Hope for the planet

Much pessimism surrounds the topic of climate change – our world is doomed, the problem is too big to fix, what sort of environment will our grandchildren inherit? Indeed, I sometimes feel helpless and despondent about state of our planet.

But recently, I was lucky to listen to three inspiring climate change experts and activists speak at the Sydney Opera House. Admittedly I didn’t really know what I was in for, but in the hope I might learn something new, I went along. Under the banner, ‘Hope for the Planet’, their talks and discussion left me hopeful and inspired about what we are doing, and can do more of, to tackle climate change – rather than me leaving under a cloud of despair.

Photo - Jessica Podzebenko

The speakers were award-winning Canadian broadcaster, scientist and environmental activist, David Suzuki; acclaimed American science historian Naomi Oreskes; and Australian author, scientist, conservationist and former Australian of the year, Tim Flannery.

Each naturally spoke from a different angle towards climate change, with Naomi Oreskes giving the most science-focused talk, largely discussing the merits of climate change science and why people should believe in it.

The talks from David Suzuki and Tim Flannery were the most engaging and relevant to me, giving insight as to society’s relationship with the environment; the shifts in mentality, investment and innovation that are required; and the key role technology must play to counteract climate change. Understanding the areas where the most progress and traction can be gained translates to optimism and confidence in society’s capability to tackle climate change.

Photo - Jessica Podzebenko

With decades of climate change activism and a lifetime of experience behind him, David Suzuki’s passion lies in highlighting the problem with climate change being primarily a psychological one – not because of the economy or technology.

Fundamentally, we must alter our mindset of how we view our relationship with the planet. People need to appreciate the interconnectedness of everything in the world and put the earth and our environment first – not the economy.

Suzuki is a strong advocate of acknowledging and agreeing on fundamental human needs of clean air, water, soil and energy – things that are so precious they deserve protection and prioritisation. Without them, the economy and economic growth is arguably meaningless.

Once we have reached that point, society can then work out a way to live, and make a living, within that construct. In practice, this translates to the development of a constitutional right to a healthy environment, something that has taken flight as a grassroots movement under his leadership in Canada, and already exists in France.

Photo - Jessica Podzebenko

Alongside this crusade, Suzuki considers that the most important grounds for hope for our planet is technology – in fact we already have the technology in existence to make us 100% reliant on renewable energy sources. The challenge we face is one of timing and uptake. Large-scale change is needed, quickly. In Suzuki’s view, we need the right policy, regulatory structure and investment to harness the technology and innovation, bring it alive and translate it into environmental change.

While there are a lot of ‘low hanging fruit’ and opportunities in urban areas, Suzuki rightly suggests that above all a real commitment to science and technology is needed. By analogy, he compared President Kennedy’s commitment to send man to the moon within a decade. Kennedy didn’t have a clue as to how to do it, but he made that commitment and it was achieved.

Tim Flannery echoed this message of hope resting in clean technology, both as a way to cope with climate change and the huge population growth the world faces. Technology, Flannery says, will help feed the world’s future population. For example, Sundrop Farms in South Australia produces large quantities of tomatoes in greenhouses sustainably. The difference is the greenhouses rely on renewable inputs of seawater and sunlight, rather than groundwater or fossil fuels.Helping these technological advances is the recent decrease in input costs of renewable energy sources in general, such as solar panels and wind turbines.

Flannery rightly advocates that alongside innovation and investment in clean technology, we need to also significantly reduce the emissions from coal powered electricity plants and focus on ways to draw greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide storage or seaweed planting. Planting trees alone just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Photo - Jessica Podzebenko

All of this progress sounds optimistic to me, but equally feels out of reach for most of us to participate in or contribute to. So how can we play a part in this technological progress and innovation? While we may not all be able to impact policy and regulation, or go out and directly invest in clean technology or renewable energy, there are in fact small actions we can do to support this shift in technology and investment.

A friend at the Climate Institute, Olivia Kember, suggested some easy ways that you and I can create real change in the finance and investment world. For example, in Australia, you can –

These actions do really work, with corporates and finance companies feeling the pressure to move. There are a number of benefits to shifting investment to clean energy, for example, the underlying technology is used which in turn triggers more innovation and investment; risks and costs associated with climate change itself are managed; and asset owners gain from a booming renewables sector.

While there is cause for hope based on technology and innovation, and a slow movement to recognise the basic human need to a healthy environment, alongside this progress must be decisive regulatory and policy change to foster greater investment in clean technologies, and to phase out – or at least disincentivise – coal and gas powered electricity plants. Time is of the essence - but we must also take the small wins, harness the hope we have, and do what we can to gather momentum along the way.

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