24 February 2015
I want to begin by adding my respectful acknowledgement of country, to the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of this land.
I am very mindful that Aboriginal people lived and walked here long before the arrival of Europeans; that they managed the country thoughtfully and with care.
I want to acknowledge the presence of Professor Charles Krebs, now thinker-in-residence at the Institute for Applied Ecology at the University of Canberra, who I understand is in the audience, and after whom this lecture series is named.
I also want to pass on my respects to the family of Professor Dave Chocquenot who was previously the director of the Institute, but who passed away suddenly in early January.
I understand that Dave was keen to have me give this lecture and I’m thankful for this opportunity. I extend my condolences to his wife Dianne and children Kirra and Kelly on their loss.
I pose the question this evening: how long can we go on biting the hand that feeds us? By that I mean, have we reached the endpoint of drawing down on the earth’s finite resources, whilst at the same time pumping planet-heating pollution into the air?
My answer, consistent with science and I think common sense, is yes we have.
We are quite literally products of a planet made up of productive ecosystems that enable human populations to survive; some like us in relative comfort, many in various states of poverty.
I’m suggesting that as we are well into the new century, and with the world continuing to warm, with the tipping point of around two degrees increase in global temperatures getting closer by the day, that delaying robust action on dangerous climate change is a crime against humanity.
I’m not the first person to say this – Professor James Hansen, the American climate scientist amongst others has expressed a similar view – and I fear I won’t be the last either.
But I believe we need to express this judgement, even if it might be contested, in order to shake ourselves, and the country we live in, into action.
I argue that Australia, with its high standard of living, and (not so incidentally) rich biodiversity, has much to lose if we don’t seize the moment and change our ways, and much to gain if we do change.
Simply put we need to quickly reduce greenhouse pollution or wear the consequences of a human induced phenomenon; a warmer, wilder world, experienced locally and globally.
I think there a number of simple steps that we can start to take or retake to make a difference in this tough situation.
First, a bit of scene setting.
When I came to Canberra to study a very long time ago, global populations sat at around 4 billion, the amount of greenhouse gases being put into the atmosphere was less than today, and China was a predominantly agrarian society.
The dimension of population is shown by the numbers growing from 1.6 billion at the turn of the last century, one hundred and fourteen years ago, to around 7.2 billion – toiling, building, struggling – people today.
So the distinctive feature of being an inhabitant of earth in 2015 is the now dominant role of humans.
Some scientists have argued the need for a new term for this era where the main agent of change on earth is actually us.
Fourteen years ago Nobel Prize laureate, Paul Crutzen, suggested that the world was entering a new geological epoch.
He said at the time, ‘The human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system.’
And he suggested naming this new epoch the Anthropocene. Even as some scientists continue to debate the validity of the term, events since have borne out the relevance of identifying this new human dominated era.
It was also 14 years ago that an editorial from The Age newspaper was published (in November 2000).
It read, ‘Welcome to our new world. Next century more bushfires, much of the Great Barrier Reef could be destroyed in 40 years, cities will heat up and get smoggier.’
We live in the middle of this turbo charged change of earth systems, where geological history is now running at warp speed, to use writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s expression.
More people on earth than ever before, producing more greenhouse gases than ever before, contributing to the heating of earth’s atmosphere and extreme weather – melting ice caps, glacial retreat, severe droughts – the partners of such rapid change.
It is inescapable that human numbers, our technologies and their pollution producing capacity, not the slower geophysical processes that marked previous epochs, are now driving the planetary cycle.
This is a supra challenge if you like because the substantial alterations of the physical character of the earth: its air and water, through CO2 and nitrogen overload: its landmass, with well over one third altered and ongoing vegetation loss, especially in tropical forests; the increased use of resources, driven by consumption, all coming smack bang up against the biophysical limits of the planet.
The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was over 800,000 years ago, and 2014 was the hottest recorded year globally, the third hottest recorded in Australia, and in a non El Nino year at that. All our recorded warmest years have been since 1990.
