Responding to climate change - Griffith Review
Interview

Responding to climate change

Interviews with researchers working in the Griffith Climate Change Response Program

In his essay for Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country, ‘Climate change, science and country: A never-ending story’, Brendan Mackey examines how scientists must adapt their personal practice – especially in terms of communication – in order to prepare for the increasing uncertainty of climate change. Using this essay as a starting point, Griffith Review spoke with six researchers involved in the Griffith Climate Change Response Program – the multi-disciplinary program, directed by Mackey, that is Griffith University’s research into climate change adaptation and mitigation.

The resulting collection of short interviews with Tim Cadman, Serena Blyth Lee, Johanna Nalau, Rodney Stewart, Rodger Tomlinson and Dan Ware offers scientists and laypeople alike a way into discussions about our planet’s future. Exploring how the gaps between science, people and policy transformation might be bridged, as well as the roles that narrative and activism play in scientific practice, these conversations show how science might be able to help us understand and plan for what comes next.


Tim Cadman is a research fellow with the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law at Griffith University, senior research fellow with the Earth System Governance Project, and adjunct research fellow at the University of Southern Queensland. He specialises in the governance of sustainable development, climate change, natural resource management (including forestry), and responsible investment. In addition to his many academic books and journal articles, his first work of climate fiction, The Changes: Refuge (Amazon) was published in 2017.

 

What are your main areas of interest / work?

Saving the planet from unsustainable human activity has been my interest for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest childhood memories is watching the forests of my small, country village in Norfolk being cleared for a motorway and wondering what was going to happen to all the birds and animals that lived there. From that has evolved a professional interest in environmental governance: how to ensure that people participate in decision-making about living sustainably on this Earth.

How do you see your work making an impact or effecting change in the world?

There are two main drivers of unsustainable development in my opinion: poverty, which forces people to live and act in ways that damage the long-term future of the environment; and powerlessness, which leaves decisions in the hands of those who are only interested in maximising profits and externalising costs – in turn, creating poverty. Ensuring that everyone participates meaningfully in making and implementing decisions about our environment is the focus of my work: in developing countries, to empower the poor; and in developed countries, to challenge the assumption that quantity is better than quality.

What place do you see for narrative in your work and the work of scientists at large?

Currently, there is little place for narrative, since academics investigate, test and describe; they don’t tell stories. Stories are the fundamental basis of human communication, from the Bible to The Lord of the Rings. Until scientists can tell better stories they will be mistrusted and misunderstood by the general public, and manipulated by those with vested interests in exploiting the Earth’s natural resources for profit.

Reflecting on last year’s Narratives of Climate Change Symposium, Brendan Mackey revealed delegates to the symposium agreed that ‘“activism” cannot be regarded as a dirty word’ now that the world is at risk from a ‘Hothouse Earth’ trajectory. Do you see activism as having a place in the work you do?

I have a thirty-year background as a forest activist, environmental campaigner and believer in the ‘story’ of sustainability. Nowadays, given my day job, I prefer to see myself as a ‘pracademic’: someone who puts their expertise and knowledge to a practical use. I can see absolutely no point to science that is not oriented towards making the world a better place. This is one reason why I now write ‘cli-fi’, climate fiction: it is an effort to find a different way to tell the story that we are in trouble. The Earth will survive what I call ‘The Changes’, but we may not.

In 'Climate change, science and country: A never-ending story', Mackey argues that despite ample scientific information on the current and future impacts of climate change in Australia, ‘the national mitigation policy needed to attack the root cause of the problem – carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuel for energy and from deforestation and degradation – remains lacking in any substantive measure’. How do you bridge the gaps between science, people and policy transformation?

In the current neoliberal-economic paradigm, I do not think you can. Never before has humanity had all the answers at its fingertips, and never before have we been so far from doing anything about it. We know the problems, and we know the solutions, we simply have to take the leap of faith and change our behaviour – as well as our values. The Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit gave us the policy mechanisms. We just have to implement them.

