Doctors for the Environment and Planetary Health

Shaun Watson with Peggy and Flossy in the Kanimbla

Shaun Watson with Peggy and Flossy in the Kanimbla. (Photo: Hamish Dunlop)

Story and photos by Hamish Dunlop

Shaun Watson is the NSW Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia. At his home-away-from-home in the Kanimbla Valley, he talks about his motivation to fight for the planet, the health impacts of fossil fuels and simple things we can do to make a difference.


Key Points:

  • Doctors for the Environment Australia exists because human health is inextricably linked to environmental health.
  • The organisation is issuesbased: from bushfires and floods to mental health and biodiversity.
  • DEA’s actions demonstrate grassroots actions and like-minds can truly make a difference to planetary health.

I’m driving down a winding dirt track in the Kanimbla Valley. As I come around a bend, an excited Labrador romps along beside the car. I slow down, enough for a determined dachshund to catch up. Where the dirt track peters out, I find a small dwelling nestled in the landscape.

Shaun is a neurologist who works in Randwick and Blacktown. He’s also the NSW Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA). On my drive down, I’ve been imaging someone in a crisp buttoned shirt, casual slacks and maybe R.M. Williams boots.

To my surprise, the man who greets me is dressed in worn pants. His coarse woollen jumper is peppered with colourful darns. I am struck by the softness of his face as he turns me a generous smile. “Come on in,” he says, “Tea?”

The house is filled with art and books. It’s well lived in. “Not over cleaned,” Shaun says. The low profile, off-grid dwelling runs on three solar panels and some old car batteries. There is a cottage garden with fruit trees and a rambunctious vegetable patch. Fire screens sit ready to cover the doors and windows, and a pump and hose can be connected to the dam.

“Home is where the heart is,” Shaun says. “You’ve got to be connected to the world to want to fight for it.”

shaun watson making tea

The main room with Shaun making tea. (Hamish Dunlop)

Climate action from a place of love

At the height of the 2019/20 fires, family and friends were gathered in Sydney. It was the 30th birthday celebration of his and his wife Kati’s eldest daughter. The air was smoky and there was a pervasive eerie light. “My daughter Chloe was pregnant at the time and spent most of the party in her room crying, not wanting to bring a new life into this world. It was absolutely devastating for us.”

If there was a seminal moment that galvanised his resolve to fight for people and the planet, this was it. He says at some stage, the penny dropped about being a doctor.

“I realised that it gave me a kind of trusted, respected voice. Even though I’ve been a doctor for a very long time, I wasn’t aware that there was a particular organisation in Australia that combined medicine with environmental concerns.” After some Googling in 2020, he found Doctors for the Environment Australia.

books on a coffee table

Get to know a person by the books they read. (Hamish Dunlop)

DEA in Wentworth, Sydney

Not long after signing up, he received a call from the then national chair, Dr John Van Der Kallen. DEA had decided to run a campaign in five electorates leading up to the last Federal election. One of those electorates was Wentworth in Sydney. This is where Shaun and Kati live when they’re not in the Kanimbla.

Shaun says, as with all DEA activities, the campaign was apolitical and nonpartisan. “DEA is an issues-focused organisation,” he says. “The campaign was focused on raising awareness of climate change: its health impacts and the health dimensions. We engaged with politicians from across the political spectrum.”

One of the activities DEA undertook was collecting signatures in support of positive climate change policies. “We went to places like the Bondi Markets and the mall in Bondi Junction. People signed postcards in support of positive action on climate change. Then we delivered those postcards to politicians including Dave Sharma, the Liberal MP for Wentworth at the time.”

Allegra Spender was the independent MP who was elected. One of her key policies is the need for urgent action on climate change. Shaun’s partner/wife Kati was also heavily involved in the campaign. Shaun recalls that it was a baptism of fire. “We’d gone from stationary to full tilt running in a matter of months.”

dog on a lounge

Home is where the heart is: a content Flossy. (Hamish Dunlop)

found objects on a shelf


Objects to live by. (Hamish Dunlop)

Doctors for the Environment Australia

DEA is a registered charity and run predominantly by volunteers. In NSW, Shaun is very active along with around 30 others. “Among many things, we write submissions to organisations and politicians,” he explains. “Sometimes we are invited to take part in inquiries relating to human and environment health. DEA’s reason for being is that human health is inextricably linked to environmental health.”

The focus for this year is raising awareness about the health impacts of fossil fuels. “It’s an issue that needs to be addressed urgently,” Shaun explains. “Burning fossil fuels produces CO2 that is a greenhouse gas which warms the atmosphere. This climate pollution has wide ranging health consequences associated with increased heat, from increased mortality to mental health. The combustion of fossil fuels also damages human health through the tiny particles and other gases produced, such as nitrogen dioxide.”

He’s hoping the campaign will change people’s behaviour at all levels of government and inform individuals too. “Part of what we’re trying to do is take away the social license for gas, oil and coal,” he says. “All of us at DEA think we can change the world. We’re going to do everything in our power to do so.”

dr shaun watson and dog

Shaun and Flossy with the house looking west. (Hamish Dunlop)

What we can we do for human and planetary health

Shaun says there are a variety of things we can do to support the health of humans and the environment. He says there are often co-benefits to positive actions: for the environment, health and our finances. He points to simple lifestyle changes such as cycling, or taking public transport when you can. Eating one less meat meal a week is another example.

Voting is something else Shaun and Kati think is important. “Voting for people who have progressive climate policies is something we can all do,” Shaun says. “Moving money is a powerful thing too. There are banks and super funds that are focused on ethical, climate-related issues and it’s not difficult to switch.”

“Engaging with like-minded people is another potent way to act,” he expounds. “I did feel powerless and depressed. Finding DEA has absolutely transformed my life and my mental health. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that support the benefits of joining/belonging to a community of like-minds,” Shaun says.

“We’re living the motto, ‘Always go to the party’,” says Kati. “For us, it means always putting our hand up for anything that might make a difference. Literally, you never know where a conversation with someone might lead.”

“You can engage with your local member by writing or calling them,” Kati continues. “This can raise their awareness about what you think is important. Donating to organisations that are fighting for positive climate action is another way to contribute. It doesn’t have to be much, but everything counts.”

Shaun thinks that climate justice needs to be a foundational principle of how we approach climate change. “The message is that everyone must be taken along. Planetary health is about all people. Engaging with First Nations peoples is fundamental to this. We’re committed to recognising Australia’s unceded lands, respecting its peoples and actively listening.”

kanimbla valley sunset

 Sunset in the Kanimbla. (Hamish Dunlop)

Starting somewhere

As we finish up our conversation, Shaun reflects on the psychological effects of the climate challenge. “For some reason, we seem to struggle to find hope and the capacity to take action in the face of climate change,” he says. “It’s like we’ve gone from denial to despair without going through the phase where hope can be realised in our positive actions.”

“As with everything in life, we have to start somewhere,” he considers. “We have to start right where we find ourselves and work with what we have. No matter how many degrees the planet warms, we need to allow ourselves the chance to make our contribution and never forget that every 0.1 degree matters.”


Take Action:

  • Grassroots actions and like-minds can truly make a difference to planetary health.
  • We can all contribute!
  • Doctors for the Environment Australia fact sheets can be found here on subjects ranging from bushfire and floods, to traffic emissions, trees and mental health.

Share this article:


This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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