As one observer put it, earth is no longer a safe operating place. Although that may seem a stretch when you look out on Canberra’s leafy streets, across to the Brindabella Mountains, on a stormy, pre-autumn afternoon such as this one.
One way of assessing whether we can continue on a business as usual path, waiting for a miracle techno cure to rescue us, is to consider the snapshot metric of how many planets would we need for all seven billion of earth’s population to enjoy the same standard of living, at current growth and consumption rates, that we currently have in Australia.
The estimated answer is three and a half more earths. And it’s a long way to Mars.
I feel with the level of complacency that sometimes permeates the public debate on this issue, that you just have to labour the point.
So apologies for repeating the broadcast, but holding temperature increase to a level that doesn’t send the planet into a tailspin is now absolutely critical.
The Age editorial raised the likelihood of more bushfires and increased threats to the Great Barrier Reef, and so it came to pass.
I could point to numerous examples to show the impact burning coal and producing pollution has, but will settle briefly on the Antarctic.
When I first came into Parliament in 2004, there were concerns that parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet could at some point break away from the mainland and, then like the ghost ship Mary Celeste, drift off and start to melt and eventually raise sea levels.
And so it came to pass, ten short years later with the most recent reports showing a large section of the ice shelf that has indeed broken away.
The deterioration of western Antarctic ice sheets will shed an estimated 160 billion tonnes of ice into the water, leading to expected sea level rises well in excess of one metre. A tipping point has already been crossed, from which there is no return, so bye bye Bondi beach.
Public figures, informed by the science of global warming, search for words to alert us to the situation.
The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde saying, unless we take action future generations will be ‘roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.’
US President Barrack Obama saying ‘We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society (and) our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind.’
And soon the new reformist Pope, Pope Francis, will deliver an encyclical on this issue, directed to around a billion practicing Catholics worldwide.
Yet, tragically in Australia, we have gone in the opposite direction, suffering the spectacle of politicians from the right, including the current prime minister, and his senior business adviser businessman, Mr Maurice Newman, claiming all this is a hoax.
Climate change science was ‘crap’, in Mr Abbott’s words. And though he now professes to accept with some qualifications the science, having previously announced that global warming had stopped.
Once in government the Coalition set about dismantling many of the measures the previous government had already put in place to start bringing down emissions.
And what were they? They were the three big policy initiatives economist Tom Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, identifies as key to decarbonizing the economy.
Firstly, a price on carbon pollution, in Australia’s case to be paid by the biggest polluters.
Secondly, a greatly increased emphasis on renewable energy, in Australia’s case with the instigation of a renewable energy target, encouraging solar and wind power.
Thirdly, the escalation of widespread energy efficiency measures, again supported here by subsidising the installation of solar panels on homes and schools around the country.
And surprise surprise, in a remarkably short period of time, these measures were working.
We saw the biggest ever drop in Australia’s emissions, with a reduction of forty million tonnes of CO2, as the price on carbon pollution kicked in.
You could be forgiven for thinking that faced with this success the penny might drop for those who opposed a price on carbon pollution, and are still intent on denying concrete climate action, but no.
In fact, the environment minister, Greg Hunt, released these sensational figures just before Christmas, and they were buried as a result.
Incidentally there is still no independent analysis that confirms the Coalition’s Emissions Reduction Fund can reach the Abbott government’s paltry minimum 2020 target of 5 per cent below 2000 levels, let alone the much deeper cuts that are needed.
For Australians there is a lot at stake here.
We live in a country with a great variety of natural landscapes, with unique native flora and fauna; this variety is the shape of our nation, an indication of its health and an important source of wealth.
We are especially vulnerable to drought and flood, our agricultural sector is particularly exposed, and most of us live on or near the coast.
But Australia is also a global citizen, a member of the United Nations, and our actions equally affect those around us.
We pump greenhouse gases into a shared atmosphere. In fact up to now, it’s the world’s oceans that have absorbed by far the greatest amount of carbon dioxide, and, as a consequence, are turning into hot, acid baths.
