke of bushfires. At 25 grams. I understand the lost pet budgie, but I don’t understand the disorientation of the black-faced monarch who belongs in the rainforest. The slow stress of the displacement of the invisible. 

As a veterinarian I understand the death of animals. A few every week. But not the loss of a billion. It’s incomprehensible and I can never accept it.

I made a trip from south east Queensland through rural New South Wales last month and I have seen where the raging infernos have been. It is black. The flames have taken everything. You look to the ridges of the hills from a distance and what used to be thick forest is now a row of sticks. The animals, the birds I like to watch, the little lizards, the sugar gliders, who have all been quietly doing their own thing, working it out for themselves over millions of years, are gone. 

There is a silence, a quiet that is distressing. It is not what I see but what I don’t see. It is not what I hear but what I don’t hear.

I think of those animals who have been hurt in the fires. Burns distress me. You can stitch a wound, you can plate a broken leg, and you can deliver puppies by caesarean. But burns. They are excruciatingly painful and, under fur, it is hard to know how extensive they will be until it gradually becomes apparent. Burns cause immense suffering. And they distress me.

From our deep distress must come movement in a new direction. Until now we have allowed weak excuses of uncertainty; the defence of ignorance. They no longer apply.

Through our sadness we must determine to stop this tragedy from repeating itself, again and again, year after year. We have time for sadness but not for the luxury of despair; through our distress must come a resolve for hope and action.


Author and speaker Simon Sinek’s ‘Golden Circle’ suggests we must start with ‘Why’. Once we have a powerful ‘Why’, we can move to the How and the What and the Who. Our powerful ‘Why’ for action is to protect the animals we universally love. The ‘Why’ of a billion animals lost, cannot be more powerful.

Whilst governments are pulled in all directions, our government must put climate action very close to the top. It is only when we recognise urgency that we run. And it is when we feel immense pain that we sprint. It is our scientists who need to point us in the direction in which to sprint. Australia has eminent scientists who have been working relentlessly for decades. The most respected people realise that the carbon crisis is caused by non-linear effects, from well understood causes. What I propose is that we fix this problem with a hyper-realistic fact-based approach.

In ancient Greece it was thought that medical conditions were caused by the four humours, the four biles, and with an imbalance of biles, all kinds of conditions occurred. Now, in the 21st century we understand that germs and viruses and cancer aren’t dependent on biles; vets aren’t fixing snake bites in dogs and milk fever in cows with the theory of biles; they are fixing them with modern science. Advances like anaesthetics and penicillin could not have taken place with an inaccurate world view. We use a fact-based, hyper-realistic method for solving problems in modern medicine. 

 We need to treat this crisis like it is modern medicine and we need to treat it with modern tools. Let’s think about it this way.

We wouldn’t build a mighty bridge without an engineer signing off on it. And we cannot have a climate policy that is not signed off by our eminent scientists.

I believe our professions can help to sell the science to the public. In collaboration with many different disciplines; from engineering and industry to agriculture and veterinary science, we can bring ideas to life. 

I’m a veterinarian and I am not given to making pretty speeches. I am someone who listens carefully to my people, understands, and then finds solutions. We together must build positive feedback loops to get this climate crisis under control. We must focus, not backwards with blame, but forwards with vision. Veterinarians for climate action will support the government wherever it possibly can in phasing out fossil fuels. Other nations have done it and so must we. Veterinarians can work together with government to focus on reducing emissions through regenerative agriculture. This will simultaneously show kindness to our livestock. We can work with the scientific community in reducing methane emissions. We will start in our own sector, measure our sustainability, and improve the practices in our own veterinary hospitals. We will work with government in preserving our rich biodiversity. We can support the strategic planting of trees, the right trees, to pump carbon while taking care of the koalas we all love, and the black-faced monarchs most of us haven’t even heard of.

I am a small person, much as I suggest most of us in this audience are today. We care deeply but we are unassuming and do not necessarily feel in our own way powerful. today. We don’t regard ourselves as pivotal. But we are on an emergency footing. Each individual, each workplace, each sector must come together to do its part; to work alongside, to support our leaders in moving forwards in a strong, effective and resolute manner, so that we can look back with pride that we did our best, from 2020. 

With the inconsolable loss of a billion animals, which we refuse to accept as the new norm, the momentum is building.  We need to be able to look back in 30 years and be proud of what we have done. That whatever the outcome, we as a nation have done all that we possibly could, from 2020 on.