Putting climate action on the agenda at the VPELA Conference

Powerful speech about how we can all create a climate for change from our Founder and CEO, Katerina Gaita, at the VPELA Conference in August 2019. 

In August, our CEO, Katerina Gaita, had the honour of speaking alongside the Assistant Secretary General to the United Nations, Gillian Triggs and author, Sophie Cunningham AM, as a keynote speaker at the Victorian Planning and Environmental Law Association (VPELA) Conference. 

The theme of the conference was “If I could I would change this.” Katerina spoke of the need for all of us to treat climate change with the seriousness and urgency - the time, effort and courage - it deserves; for each of us to do all we can towards keeping warming below 1.5 degrees; ask ourselves constantly what more we can do and incorporate action into our ongoing lives and work.

Katerina's presentation can be found on VPELA's website, with her full speech below. 

Katerina with Sophie Cunningham AM and the organisers.

"In 1997 at university. I read a paragraph, the essence of which seared onto my mind. It said something like this:

“If we continue to produce greenhouse gases at our current rate, then by the end of next century (that was 1997, so next century is now this century)...by the end of next century we will have warmed our atmosphere by between 1 and 6 degrees celsius. To put that in perspective, 2 degrees is the maximum amount that scientists say we can safely warm our planet and five degrees is the difference between now and the last ice age when New York was covered in ice kilometres thick. That warming took place over tens of thousands of years and was still incredibly disruptive. Imagine what would happen if we warmed our world by an equivalent amount in just 100 years.”

I don’t remember being particularly scared by this paragraph - the end of next century was a long time away. We already had solutions with plenty of time to implement them. Humans would never be so stupid as to let anything like 2 degrees, let alone 5 degrees, happen to their home.

But I was awed by the mere fact that human beings had the potential to impact this vast planet so drastically.

Ten years later - I’d started a green living business. I had a son three years old.

I was at home playing with him, the radio on in the background. A woman came on presenting the news - in a slightly upbeat manner as if she might be presenting the sports scores, she matter-of-factly informed listeners that “scientists now predict that if we continue to release greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and current rates, we could warm our planet by between 2 and 11 degrees by the end of this century.”

My heart thudded in my chest. Two degrees was the maximum safe level of warming - and that was their starting point. What on earth would 11 degrees mean? And towards the end of this century is my child’s life time!

I needed to understand more. I found a review of the best books about climate change at the time and I chose the one described as “the most optimistic.” It was called Climate Code Red.

As I read, my world began to unravel.

I read that we had already warmed our world by 0.8 of a degree Celsius since pre-industrial times.
With that 0.8 degrees had come an increase in droughts, famines, fires, storms and floods.

I read that in his seminal report, Nicholas Stern had explained that two degrees of warming was unacceptable because it would lead to the loss of 15 to 40% of species on earth; fresh water loss of 20-30% in vulnerable regions and metres of sea level rise. 2 degrees would also mean the likely loss of all coral reefs including the Great Barrier Reef and condemn low lying islands to oblivion. Yet Mr Stern concluded that 2 degrees was too politically and economically challenging, so he recommended a target of 3 degrees.

I learnt that the last time the world was 3 degrees warmer, sea levels were 25 metres higher than today. I learnt that at 3 degrees it was likely the Amazon would collapse and large areas of the world could become uninhabitable.

I read elsewhere that a leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson had said: “I think it's extremely unlikely that we wouldn't have mass death at 4C. If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4, 5 or 6C, you might have half a billion people surviving.” This statement was later endorsed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, then advisor on global change to Angela Merkel and Nobel Prize winning member of the UN International Panel on Climate Change.
Finally and most terrifyingly, I learnt about feedback loops in our natural world.

For example, ice is white and reflects heat, cooling the atmosphere around it, when ice melts due to human caused climate change, less heat is reflected, warming the atmosphere more and melting more ice which reflects less heat, melting more ice and so on.

