When I was a teenager, my parents moved us to a rural property with the dream of building a house. But they were inexperienced builders, which meant we lived in a caravan for years. One year it simply didn’t rain, and we suddenly had no water. And it kicked our butts.
Our family had no water, our livestock had no water, my pony Cindy had no water… It was a very firsthand experience of how dependent we are on nature. And it was that experience that made me decide to study science at Monash University.
I got very interested in fluvial geomorphology, the study of our rivers. I even planned to do my PhD on the subject. I loved science, but I realised I didn’t have the patience for the precision required. I decided I should leave the detailed work to people more suited to it, and instead use the science to advocate for big change. That’s when I moved into policy and advocacy.
Big changes are obviously needed. The science is very clear: the survival of our species as we know it, is on the line. We have to make massive changes to ensure a safe climate and put an end to the extinction crisis, the two most immediate challenges facing us.
People now understand the climate crisis quite well: research tell us that 70-80% of the population gets it. But the extinction crisis is not well understood: only 34% of Australians recognise it, while Australia has the distinction of leading the world in the number of mammals that have gone extinct.
Part of the solution is helping people understand the seriousness of the problems. But the social science is really clear on this: if you scare the bejesus out of people, then they’re going to flight, not fight. So we at the Australian Conservation Foundation always use the clear science to outline a problem, but we try not to get stuck in the problem.
We say to people, “Here are the solutions – ready to go right now. But they’re not going to happen unless we speak up and act.”
It’s not just so our kids can see koalas snoozing in gum trees: our lives are at risk. Our human species, including the people we love most in the world, are 100 percent dependent on a healthy, biodiverse planet.
Meanwhile, Australia leads the world in habitat destruction, clearing bush and forests for essentially beef production, most of which we export overseas. We need to change that – and we can change. We need to stop cutting down our native forests. We need to start repairing and rebuilding our bush. And there are ways in which we can be much more productive with the land that we have already cleared. The science on this is crystal clear.
We are a highly developed, incredibly intelligent country. But we need to produce our food more sustainably.
In climate, we just need to keep ramping up the solutions. We need to urgently cut climate pollution, which means we have to roll out enormous amounts of renewable energy.
Australia is the third largest exporter of emissions to the world, mostly in our coal and gas exports. Our exports drive global warming, yet we’re a country with so many opportunities in renewables, we could be incredibly important in solving the climate crisis. We could be using renewables in Australia to power green aluminium, electricity and hydrogen to re-create a manufacturing sector in Australia and export clean materials to the world. So while we’re a big part of the climate pollution problem right now, we could be a big part of the solution.
For too long this kind of thinking was in the “greeny” basket. But that tide has turned. The ACF’s supporter base isn’t the latte-sipping inner-city folks that our critics once said we were. We are about half a million people, quite diverse in terms of geography, with a lot of supporters in rural and regional Australia. We recognise that farming is essential, food production is essential, and energy production is essential. Our coal and gas communities want to have good lives. They want to be able to pay their mortgages, send their kids to good schools, and be well off. And they probably want to keep living in Gladstone or the Hunter Valley. And it’s the same for our farming communities. At ACF, we respect that and offer solutions that are good for people and good for nature.
ACF works in Gladstone, Central Queensland where the people understand that climate change is real. They understand that the world is going to move away from coal and gas, and they want a future. This is where renewables are the answer.
We’re helping them speak up for their future, not forcing a view as an environment group from Melbourne, or a politician in Canberra exploiting them as a political wedge, but helping them shape their future. And when you arm people with information – the science – about what that future can look like, they will take that seriously, determine what’s best for them, and figure out how they can transition their communities in a fair way – and hopefully in a fast way, because we need to do it fast.
It doesn’t matter how you take your coffee in the morning, or even who you vote for, we’re all in this together when it comes to surviving on the planet.
If the COVID crisis taught us one thing, it’s that people’s interest and trust in science is well-placed. People really appreciated that we needed science to solve the problem or we were all stuffed, and any sensible human understood that and if we didn’t have science, we could never get back to any sense of normality.
That’s been a big boost in people’s belief that science is something we can put our trust in. And can help us find ways to tackle this next urgent set of challenges.
As told to Graem Simms for Cosmos Weekly.
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