Professor Lesley Hughes with family
Professor Lesley Hughes with family with her 2019 AMRI Lifetime Achievement Award Image: N/A
© Australian Museum

On 31 July in the Australian Museum's Westpac Long Gallery, ecologist Professor Lesley Hughes was honoured for her work on climate change with the 2019 Australian Museum Research Institute Lifetime Achievement Award.

Read the full transcript of her inspiring acceptance speech below.

Six reasons for hope in the face of climate change

Well it goes without saying that this award, and this event tonight is an enormous honour, quite overwhelming. As I am a passionate list maker, I have a list of six reasons for hope in the face of climate change.

Number 1: Money

Money does indeed make the world go around, though actually it’s the lack of money for some projects that’s really starting to make a difference.

Over the past five years it’s been estimated that over $US 6.3 trillion has been withdrawn from fossil fuel stocks, by individuals, companies, governments and public institutions.

Last May, for example, the world’s single largest investment fund, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund announced it would divest $US1 trillion from oil and gas.

Closer to home, the thing that will most likely defeat the Adani coal mine is not the 160 activist groups fighting the mine, but the fact that not only have the big four Australian banks ruled out investing in it, 35 other global financial institutions have done the same.

And business leaders are speaking out. BHP chair Andrew McKenzie, hardly one of your greenie tree-hugging types, warned in a speech last month in London that climate change was “escalating towards a crisis” and repeated his calls for a carbon price.

Also last month, the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, Guy Debelle, delivered a keynote speech last month on the seriousness of climate change impacts on the economy, especially those occurring via impacts on food production.

And late last year, Geoff Summerhayes, the then head of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority APRA warned that any company director not taking climate risk into account could be in breach of their fiduciary duties.

On the positive side of the ledger, 2017 was a tipping point in global investment in renewable energy, which now outstrips new investment in fossil fuels by about three times.

With a vacuum of climate policy leadership at the top, the states, regions and cities are stepping up to fill the void.

Mention of renewables leads me to reason number 2: Technology

We all know that renewable energy production is getting cheaper by the day, and the uptake is increasing exponentially. Just this morning I read that within two years, it is expected that 35% of Australia’s electricity will be generated by clean energy.

But considering that to limit global warming to 1.5°C , we have to remove 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the planet's atmosphere this century, we need to do more than just produce energy from renewables. This is where so-called negative emissions technologies come in – mechanisms that actually pull CO2 out of the air.

The cheapest way to do this is to simply grow more plants. A recent article in Science contained estimates that there's enough suitable unused land on the globe for reforestation to store enough carbon to buy us a grace period of around 20 years, based on current warming rates.

But there’s many other ways of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, even machines to basic vacuum it out of the air and convert it into something that doesn’t warm the planet. In 2007, Sir Richard Branson decided to do something serious about this by offering a $US25 million prize in the Virgin Earth Challenge to promote greenhouse gas removal technologies. To date, no one has actually taken out the prize, but currently there are 11 finalists. Our own Tim Flannery is one of the judges, and I have to say that lately he has been giving out hints that perhaps the prize might soon be awarded – we may have to torture him to find out.

You may be surprised by my reason number 3: Governments, because here in Australia, people concerned about climate action do tend to focus on the astonishing ineptness of our federal government. Fortunately, in this respect, there are many more far better governments around the world – in fact at least 18 developed countries, mostly in Europe, have had declining emissions for more than a decade, at least partly as a result of concerted government policy.

The really interesting phenomenon that we see in several countries, most notably the US and Australia, is that with a vacuum of climate policy leadership at the top, the sub-national bodies, that is the states, regions and cities, are stepping up to fill the void.

Donald Trump famously said that the US would pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement because he had been elected by the citizens of Pittsburgh not Paris. Wrong on two counts. Firstly, Hilary Clinton actually got about 75% of the votes in Pittsburgh. Secondly, within minutes of Trump’s announcement, the Mayor of Pittsburgh shot back on Twitter to reiterate that city’s commitment to the Paris aspiration. Trump should have really found another P city, but then the man is not exactly known for careful and honest homework.

But Pittsburgh is far from alone. California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, recently announced that it would meet its 2030 50% clean energy target a whole decade early, and is now setting a target for 100% renewable energy by 2045.

Elsewhere, the UK has just set a record for powering the country for the weeks without burning a single chunk of coal.