Trees absorb carbon from our atmosphere, but when global warming causes conditions for fires and those trees burn, they release that carbon which increases warming and conditions for more fires that release more carbon and so on.

Permafrost, permanently frozen ground in the Arctic holds methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent that carbon dioxide. The total amount of methane estimated to be within the permafrost is more than double all the total amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. When the permafrost melts, it releases some of that methane, increasing temperatures, melting more permafrost and releasing more methane and so on.

And there are many more feedback loops.

The fear is that we could reach a point, where these feedback loops and their mutual interaction could drive the Earth System to a point where even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases, warming will continue beyond our control and eventually beyond habitable temperatures for most species on earth, including most human beings.

It isn’t clear if and when this could happen, but it could be at a global temperature rise as low as two degrees. Some scientists are even concerned that the permafrost could reach a tipping point - where melting is irreversible and therefore complete melting inevitable - at as low as 1.5 degrees.

My world had fallen apart. Everything I thought I knew to be true - that I had based my life upon - had been called into question. What would the world look like if it reached three degrees within my child’s lifetime? How would societies function? Or would they breakdown? What would he see? What would he suffer? What would choices would he be faced with in order to survive? How does one parent a child knowing this is possible? What would I tell him when he is old enough to know the truth?

For months I was in deep despair. I cried constantly I even remember waking in the middle of one night with wet cheeks - I’d been crying in my sleep.

Then one day I asked myself a really simple question - but one that changed my life. “Have I given up hope? Is the situation completely hopeless?”

Immediately, I knew the answer to that question was no. There is still hope. We have solutions available to us right now. Many of them have multiple benefits apart from fixing climate change - cleaner air, better health, jobs, greater equality. It’s true, the task at hand is massive - beyond anything humans have done before, but humans have defied the odds many times before. We have transformed the world and done things most people would have said were impossible. Most of our dire situation is due to emissions from just the last 30 years. If we made this mess in thirty years, then maybe we could fix it in a similar amount of time.

As soon as I realised I had hope, then for me the response was simple. I had to do all I could to realise that hope. The one thing that terrified me more than climate change - was the idea of my son growing up and saying to me - you knew about this. You knew what could happen and what did you do? And me responding that I did nothing or not enough because it all seemed to hard or somebody else’s responsibility.

That was the easy decision - hard part was working out what I could do. I knew cleaning people’s bathtubs with bicarb soda and teaching them to compost wasn’t enough.

The United Nations has recently advised that if we are to keep warming below 1.5 degrees then we must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to 45% of 2010 levels by 2030; then to zero by 2050 whilst ALSO drawing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere at the same time.

That means eliminating the burning of ALL fossil fuels, including gas as soon as possible. It means radically transforming not just energy, but transport, waste and farming sectors. Hatling all deforestation and embarking on mass reforestation, educating women and girls, providing them with easy and safe access to family planning and employment. No less than a complete overhaul of our modern economy and society.

The only way such change can happen at the speed and scale necessary is with government policies and interventions that will drive or at the very least not obstruct and undermine it. As an individual I could work towards changing myself and other individuals in a system that, as it was, would never achieve zero emissions, or I could put my efforts towards changing that system - which meant working towards a situation where we have successive governments at all levels that will do what it takes to make our planet safe again.

Around the time I read Climate Code Red, the Rudd Labor government was elected with a promise - and it seemed a mandate - to implement an emissions trading scheme and a mining tax. Then, over the next six years, I watched as scare campaigns brought down the mining tax, Kevin Rudd and the ETS, then later Julia Gillard and the Carbon tax.

I realised that we didn’t just need Governments with a will to act on climate change, we needed them to have the support from the people - social mandate to take that action.

I looked into Australian attitudes to climate change and into what shifts attitudes and behaviours?