Based on your knowledge of the science and where we are today, what kind of changes would you like to see right now, next week, next year and beyond?

Sustainability is a different story from the status quo. It envisages a world built upon quality, not quantity: quality of life, understood as a meaningful and rewarding existence; not quantity of life, which is all about consumption and materialism. If we want to ‘live the beyond’ we have to change the here and now. The economy, ecology and society are interdependent. Until we understand that, and act accordingly, there is no ‘beyond’.


Serena Blyth Lee is a physical oceanographer (PhD, School of Geoscience, University of Sydney). As a post-doctoral researcher (University of Maryland Centre for Environmental Science), she worked on a NOAA-funded project undertaking modelling hurricane-driven storm surge events along the US east coast, and investigated the impacts of rising sea levels on coasts in the US mid-Atlantic region. Returning to Australia to take up a research fellowship with Griffith University, her research addressed numerous topics including ocean circulation in the south-west Pacific, extreme-event monitoring, coastal assessments in Timor Leste, Vanuatu and Samoa, and macro and microplastic debris monitoring on South-East Queensland beaches. Her most recent project investigates changes in Australian coastal waters over the past thirty years and into the future, with the aim of understanding what these changes mean for megafauna.

 

What are your main areas of interest / work?

For the past five years I have focused on understanding oceanic, shelf and coastal processes, how these processes vary over different time frames, and how they may alter in the future. As part of the Griffith Climate Change Response Program I worked on increasing the resolution of ocean models covering the remote Pacific Island region. Finer resolution models provide more detailed data describing ocean circulation and ocean conditions for archipelagos and individual islands.

How do you see your work making an impact or effecting change in the world?

From investigating the relationship between higher sea levels and changing tidal regimes, the impact of extreme events such as tropical cyclones, or the role variations in large scale oceanic circulation has on coastal sea levels, currents and water temperatures, my research attempts to provide information at scales relevant to local communities. My hope is that by providing more detailed information, coastal communities will be better able to make informed decisions improving their resilience to future climatic conditions.

Do you see activism as having a place in the work you do?

As an oceanographer, work on climate change is not an option, it is unavoidable, due to the observed rapid physical, chemical and biological changes taking place across the world’s oceans. In my opinion, scientists who impartially communicate research findings demonstrating that the world’s oceans are warming, acidifying and rising are portrayed as ‘activists’ by climate change sceptics. In the current political climate, the very act of studying the occurrence or impact of climate change is deemed activism by these sceptics, who include politicians and well-placed media commentators among their ranks. While this has the effect of silencing some scientists, it is vital that we continue communicating research findings to the general public via all available avenues. As scientists we can learn from the unity demonstrated by different activists’ movements. A common element of all successful activist movements is unity. Whether unified by exposing a social wrong, rectifying an injustice, ending an oppressive regime or war, or protecting the environment, activists band together and support each other. When one member is targeted, numerous other members step in and support them. Science can be a solitary endeavour; however, in order to counteract anti-science attitudes and agendas we must learn to communicate with each other, support each other and loudly voice our support in the public arena. By doing so, no one scientist is left to carry the burden of personal attacks on their credibility. It is easy for sceptics with agendas to target one person and attempt to discredit them, but five or ten people are difficult to shoot down.

How do you bridge the gaps between science, people and policy transformation?

It is vital that we meet people where they are. Each individual cares about different things. For someone who lives 300 kilometres from the nearest coast, higher sea levels may not make it onto their list of future problems, so discussing sea level trends with them may have no impact on their behaviour or decision-making. However, they may be desperately concerned about changes in their local flora and fauna, or the potential for increased heatwaves where they live. We must find the intersections between what our research is telling us about the future of our environments and what individual citizens care about. Secondly, we must meet the needs of citizens and recognise that major changes in industry will cause disruption to the financial security of our fellows. The social impact of policy changes can’t be ignored and methods to transition communities reliant upon industries such as fossil fuels to alternative industries must be built in. If we ignore the social consequences of future policies there will be a backlash and change will be little to none. However, if we plan and bring communities with us, we can have economically stable and prosperous communities, and a healthier environment.

