Anna Rose is an author, activist and environmentalist. She is the author of the book Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Sceptic, co-founder and former Chair of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and co-convenes the Vice-Chancellor's course in Leadership & Influence at Australia National University. In this interview she speaks about her essay 'Change, loss, power and sacrifice: Forging a braver Australia', in which she talks about the anxieties, fears and sense of loss which need to be addressed by activists in order to effect action on climate change.
As you identify in your piece, it takes a huge amount of dedication to campaign for action on climate change. When did you first become passionate about climate change and what prompted you to begin campaigning?
My Mum comes from a farming family, so I'd learnt early on that the environment wasn't just something pretty that you went to look at and take photos of. I understood from an early age that 'the environment' is deeply connected with human survival – as the source of our water and food. I started understanding what was happening to our planet in high school when we learnt about climate change in science class. At the same time, my grandparents' and uncle's farms in northwest NSW were being affected by the drought, and I connected the dots. Seeing the impacts of the drought really spurred me into becoming an environmental activist. For city folk, drought means higher food prices - at the peak of the last drought, food prices increased at twice the rate of the CPI. But for me in high school, watching the drought decimate the rural communities in northwest NSW, the drought meant much more than no rain.
Drought is soul-destroying, relationship-destroying and community-destroying. I knew that climate change would make extreme weather events like droughts and bushfires more frequent and more severe. So I set up an environment group at my high school and we started campaigning for positive environmental action at a local and state level. By the time I'd finished high school, our little group had set up recycling, composting and re-vegetation programs at our school, and helped win a campaign to stop BHP building a new mine on the outskirts of my hometown.
You wrote a book about your experience of trying to change the mind of climate change sceptic and former Howard cabinet minister Nick Minchin. Did the process of writing something as long and, I imagine at times, difficult as a book about the experience have any impact on how you thought about climate change action?
There's a constant question I have in my mind about how I can spend my time most usefully when it comes to advocating for stronger action on climate change. As a writer, I feel the urge to help explain to people what is happening in ways that make sense. But as an activist, I know that information alone doesn't change the world. Organising people does. I wrote my book fairly quickly – 90,000 words in two and a half months – because I wanted to make sure it came out at the same time as the ABC TV documentary about my journey with Nick. It was that sense of urgency about climate change that enabled me to write it so quickly. And I was then able to use the book as a platform for reaching more people with a message about switching Australia to 100% renewable energy; I went on a speaking tour for five months to rural, regional and outer suburban Australia and gave over two hundred speeches, many to high school students. So in that way, the whole process of writing and promoting the book helped me understand that writing and activism can go hand in hand.
During an interview in July this year, Tony Abbott claimed that Australia is a successful country because it is 'inherently conservative'. I wonder whether you think that's right, and whether that conservatism and wariness of change makes climate change action particularly difficult to talk about in Australia?
If Australia was truly conservative, we wouldn't be running headfirst so enthusiastically into radically changing the Earth's climate on a scale unprecedented in human history. There aren't many things more conservative than just wanting the climate system, the basis of life on Earth, to just stay the same. Saying that Australians as a whole aren't pushing harder for action on climate change because they're conservative is an oversimplification. Yes, it's partly because there is a sense of complacency – that we are the 'lucky country' and 'she'll be right' – but it's also because of the enormous amount of money and power that industries and right-wing think tanks have pumped into spreading misinformation about climate change, and attacking the carbon price. It is interesting that climate denial really only exists in English speaking countries, and especially in English speaking countries with strong fossil fuel industries - Australia, Canada, the United States.
One of the things your piece does is identify the fear of loss that is implicated in our unwillingness to change our behaviour. It's particularly evident when you speak to the children in the Hunter Valley about the immediate future of the region. Given that you grew up in the same area, do you sympathise with their fear of loss?
Absolutely. Change always involves loss, and for environmentalists to pretend it doesn't do our movement any favours. There's a danger to 'brightsiding' – always looking on the bright side – because it can feel like we're ignoring or glossing over the sometimes painful process of changing from a fossil fuels-based energy system to one based on renewable energy. The message I have for young people growing up in coal communities like the Hunter Valley is that yes, it's pretty shit that your community's economy is going to suffer – but it's going to be even shittier if we ignore climate change and don't switch to renewables. There are many things we can be doing to make it easier for families and communities in energy intensive industries to transition, but the longer we wait the harder it gets. The world is shifting from coal and oil to renewable energy. If we bury our heads in the sand and miss the boat, we will have missed the economic opportunities we have to create the next Silicon Valley of renewable energy, right here in Australia. These conversations are difficult but we have to have them. And I want to recognise the work of the climate groups, often local ones, doing great work getting out door-knocking and doing street stalls having these conversations every weekend.
You identify the personal cost of campaigning for change, using the examples of Jonathan Moylan and Aaron Swartz as well as your own experience of being stalked and trolled. How do you go about coping with that personal cost? Does writing help in that respect?
Many people all over the world face severe consequences for trying to create change and fight for justice – whether on climate change, or other issues. I have so much respect for these activists and draw a lot of inspiration from their courage. It also places the difficulties of being a climate activist in Australia firmly in perspective. On a personal level, it can be incredibly challenging to cope with the enormity of what climate change is doing, and is on track to keep doing, to our world. Writing helps me stay sane and process some of the grief that is inevitable when you try to get your head around such enormous loss.
You helped work on the Obama campaign in the 2008 election. I wonder what impact that had on your work as a climate change activist, and whether the campaign around 'Hope', and Americans' subsequent disillusionment with it – provided any insights for your own work back home?
I was part of the New Hampshire primary campaign in early 2008. It was a wonderful experience that really cemented the value of community organising and made me more determined to use that back home in Australia. We're using a lot of similar tactics now on my husband Simon Sheikh's Senate campaign here with the Greens in Canberra at the moment. Adam Bandt is too, in Melbourne. Maybe some Americans were disillusioned with Obama's 'hope' message – but the majority understood at some level that real change takes time, because they re-elected him. Seeing Obama give his climate change speech recently – probably the best speech on climate change ever given by a Head of State – made me look back on my time knocking on doors in the snow during the New Hampshire primary and think 'yes, that was worth it'. I haven't given up hope. You have to hold on to it as a climate change activist, or you simply couldn't keep going.
You end your piece with a question, 'what will it take, what can we do, to make Australia braver?' I wonder what you see as the sources of bravery, what gives you hope, in the current political landscape in Australia?
Great question. Maybe my next Griffith REVIEW piece will be about answering it. From what I've seen in life so far, people draw strength and courage from those around them, and from the stories they hear. That's why I'm so passionate about reading and writing. I have met so many young people – and people of all ages, really – who have been moved into action on climate change after reading something by Tim Flannery, or Bill McKibben, or David Suzuki. Even if you're in a family or friendship group where activism isn't 'normal', you can be motivated to act after reading a powerful story, or seeing a powerful film like this year's Chasing Ice.
The other part of it, for me at least, is being in wild and beautiful places. I was lucky enough to work on a ship in Antarctica over summer, and this year I've done some camping and bushwalking in the Capertee Valley and the Snowy Mountains. Being in beautiful natural places always re-energises me to keep fighting. Our challenge now when it comes to climate change, as Bill McKibben says in his book Eaarth (Macmillan, 2010) is to avoid what we can't manage, and manage what we can't avoid. There's a lot of work to do. Meeting the people doing that work is what gives me hope. As the Chinese proverb goes, 'those who say it can't be done should get out of the way of those already doing it'.