I learnt that messaging, campaigns and mass media are all valuable in raising awareness and creating a general zeitgeist around an issue, but the deep commitment we need; the type that means people will support and even advocate for the radical transformation that will make our planet safe - comes when we process information - which most of us do through conversation - two way dialogue - with people that we trust.

To cut a long story short, in September 2014, I quit my job to start Climate for Change, a not-for-profit with a mission to create the social climate we need for effective action on climate change.

We do this by encouraging and enabling people to have more frequent and constructive conversations with the people around them about climate change and what needs to be done. Our main program to date has pioneered a new model of face to face engagement that adapts the party plan model of network marketing made famous by Tupperware.

We are now a team of seven and around 200 volunteers a year. Our Conversation program has for the last two years engaged in living room conversations around 3,000 people a year. This is still nowhere near enough, but I am unaware of any other model for face-to-face engagement that has consistently over a long period of time been able to engage so many people so deeply with so few resources. Now that we have piloted this program, our plan is to partner with larger organisations and funders to take it into communities and sectors that will influence the direction our government and our society takes on climate over coming years.

Looking back on those past five years and comparing the world then to now, what have learnt? What have I got to say to you today?

I’ve learnt taking climate action is hard work. On a personal level - the past five years has taken a physical, emotional and financial toll.

But I’ve learnt sacrifices we make for the greater good are well and truly outweighed by the fulfillment and meaning that comes from making a difference and even more outweighed by working alongside the many courageous and dedicated people I encounter in the climate movement.

Daily, I work along side people who give hours every week, who have given up incomes or give away their incomes, who step outside their comfort zone and who find the courage to speak truth to power even when it might cost them friends, their jobs or more. Astoundingly talented young people, who could be in highly paid jobs instead working for a pittance to nothing. Retirees who looked forward to spending the third stage of their lives travelling and relaxing with friends, instead “working” full time as volunteers and donating the money they would have spent travelling to the cause.

Chrissy an introvert, who hates any form of public speaking who volunteers to regularly speak to groups of people about climate change. Chris - a former coal miner. Now a renewable energy consultant, who tours his local area talking about the opportunities in renewables even though he receives hate mail from former colleagues. John, a priest who could no longer do nothing, joined the Bentley blockade against unconventional gas. They won, but when he got home, he was excommunicated from his church. He lost his job, his home and his community. He had a stroke from the stress, but he keeps doing all he can. These are just a few of the people who inspire me daily.

To work alongside such people to count them as friends to know such courage and selfness exists in so many places has given me hope and given my life meaning, depth and substance beyond anything I had ever imagined. I really don’t think I could have found a better way to spend the past five years.

And at a global and national level?

It’s easy to feel pessimistic as the Amazon burns and too many world leaders, including our own are still not doing enough.

But one of the most heartening things someone ever told me is that change is non linear. It is an s curve that goes slowly for a long time then it hits a tipping point and happens unbelievably quickly. I certainly remember in my own lifetime how suddenly the Berlin Wall came down and how East Timor went from a fringe issue to one that had thousands marching in the streets here in Australia and soon thereafter saw East Timor an independent state.

Behind the scenes, scientists, engineers, lawyers, business leaders, citizens, individual politicians, local councils, state governments and some national governments overseas are working to progress climate action - nudging that s curve towards it’s tipping point.
The uptake of renewable energy in the past five years has been mindblowing.

In much of the world, solar and wind power are now cheaper than new coal power plants and are forecast to be cheaper than existing plants within five to ten years.

In general, renewable energy companies are returning double that of their fossil fuel counterparts. even with a fraction of the subsidies and despite many political roadblocks in countries like Australia and the US. Despite Donald Trump, in the United States, solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians are the fastest growing occupations, with the solar industry providing over 50% more jobs than coal.

Imagine what it could do if we really tried!

Legal challenges are being mounted around the world. In Australia, citizens of Gloucester in NSW recently won a challenge against and open cut coal mine in their area. The Justice ruled that the mine should not go ahead on a number of grounds that included its greenhouse gas emissions and impacts on climate change.