Based on your knowledge of the science and where we are today, what kind of changes would you like to see right now, next week, next year and beyond?

It is vital that we begin to make major shifts away from the use, extraction and export of fossil fuels like coal and oil as soon as possible. To this end scientists, policymakers and industry need to collaborate to steer a path forward to ensure we meet and exceed our current commitments to the Paris Agreement while creating jobs in new industries to replace those lost from mining and coal-power generation etc. Individually we need to take a more whole-of-system approach to how we live our lives. The way we travel, the items we purchase, the food we eat, the waste we generate. While carbon dioxide emissions and our burn-and-earn philosophy has led to the current climate crisis, this same mentality of consuming without thought of where items come from and how these items may affect the environment, during either production or disposal, leads to similarly negative impacts on the environment and ecosystems upon which we depend.

On the policy side, I would like to see reports from the National Climate Science Advisory Committee to the Minister for the Environment and Energy made public. I would also like to see public platforms where people who work and live on the land and ocean can openly discuss their concerns – not just about climate change, but about how their industries and the environments upon which they rely are faring – with scientists. By having a platform where scientists and farmers, fisheries workers and others can interact, we may be able strike up collaborations and utilise citizen-scientist approaches to collect data that will capture changes on land and ocean ecosystems, helping us to better understand the impact climate change is having on these vital sectors.


Johanna Nalau is an adaptation scientist with a PhD in climate change adaptation at the School of Environment and Science at Griffith University. Her research is focused on understanding how, why and when people make decisions to adapt to climate change, and what role science can and should play in that process. She is a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report in Working Group II, ‘Chapter: 15 Small Islands’, and an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow (2019–2021).

 

What are your main areas of interest / work?

Increasing weather and climate-related risks are posing new challenges to countries like Australia, and my research focuses on the role that adaptation science can play in that process, helping people and organisations to make better decisions. In short, adaptation is really a change in mindset in how we do things. For example, with greater potential for extreme storms, higher temperatures and heatwaves, how do we adjust to such changes in practice? I want to better understand how scientific knowledge about climate adaptation has evolved over time and how it supports decision-making. I am embarking on a three-year project to do just that with Australian Research Council funding.

How do you see your work making an impact or effecting change in the world?

I think as scientists there are many different ways that we can make impact and effect change in the world. For me, part of that is doing quality research that can then translate into policy-relevant knowledge. But it is much broader than that. For example, I am active on social media and write a weekly blog where I ponder links between leadership, climate change adaptation and decision-making. It’s also about participating in global assessments, giving media interviews and engaging with diverse groups such as accountants, schoolchildren and community groups to explain what climate adaptation is and means.

What place do you see for narrative in your work and the work of scientists at large?

Narratives are so important to me because everyone loves a story, and we learn and remember stories the best. It’s also a great way to bring science closer to the everyday. Even if we deal with big complex issues like climate change, many of the adaptation stories are actually quite personal. How communities and households prepare for extreme weather and make choices about where and how they live are examples of this. Making environmentally friendly choices is often about exploring options that are outside the norm. But these options can eventually become the norm with enough narrative support.

How do you bridge the gaps between science, people and policy transformation?

I think it comes down to human-to-human connections, trust and willingness to design and plan a future in which we all can be resilient and adaptable. In Australia, there is an increasing will to deal with the impacts of climate change because we are seeing so many extreme events. The support for policy transformation that we need is already there in the hearts and minds of most people. This gives me hope that those politicians and corporations continuing business as usual will be reminded by the people they are supposed to serve that change is needed. We already have the technological solutions, so now it is more a matter of deciding how quickly to shift away from our emission-heavy economy.

Based on your knowledge of the science and where we are today, what kind of changes would you like to see right now, next week, next year and beyond?

I’d like to see a major shift towards a low-carbon economy and society, one where making environmentally friendly choices is the norm. I’d like to see politicians who get this, understand the gravity of global climate change and act accordingly. I’d like to see people taking adaptation seriously and looking for more longer-term solutions that can make their homes, organisations and communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change. For me, adaptation is actually about innovation, challenging the norm and using that to create a better, more resilient society.