But we also live in a democratic system. You might claim it has imperfections, and I would probably agree. But in Australia we are free to agitate, to vote, to speak out on issues, to stand for political office and to demand change. Our freedom makes the task of demanding resolute climate action inescapable.
We have ready access to information and are pretty well informed, especially here in the ACT, in a university setting where education is valued.
We have a high standard of living, not equally shared I grant you, but with a modern communications sector, a healthy population, and substantial infrastructure.
All these significant pluses mean that with judicious and brave behaviour we could develop alternative economic drivers – creating opportunity out of challenge – that the times demand.
The core features of this economy would be its reduced carbon output, with an emphasis on energy efficiency, a strong focus on innovation and value adding. Mineral extraction and real estate are currently amongst the main drivers of Australia’s economic growth – we need sustainable businesses, that don’t produce carbon pollution more than ever.
This ‘challenges provides opportunities’ mantra contains the seeds of an important truth.
Namely that the first person, company or country to take their hands away from their eyes, and acknowledge the situation they are facing is perilous, and then to start doing something about it – thinking and developing strategies and technologies to meet the challenge – takes a comparative, competitive advantage. It’s called the first mover effect.
Look no further than the newly developed Tesla electric car as an example of this principle. It does not posses an internal combustion engine, it can be recharged at a three-phase power point supply, and it’s reshaping the auto industry overnight.
But meeting the climate challenge also is a confidence building measure, especially for younger Australians whose future is a path stretching over the horizon.
To the students in the audience tonight my message is; your skill, energy and intelligence can contribute greatly to a new low emissions future.
Let me return to the environment for a moment.
The persistence of ecosystems and their stability is a function of the strength of interaction between species.
The risk with global warming is that as land use patterns shift, and climate zones advance and retreat, that this stability is upset, leading to species become extinct and the fabric of life degraded.
That is a subject that those who teach and study here would understand well, and it is one that Australian policy makers have been familiar with for some time.
The role of government is to recognize and accept the facts. For example that we have lost over half the vegetation in our rivers and wetlands.
The next step is to direct investment and new policies around land use to halt this vegetation decline.
This in turn requires national targets, performance indicators and constant monitoring, to gauge progress and adjust policies to meet the goal: more trees and native plants, healthier waterways.
This is a basic institutional response that as environment minister I tried to give full rein to in the Caring for our Country Program, beginning with a significant increase in funding to assist, support and expand the National Reserve System.
The idea was straightforward enough. The National Reserve System represents protected areas, parks and reserves; essential habitat of native flora and fauna, and often relatively healthy rivers and wetlands as well.
Part of the rationale for beefing up this program was to try and build some resilience into ecosystems, another topic that will be familiar to people at this lecture.
But what if we are facing a scenario operating on such a wide scale, where these measures, although an improvement on what went before, are not insulated from the whole scale land and sea impacts that arise from human activity and especially climate change, and then we can’t realize our goals. What else do we need to do then?
This basic question has a certain poignancy, because, as I’ve already noted, the previous national Labor government had taken steps to address this bigger issue – so we’ve been here before.
As we know (in my case only too well) the democratic process rolled on and Labor, despite implementing measures to address climate change and investing heavily in natural landscape repair, was voted out.
In its place came a government that tore down all that had gone before: a price on carbon pollution as I’ve already noted; the Climate Commission; the Clean Energy Finance Corporation; and cuts to CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. Oh those pesky weather forecasters.
To those who might argue that the incoming Abbott government, with this act of environmental vandalism had a mandate for its actions, I would make two points.
The first is that Mr Abbott wasn’t truthful with voters about the effects of a price on carbon, as has subsequently proved to be the case. The city of Whyalla would be ‘wiped off the map’ he said. After two years of the carbon price it hadn’t moved an inch.
Secondly, and regrettably, one of the major media organisations in the country, News Corp, was implacably opposed to real action on climate change.
News Corp media outlets constantly jibed at the scientific consensus and skewed any factual reporting with highly charged polemics.
With a meager target and no genuine debate about drastically cutting greenhouse pollution – indeed Mr Abbott’s major political goal was to build more roads – we are in the worst of all possible worlds.
