WORDS | Emma Vlatko
After almost a decade since former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, called climate change the “greatest moral challenge of our time,” the issues threatening our Earth have gotten no less serious.
Macquarie University Professor Lesley Hughes, one of six Councillors on the Climate Council and the convenor of a free online climate change course, says that the world needs to “act now before it’s too late.”
“We have a significant problem and delaying action will make the problem accelerate,” she says. “One of the most difficult things to communicate is that what we do now will affect how our children and grandchildren will live. We can’t turn it around immediately but the longer we wait the more dangerous it will get.”
After completing her PhD in behavioural ecology in 1990, something she confesses had “nothing to do with climate change,” Lesley began researching the impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems.
“Australia has somewhere between seven to ten per cent of the world’s biodiversity. We also have the highest extinction rates in the last 200 years of anywhere in the world” Hughes says. “It’s generally considered that by the middle of the century, climate change will be the main driver of species extinction… We’re looking at the sixth major extinction event since the Earth began.”
Indeed, this prediction certainly seems to be in line with the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s fifth assessment, of which the third and final report was released last month. Whilst commentators have labelled the findings “dire,” some have also argued that given similarity of all the report findings since 1991, the messages clearly aren’t getting through.
Lesley, a lead author for the fourth and fifth assessments, rejects this. “I think it’s simplistic to say the message isn’t getting across… but it’s influenced by some loud and powerful voices in the media, including some of our politicians.”
Climate change policy has had a controversial history in Australia, most recently with the divisive “carbon tax,” which Hughes calls, “an appallingly bad marketing strategy.”
“They brought it in without making the case of why. It was seen totally as a negative instead of being their for a reason,” she says. “If they had come out and said “this government absolutely believes that climate change is a huge issue for Australia. This is one of our responses to that”… Then I think the acceptance of it would have been much greater.”
While there is a clear need for action from politicians and scientists, Lesley maintains that communication of the issues is “everybody’s job.” Unfortunately, she admits that the environment isn’t always the first priority, especially in Australia. “If people recognised that the environment is our life support, it would come first, not last.”
Aimed at increasing public understanding and awareness, Lesley runs a free, four week online course, in collaboration with Open Universities Australia. Largely, she says, the responses have been positive.
“As of May, over three and a half thousand people had enrolled… The comments that have meant the most to me have been the ones who have said they were former climate skeptics that have now changed their mind having done the course.”
However, when it comes to solving the Earths problems, Lesley confesses that simply ‘understanding’ won’t be enough. “My motivation is to move people from ignorance to understanding, to concern, to action… it’s action that makes the difference.”
Lesley is confident that action on climate change will come, “the question is, how quickly?”