Rodney Stewart is a professor of engineering management at Griffith University. He also teaches within the Griffith School of Engineering. He conducts research and consultancy activities predominately in the following areas: smart metering of water and energy activities; urban water planning and management; water conservation research; infrastructure planning and management; environmental management; renewable energy and battery storage solutions for the electricity grid; and engineering/project management. His research goal is to provide evidence-based research to inform best practice planning, engineering and management paradigms for urban built environments.

 

What are your main areas of interest / work?

I am an expert in environmental engineering and management research. My current particular area of research focus is on various facets of digital utility transformation. I am leading industry collaborative research projects that seek to integrate ‘big data’ metering and monitoring technologies and associated expert systems into infrastructure, particularly in the water and energy utility sector, in order to better manage these critical resources and better integrate contemporary solutions such as decentralised renewable energy and water supply systems. I seek to create evidence-based research to underpin society’s transition towards utility resource usage digitisation, decentralisation and decarbonisation.

How do you see your work making an impact or effecting change in the world?

The transition to a society which replaces fossil fuels with energy renewables, or freshwater sources with recycled water, and concurrently focuses on conserving water and energy resources, is not straightforward. As an interdisciplinary engineering researcher, I see that my purpose in life is to provide evidence-based guidance to industry, government and citizens on how to make this transition. I take pride in always trying to consider the numerous lenses of the various stakeholders in an environmental or industry transition problem and try to offer workable solutions that are transparent and evidence based. Unfortunately, there are many groups pushing various agendas due to a range of motives. As academics and researchers, it is our duty to provide impartial evidence to help society make the best transition decisions in the short and long term.

What place do you see for narrative in your work and the work of scientists at large?

The transition to a society that harnesses natural resources in more efficient and effective ways is challenging to say the least. To achieve this transition successfully, industry, citizens, government and researchers must work together. Unfortunately, true transparent collaboration between all parties is rare and the real truth is often hard to find – particularly in cases where untruths are presented by parties with agendas. In my research projects, I try to bring all of these parties together to create dialogue and have meaningful discussions, such that they all begin to search for the same truth in a problem and accept the evidence-based research that our group produces. This then helps them to make necessary changes within their own situational context. While collaborative research is a big challenge, as researchers and academics we are in the best position to be impartial and to integrate information to solve society’s contemporary problems. Although the problems I work on are about conserving and managing water and energy resources, the collaborative approach that we take for all of our projects should be applied to help address many of society’s big and small issues.

Do you see activism as having a place in the work you do?

I do not see myself as an activist or person to lobby a particular agenda in society; I am an engineer at heart with a brain predisposed to solving problems in a logical and unbiased manner. My goal is to present the truth in an unbiased, transparent, logical and evidence-based way. If the evidence that others and I produce is overwhelming, but ignored by government and society at large, there is a need for groups and passionate individuals to promote those findings and make the necessary changes for the good of future generations. Only with honest and fair debate, and unbiased research will any society be able to accept the ‘real’ state of dire problems and then take the necessary steps to tackle them. I hope that I can contribute to solving those dire problems in a very small way through conducting my collaborative research.

How do you bridge the gaps between science, people and policy transformation?

Unfortunately, humans and the political landscape that serves them are slow to address evident problems that do not obviously present as immediate crises. This is the case with climate change. In history, this is time and again shown to be a failing of our species for a range of long-term problems. There is no certain way to bridge the gaps between science, people and policy transformation; the process is, and will continue to be, ugly. However, we can do a range of things to limit these gaps. We need to make complex climate change research more digestible for people so that they can understand it better and be able to grasp the consequences of inaction. We can educate people through offering only unbiased research so they can understand the problem and make more informed choices. We can also get all stakeholders to the same table, have meaningful dialogue about the problems and offer realistic transition solutions. We must get more citizen scientists out there to create a higher level of trust for scientists and research in general. We also need to change mindsets on climate change mitigation and adaptation policy and practice to one that presents as an opportunity for society rather than a problem that will further strain average people’s lives. For example, transitioning to renewable energies creates new job opportunities and leads to cleaner air in our cities and towns. Alternative mindset framing, especially if directed by government and industry leaders, will evoke more enthusiasm towards feasible transition solutions.