And speaking of the UK, the UK parliament, which has long had a bipartisan approach to climate policy declared a climate emergency in May, as part of a growing global trend – in fact about 1000 jurisdictions in about 120 countries worldwide, have done the same. In Australia these include the ACT, and at least 28 local government areas including the City of Sydney, and, somewhat more controversially, Wagga Wagga Council. I read this morning that the mayor of Darwin is also pushing for it. Of course, these are symbolic acts, but I strongly believe that moving from the benign phase “climate change” to words that embody the urgency of the action needed, is nonetheless powerful.

AMRI Lifetime Achievement Award 2019
Australian Museum Lifetime Achievement Award awarded to Professor Lesley Hughes in recognition of a significant contribution to climate change research and communication of current and future impacts on biodiversity Image: Unknown
© Australian Museum

Reason number 4 is certainly more than symbolic: The law. The UK's Grantham Institute UK has now compiled a list of more than 1000 cases globally in which governments and corporations have been taken to court over climate policies or emissions – and at least some of the time they are winning.

A particularly exciting win occurred last February in our very own NSW Land and Environment Court. In short, the approval for a coal mining company to build an open cut coal mine near Gloucester had been knocked back by the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission, mostly on the basis of visual amenity and agricultural impacts and the company then appealed the decision to the court. The local community group Groundswell Gloucester who had been fighting the mine for 12 long years decided to go hard on climate impacts. In response, the company mounted what I would loosely describe as the “drug dealers defence” essentially that “hey, we just sell this stuff, what people do with it elsewhere is not our problem and shouldn’t be part of the consideration”. Chief Justice Brian Preston, one of my personal heroes, dismissed the appeal, saying that the mine was ‘in the wrong place and at the wrong time”. The really significant thing about his judgement was that scientific arguments, mostly presented by my good friend and colleague Will Steffen as an expert witness, were absolutely central, that is, emissions and climate do not recognise jurisdictional boundaries, and the impacts of the emissions, regardless of where the coal was burnt, were unacceptable. Finally, the science and the law, in this case, were completely aligned.

There were many champagne corks from the Gloucester community popped that day, and again when the company announced it would not take the matter further. Which segues into my reason number 5: People power.

Grassroots movements for social and political change have a long and proud history, from the suffragettes demanding the right of women to vote, to Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches.

More than three quarters of a million people marched for climate action in 2015 before the Paris Summit, with more than 50,000 in Sydney.

But things are getting really interesting now, especially with a group called Extinction Rebellion that was started in the UK by about 100 academics, who have frankly been acting in a very nonacademic way. The latest craze is for protesters to superglue themselves to roads and other infrastructure, risking arrest and possible imprisonment. The craze has spread here, with a lot of super-gluing currently going on in Brisbane. I guess this is one way of getting out of the ivory tower!

And it’s not just collective action that creates hope, sometimes it’s just one individual, in the right place at the right time, that can ignite something extraordinary. Such is the case for Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, who began her solitary protest every Friday starting last August, outside the Swedish parliament with a hand-painted cardboard sign. Fast forward a few short months and Greta was invited to address the World Economic Forum in Davos where she told the world leaders that their house is on fire and she wanted them to panic (a fellow Cassandra!). She subsequently featured on the cover of Time magazine, and has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

We think of hope as an emotion, and of course it is, but it must also be our most fundamental strategy.

The movement that Greta ignited leads me to my number 6: Kids.

Greta’s urging that schoolkids should strike for climate action has been a global phenomenon. Last March, an estimated 1.5 million students in more than 100 countries around the world joined her call. In July, the secretary general of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries declared Thunberg, and other young climate activists as the "greatest threat" to the fossil fuel industry. I’m sure they took this as a great compliment!

In Australia, an estimated 150,000 people in 60 different locations took part in rallies. I was there in Sydney, with my own two kids. Listening to the speeches triggered two very different emotions – deep shame for my own generation, and enormous pride for theirs.

I have since had the privilege of working with several of the rally organisers and they are some of the brightest, most mature, and most committed people I have ever met. If there is such a thing as passion bringing about change, we are in good hands, at least, just as soon as they are old enough to vote.

So to conclude, people often ask me whether I feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future. It’s a really hard question and I generally respond with a quote from the 19th century Italian Marxist politician Antonio Gramsci, who wrote about the tension between the “pessimism of the intellect versus the optimism of the will”. Climate change scientists wrestle with this tension daily but the further I travel along this climate journey, the more I am convinced that we must be optimistic, and we must have hope, because the alternative is simply unacceptable. We think of hope as an emotion, and of course it is, but it must also be our most fundamental strategy.

I’d like to end with another favourite quote, which has become a kind of modest guiding light, this one from Desmond Tutu, who said “Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

The name of this award does perhaps hint that one is reaching one’s twilight years, but for what it’s worth, I will keep trying to do my little bit of good.

Thank you so much for everything.