The basic rule of thumb that the longer we wait to act on climate change the more difficult and expensive it becomes applies now than ever.
And that cost will be borne, not by the leaders of today, but by the citizens of tomorrow, like many sitting in this theatre.
I believe there are five simple steps that can be taken to help get us back on track, although I know there are numerous others.
Some are necessary to reinvigorate the existing body politic, several provide a pressure response to current behaviour, and one can be taken on holidays.
The first may seem strange for a former politician to argue, and is glaringly obvious, but it needs restating.
In the Anthropocene, where the climate crisis affects all aspects of society, governments will continue to play a crucial role. A pox on both your houses is not a constructive response to the current crisis we are facing.
Governments set policies and bring down budgets that reflect spending priorities. Irrespective of the speed of economic transformation to a low carbon economy that may be underway by businesses impatient with government tardiness.
Regardless of how you view the current political scene, governments need to be part of the solution not continue to be part of the problem.
Australians should not support politicians and the parties they represent, who refuse to make serious action on climate change a priority.
If you are already a member of a party, take the time to understand its policies, and, if you believe there’s room for improvement, and in most cases there is, then get in and put that argument.
Or at the very least join and support one of the many non-government organisations – our civil society groups – who are active in trying to influence political parties on this issue.
Voters should always make it clear, in person if possible, in writing and repeatedly that their support is absolutely conditional on that happening.
But the matter shouldn’t be left there. Each person should also enlist the aid of five likeminded friends or neighbours to do the same.
I sometimes worry that Australian’s easy going attitude – which I really value – holds us back from taking this next step and fronting the political system with a considered demand.
But whether we are easy going or cynical about formal politics, disinterested, or none of the above; unless there is sufficient direct pressure on politicians, then the status quo or lowest common denominator too easily rules.
If China and the US, the two largest global emitters respectively, can agree on substantial targets for reducing emissions, and work together this year to achieve that goal, then why can’t Australia?
And why can’t the Federal Labor opposition lead the way? And commit to substantial targets that the science demands and that other, equally well-off countries are contemplating.
If in the United Kingdom the Conservative government, Labour opposition and third party Liberal Democrats, can just this past week agree to work together on climate change, regardless of who wins the next general election, then why can’t Australian political parties reach a similar agreement, suited where necessary, to our domestic conditions?
The second step is to apply this principle of unequivocal demand to businesses that fall into the same category; companies that produce lots of greenhouse pollution, but only pay lip service to taking concrete action to reduce carbon emissions.
Of course we cannot avoid using some of their products, petrol in the case of multi-national oil companies, being a clear enough example.
But owning shares, or working for a resource intensive company — oil, gas, coal — validates their business model. At the same time, withdrawing support, especially financial support, does the opposite.
Respected business leaders are increasingly stepping up to bell the cat on the need for drastic greenhouse gas emissions.
Most recently, Unilever chief executive Paul Polman said we are at the beginning of the end of the high carbon era, and called for net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. There are many other businesses that have taken similar positions.
There is a new solar economy already rising, phoenix like, from the mire of the coal, energy and high emitting businesses that is transform the energy sector now.
For those who aren’t students, if you or anyone you know owns shares, has a superfund or any other level of involvement in carbon intensive businesses, then you should get out.
From my perspective it’s the right thing to do and could also be a smart long-term investment decision. But I stress I’m not offering financial advice here. Everyone should always seek expert investment advice on any investment decision they are contemplating.
Thirdly, we should insist that the national government immediately do two things.
The first is develop a set of environmental accounts that assess the condition of the natural world, and provide a more accurate picture of the health of our environmental assets.
This would provide a frame for measurement with more accurate data to assist in monitoring indices of ecological health and see whether we are meeting policy targets, to judge if progress is being made to rehabilitate degraded lands and waters.
It sounds a bit policy wonky, but without this information you cannot plot a course to repair degraded environments, nor understand what works and what doesn’t.