Based on your knowledge of the science and where we are today, what kind of changes would you like to see right now, next week, next year and beyond?

Many climate change solutions are proven and cost positive, and as a country we should have a more ambitious implementation plan for them. For instance, a country like Australia has an abundance of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, tidal and hydro, to name a few. The technology is available and affordable. With good policy, regulations and champions from government and industry, Australia could undoubtedly transition to being powered largely by renewables in the near term. So, from my humble viewpoint as a utilities engineer and researcher, we should accelerate our efforts in the transition to renewable energy sources. Then we should use our developed expertise and industry services to help the developing and newly industrialised world make that transition too. Some European nations have already grasped that the transition to a decarbonised society is actually an opportunity, even though they are not as rich in cost-positive renewable energy sources as Australia, the lucky country. Perhaps being a resource-rich country spoilt with so many energy choices has clouded our vision and made us somewhat complacent.


Rodger Tomlinson is foundation director of the Griffith Centre for Coastal Management of Griffith University. He leads the Coastal Resilience theme in the Cities Research Institute, and the Coastal Management and Engineering theme in the Griffith Climate Change Response Program. Until recently he was coastal node convenor of the Australian Climate Change Adaptation Research Network for Settlements and Infrastructure. His research interests focus on the implications for open coastline and coastal waterway dynamics of extreme events, climate variability and climate change, and disaster emergency management.

 

What are your main areas of interest / work?

I am a civil engineer with over thirty-five years of experience in coastal and water engineering. My main area of work is related to the beach-erosion process and the physical dynamics of coastal ocean waters and estuaries. My principal research interests are in understanding the hydrodynamic and sedimentary processes controlling the connection between the ocean and estuary at tidal entrances, and the historical analysis of change on open coastlines due to anthropogenic impacts and naturally occurring climate variability.

How do you see your work making an impact or effecting change in the world?

My research into coastal processes has always been applied to contemporary management issues. As a profession, coastal engineering has for decades been addressing issues related to the increase in natural hazards into the future and the development of management strategies to ensure the sustainability of existing and new coastal development. These activities are now seen as part of climate change adaptation.

What place do you see for narrative in your work and the work of scientists at large?

My work is mainly quantitative, based on real-world data and predictive modelling. However, a key to understanding future changes to our coastline is to understand historical change. This often comes from anecdotal and qualitative observations around which a strong narrative can be built highlighting the impacts of extreme events on past generations. These can be used to emphasise predicted impacts, particularly when current communities have not experienced major events.

Do you see activism as having a place in the work you do?

Much of the research we do is specifically related to clients’ needs. Often these clients have particular views on matters such as climate change and are working within political and regulatory frameworks. Consequently, we often are not free to express views and to embrace activism. However, we are able to continually advocate for inclusion of ‘worst-case scenarios’ in natural-hazard assessment, and highlight predicted changes and how they will impact on coastal communities.

How do you bridge the gaps between science, people and policy transformation?

Perhaps one way to overcome the problem could be if climate change was made more personal. For example, with coastal impacts, the management solutions should be developed in the context of ‘estate planning’: personalising the solution in the same way we deal with our personal assets, and providing a transitional pathway for individuals that allows them over time to manage their response to policies needed to deal with future scenarios.

Based on your knowledge of the science and where we are today, what kind of changes would you like to see right now, next week, next year and beyond?

We know that sea levels will rise and wave-climate will change, threatening coastal communities. This will not only be felt by those who live at the edge, but will also impact on local, regional and national economies. Acceptance of the reality of climate change needs to be driven from both the top down and the bottom up. Too often we see effective policy being resisted at the local level and local action not being supported by government.


Dan Ware is a research fellow from Griffith University’s Centre for Coastal Management and Climate Change Response Program working on design of EBA for SIDs in Melanesia. He is a geographer with experience in coastal planning and climate change risk assessment, and is working on a PhD in the history of coastal planning and management on the southern Gold Coast. He is an active contributor to the development of Australian coastal management policy and practice, as a researcher and with leadership positions with stakeholder groups. He is currently a technical advisor on climate change and sustainable development for the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and the infrastructure and settlements expert advisor for the LGAQ Climate Resilient Councils program. Dan has held previous roles as director of Surfrider Foundation Australia, a member of the Queensland committee of the Australian Coastal Society and president of Gold Coast Surf Council.

 

What are your main areas of interest / work?

I am a political geographer interested in our society’s relationship with nature and, in particular, the place we call ‘the coast’. My work examines the conflicts that emerge as we seek to transition to a sustainable and climate-resilient model of coastal development. This involves considering how, through government and politics, we ignore, avoid, explore or actively seek to address those conflicts – especially where this creates opportunities.

How do you see your work making an impact or effecting change in the world?

In my current role I have the opportunity to work with communities in Vanuatu who still see themselves as part of nature and connected to the coast. I get to bring experience and technology to help translate their knowledge of their climate-resilience needs into the language of the international climate-finance and climate-resilience community. Over time I hope this will provide access to the resources necessary to maintain their cultural connection to place in the face of climate change and imperial capitalism.

What place do you see for narrative in your work and the work of scientists at large?

A colleague asked me recently what I would do if I could do anything to reshape our current, largely destructive relationship with the coast. My response was that I would give everyone the connection to the coast that I had when I was a child: the experience of knowing that you have a place in the ocean and that, while it is sometimes wild, it is also fun and playful, and capable of sustaining you physically and emotionally. I think if people like Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten shared this experience our society would relate to the planet in a totally different way. So, while making that happen will be tough, narrative is the closest alternative. Tim Winton’s book Blueback (Pan Macmillan, 1997) always takes me back there in a couple of chapters – a read of that would be a positive start.

Do you see activism as having a place in the work you do?

I see activism as being critical to a healthy democracy. As academics, we have to be involved or else we are generating knowledge for knowledge’s sake. In saying that, I think we have to use some caution and maintain the reputation of the academy by making a clear distinction between our professional and personal opinions, which is not only challenging but also at times very frustrating. I have held roles with local and national environmental-activism organisations so I have some experience of walking the fine line between truth, opinion and passion, and maintaining a career.

How do you bridge the gaps between science, people and policy transformation?

I think as a society and as individuals we have a lot of trouble recognising our own interests, and that’s in part because the immediacy of the modern world is diminishing our capacity to look and work towards the future. Imagine our society today embarking on a project that would take longer than a political term, let alone a lifetime – yet it’s that capacity to think long-term that has propelled us forward in the past. I think another part of the problem is that the scale of business today has overwhelmed the scale of our public institutions, so not only does business have an interest in obfuscating our self-interest, it also has the power to do it. The way to bridge this gap is for our society – people, science and government – to clear the path to allow us to explore, recognise and prioritise our interest in the face of the rapid shift to immediacy and the growing power of corporations.

Based on your knowledge of the science and where we are today, what kind of changes would you like to see right now, next week, next year and beyond?

We need to urgently reformulate the notion of citizenship; somewhere along the way, the concept of citizenship has been whittled down to something that matters only for those brief moments on the way in and out of a country. Citizenship has become something that implies rights with obligations limited to taxation – and, in many cases, for our highest earners, even that is not a given. Citizenship needs to be understood as an obligation to participate in our community and democracy in an informed way. The shift to populism shows us that there are too many people who have been excluded from the debate by so-called representative democracy for too long and that there is clearly a burning desire for participation. Given what’s at stake, we have to coerce participation from the centre rather than what’s currently happening: a shouting match between the desperate virtue signaling of the left and right.

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