It’s also well overdue that we started factoring in the externalities – non-costed nature – into our national accounting. Work on a set of environmental accounts was begun in our first term but since then progress has been halting. The Wentworth Group of scientists has also paid this issue some attention – now it’s urgent.
The next action of any incoming government should be to commit to expanding existing laws to protect the environment by including a greenhouse trigger in the major piece of national environmental legislation, the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act. And commit to fully apply those laws on the basis of expert advice grounded in science.
A greenhouse trigger in the EPBC act has been mooted in the past – now its urgent.
We’ve done it for water, now it’s the atmosphere’s turn.
Bear in mind, existing legislation is based on the precautionary principle (where an action shouldn’t be taken if the consequences of that action are potentially harmful to the environment), and decisions under the Act can, and should be. Informed, by this principle at all times.
There were a number of instances where I was able to do that in my period as minister for the environment, maybe sometimes not to the degree some people wanted, but the legislation worked.
In Queensland: the decision not to approve a planned dam on the Mary River – the Traveston Dam – because of its likely impacts on endangered fish species; nor to approve a major development on Great Keppel Island because of the impact it would have on the Great Barrier Reef; nor an extensive subdivision at Mission Beach in Far North Queensland which would have fractured important cassowary habitat.
It has been frustrating to see one of these decisions partly undone, in the case of Great Keppel Island, where a reduced development was subsequently considered.
At the same time it has been terrific to see the community capitalize on the Mission Beach decision, where a fundraising effort in partnership with government has secured the land for conservation in perpetuity.
This is a ‘from little things bigger things can grow’ argument’. These are small steps forward but they count. They safeguard the environment government is duty bound to protect, and crucially, support the local communities who often give up much time and energy to stand in defence of their part of the natural world.
The point I’m making is that change can happen from within as well as from without.
During my time as an activist and as President of the Australian Conservation Foundation in the 80s and 90s, people power was able to secure the protection of a number of outstanding natural landscapes: the Daintree Wet Tropical Rainforests, the old growth forests of SE and SW Australia, just to mention a few.
Those who participated in this broad social movement saw great gains in securing important environments; environments which now are threatened by the lack of action on the part of government to address global warming.
There is nothing to prevent a minister in the future similarly putting the environment first as long as he or she has the party policy to validate their decision.
That’s why it’s important for ordinary people and party members and conservation organisations to feed into policy development.
It shouldn’t be left to the careerists and apparatchiks who inhabit the increasingly hollow shells that our modern parties sometimes resemble. For Labor party members I understand this process is already underway.
Once that is achieved building a constituency of support within government to back stronger measures in is the next task.
This is normally the province of interest groups and lobbyists, but can be the domain of citizens as well. In other words, we have the opportunity to directly influence politicians; we just need the organisational will to do it.
The current push back by the coalition and some sections of the business community to delegate environmental decision making back to state governments is a retrograde step.
In many cases – although I’m pleased to say, not in the ACT – it can result in lower standards of environmental protection
Our wildlife doesn’t pause at the border and say oops we can’t go across there. We should demand national best practice standards to be applied consistently across the Commonwealth, as is already contemplated in our national legislation.
The previous three steps I’ve outlined are 101 measures, basic to our political system, and however frustrating they may be to achieve, and, however incremental in scope, can, and have delivered for the environment.
The fourth step is quite different, and this involves reframing the way we respond to deliberate lack of real action on dangerous climate change.
‘First do no harm’ has been a foundation ethic of professional health carers, like doctors for centuries. It is also an implicit principle in many of the world’s religions.
And there is harm, with the World Health Organisation estimating that climate change already contributes to around 150,000 deaths annually, caused by extreme weather, changes in disease vectors in relation to malaria and so on – numbers that unfortunately will grow.
It is true that there are some people who don’t believe the greenhouse effect will have the impact that the great majority of climate scientists say it will.
But this is not sufficient reason to excuse their lack of action, even more so in the case of politicians. Governments are elected to represent all of us, and to protect the national interest. They have a duty of care to protect citizens from harm.
Much of the doubt and skepticism surrounding the issue is fermented and encouraged by business interests who stand to lose their market share if the science is taken seriously.
In some countries, like the United State and Australia, climate denial has become a political resting place for extreme conservative views, where any issue is seen through a prism of suspicion of government and a fear of collective action.
Early this year our preeminent scientific body, the Australian Academy of Science, produced its latest set of information on climate change, peer reviewed by independent and expert scientists, the leaders in their fields.
Again the advice was crystal clear and unambiguous: climate change is happening, humans are responsible. If by 2100, emissions continue to grow rapidly, then global average air temperatures could warm to around 4 degrees above mid-19th century levels.
By any judgement the world by then will be a messy, conflict ridden blazing inferno.
So it’s time to shine the spotlight on political and business leaders who refuse to act on this information, which shows the harm to our national interest and to future generations. There is now a moral obligation not to leave behind a degraded planet.
In the criminal law if someone with a reasonable knowledge of the consequences of an action causes harm to another person then they can be charged, brought before a court and unless there are mitigating circumstances, fined or jailed for that deliberate action.
We have now reached the point where our current crop of leaders have credible information in front of them which makes it very clear what the consequences to our way of life, now and for future generations, will be if they fail to act decisively.
This explains the huge global effort to forge a new climate agreement scheduled to happen this year, culminating in a meeting of nations in Paris in December.
It is occasioning harm to its citizens for the Abbott government, or any subsequent government, to resist taking the kind of steps scientists tell us are necessary to halt warming to around two degrees.
With our national interest imperiled, as an ordinary person who if they see a crime being committed can make a citizen’s arrest, so too we could act on this glaring negligence.
A people’s tribunal, drawn from respected senior members of the legal and scientific professions, could be convened to hear evidence concerning climate change, its risks, and the options for a thorough response.
It could consider how effective existing government policies are, including those of other political parties, in addressing the problem, and, if these policies and the actions that accompany them are considered clearly deficient, make that judgement and call the leaders to account.
The people’s tribunal would hear from recognized experts who could include: members of the Australian Academy of Science, climate scientists, economists, field ecologists, Antarctic researchers, people from the Torres Strait, farmers, foresters, builders, town planners, health professionals, various leaders in their fields, and members of the Australian community.
All providing evidence on the basis of peer reviewed research, available data and first-hand experience.
A strict legal approach would prevent consideration of actions that are not prohibited; like coal mining or decisions made on the basis of the authority of an elected government.
But a wider view would allow that if there is foreseeable harm from any action/or lack of action by government then it ought to be open to scrutiny and judgement.
If this seems farfetched then consider recent developments overseas. In the Netherlands, the Dutch government is being taken to court by a citizen’s organisation – the Urgenda Foundation – for failing to take sufficient steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
The Foundation is seeking, amongst other things that the government commits to 25-40% emissions reductions by 2020.
The Dutch government has already acknowledged that its present actions are insufficient to prevent dangerous climate change.
In the Netherlands governments can be held accountable for not taking action to prevent foreseeable harm, and this provides the possibility for the legal challenge
This question is not likely to be heard in an Australian court. But I would argue that we’ve reached the point where the climate change risk is so grave that some form of public assessment and accountability, (other than an election every three years) like a people’s tribunal needs to be established.
Interestingly we are now seeing the emergence of expanded legal doctrines that take account of the sledgehammer impact of climate change.
Recently in the US, a court for the first time, recognised the defence of necessity in a case involving civil disobedience by climate change activists.
I expect the legal system to increasingly respond to pleas and arguments that arise as a consequence of citizen’s actions to counter those stoking the fires of global warming.
There also is a push to add an additional crime of ecocide to the existing areas of harm that are part of the international legal system. Here is something else for local law students and the legal profession to give some attention.
So far I’ve suggested some steps about lifting our effort in the face of impending climate chaos that concentrate on influencing the two most powerful actors who are deeply implicated in the mess we find ourselves in; governments and business.
The suggestions, whilst not new, are aimed at a renewal of effort, bringing a larger quantum of participation into formal politics and at the same time increasing pressure on the main agents of destruction.
Yet these entities are made up of people who care about their families, who do not believe that there is anything inherently wrong in what they are doing.
They are ordinary people like you and me. And for all of us, irrespective of the position we hold, the time is fast approaching where we will need to show we are prepared to give a little bit for the sake of the whole.
Here we are faced with what in some ways is the hardest part of the campaign needed to secure the future; namely, that it will require concerted action by lots of people for the pressure of change to be felt by politics and business, and, for the wider public to accommodate and better understand likely changes in their way of life.
And apart from arguing as I have, on the basis of scientific consensus and the need for governments to act, it will additionally require, I think, a change of heart and mind, a change in our values, based on our appreciation of what is at stake, for each of us to be leaders for change in our own sphere of influence; the home, the neighbourhood, school, uni, the world of work.
And so to the final step – nature immersion.
This last necessary act is one that many Canberrans already get, but I believe, with much greater public participation, can give us the energy and the vision to confidently create a safer world.
What it means is literally immersing ourselves more in nature – the entity we are trying to ‘save’ – and incidentally, having some fun along the way.
It is no longer enough to identify the reasons and mechanisms for change, and then simply assume that if enough people take those steps the goal of a healthy planet can be realized.
We need to be healthy ourselves, and strong enough to do the work that’s required, and resilient enough to cope with the big shifts coming our way.
There is much evidence that shows the beneficial effects of spending time outside in nature, reflecting and celebrating the organic, as opposed to the artificial.
Australia is richly endowed with natural landscapes, and it is one reason that people from other parts of the world visit us.
Our economy is not only dependent on healthy ecosystems, but sharing their beauty also provides an economic benefit.
Many cities and towns have walking and cycling trails. We have an extensive collection of national parks, some very close to here, that enable outdoor activity, even though in some places they are underutilized.
This is not something that is confined only to the outdoors.
We can create native gardens in our streets, mini biospheres in our cities, towns and suburbs. Lots of Australians have already started doing this, inserting and lifting nature so it’s there in our home environment.
Rooftop gardens are already springing up like mushrooms on buildings world wide, growing herbs and flowers, insulating the roof and replenishing the atmosphere.
Increasingly architects and developers are looking at new ways to integrate nature with the built environment – this response to climate change is just beginning.
Immersing yourself in biodiversity, not just because it’s the technical word that describes the variety of species weaving the web of life, but also because it’s good for us.
Playing in nature is good for the physical and mental health of children. Experiencing nature is good for helping keep depression at bay for young and old, good at helping stimulate the senses and the imagination, good for deepening our sense of belonging, and connection to other people, and the world around us.
Being in and enjoying nature provides a different grounding that palms off the dominant narcissism and trenchant consumerism that is a feature of our culture at present.
Amplifying and extending our use of parks and reserves – bush and mountains and coast – would place us at the forefront of the ‘nature is healthy let’s reduce our medical bills’ movement that is just around the corner, if it hasn’t yet already arrived.
Elevating our understanding of the diverse pleasures of nature from passive enjoyment and occasional recreation to deeper immersion, whether in the backyard or the school ground, through to guided tours of the geological and cultural history of landscape, and on to ethical thinking, which can bring us closer to understanding the connections to country that are so central in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.
This is how we can prepare for a coming age where localized energy production and exchange of goods and services, shared transport and sustainable consumption is a way of life.
This is the place where communities and nations, are more self reliant, and where the universal goal of decarbonizing the global economy can be realised.
This is where the jobs and hopes of the future both lie. We can harness technologies to help this process, but technology alone cannot fix the predicament we are now in.
Positive change will only be driven by a set of human values where our expectation of strong climate action by government and business is unequivocal.
Where our determination to take care of the hand that feeds us is unstoppable.
Where our respect and enjoyment of the very fabric of life itself – the wonder of a natural world – is unquenchable.
I hope this is a vision that rings true here: for Professor Krebs and his colleagues, for the students at this university and for our neighbours in the wider world. Thanks for listening.