In the Netherlands, Dutch citizens successfully sued the Dutch government to require it to do more to prevent global climate change.

In June, the Dutch government presented its new climate accord setting a national reduction goal of 49% of 1990 levels by 2030..

In the last year a number of other countries have also set strong goals:

Denmark - 70% below 1990 levels by 2030
Finland - carbon neutral by 2035
Chile - phase out coal power by 2040 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Japan - carbon neutral by 2050.
And the UK has become the first major global economy to set a net-zero emissions target. By law the UK must be carbon neutral by 2050.

Climate is fast becoming a major concern for business. In July, BHP unveiled a $500 million decarbonisation plan - the first by any company to address not just its own emissions, but those of the users of its resources.

Referencing the UN 1.5 degrees report, CEO Andrew MacKenzie announced that ahead of a long-term net zero emissions target, BHP would set a science based short term target. He noted the need to not just reduce emissions but remove some already in the atmosphere and he referred to the threat posed by climate change as existential. A statement such as this from a global mining company 5 years ago, I could not have imagined.

I could go on.

One study published in 2017 listed 100 solutions to climate change that exist now and if amplified could take the world to negative emissions within 30 years from the high tech such as electric vehicles and to low or lower tech such as holistic agriculture, seaweed farms, plant based diets, educating women and girls and green roofs - all key contributors to the negative carbon economy.

Momentum is building. When I started climate for change, I never could have imagined that Greta Thunberg would be a household name, school children would be marching in the streets on a regular basis, Extinction rebellion would shut down London for days, forcing the UK Parliament to declare a Climate Emergency. Even Republican PR consultant, Frank Luntz infamous for his advice “to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in debate.”
has now announced he wants to offer his services to the fight against climate change.

We are edging towards that tipping point. The question is will we get there in time?

Despite current progress we are currently already over one degree of warming, tracking to reach three degrees within decades and 5 degrees by the end of this century.

To turn things around we need everyone.

So what can you do?

I’m afraid I can’t give you a simple, definitive answer. There is so much to be done. And you all have very different things to offer and very different circumstances.

The good thing is that there are so many options. There is something for everyone.

I looked up the VPELA website when I was asked to speak and I saw you are all in professions that have the potential to shape our future. I urge you to look at every turn, for ways that you can shape it towards a future of no more than 1.5 degrees of warming. Hold that in your sights and aim for it constantly. Accept nothing less.

Fight for more ambitious projects and targets, look for projects that model alternatives and set benchmarks that are in keeping with a 1.5 degree future. Look for opportunities to educate and influence others. Normalise 1.5 degree thinking.

Outside of work, flying less, eating less meat, driving less, installing solar are the big ticket items, but as I said earlier on - changing yourself within a system that is broken will only get us so far.

To change the system we must put pressure on those with the power to change that system - our political leaders, but also those who influence our politicians - business leaders, union leaders, church leaders. On September 20th school strikers around the world are calling on adults to join them. To be prepared to put aside deadlines and important work to show them and the rest of the world that we have not given up on their future. That this is important enough to us to take that stand.

And we must build the movement for change - of both people advocating for change and of those passively supporting it. We do this by talking to those around us. Start by normalising climate action. Talk about the things you are doing and why you are doing them. Talking about the exciting solutions you’ve heard or read about. Ask others what they think and what they know - what they’d like to understand better. If you don’t have the answers, suggest finding out together.

If I could I would wave a magic wand and make climate change go away. But I can’t so instead I stand here and ask you all today to you treat this issue with the seriousness - the time, effort, courage - it deserves.

When something is important to us, we make time in our lives. When we want to get fit or lose weight, we make time to exercise and eat properly. We pay to go to the gym. When we have kids we make time to help them with their homework and ferry them to sports practice; we spend money on their wellbeing, extracurricular activities, even tuition or private schooling for the sake of their future. To be honest all of that will mean very little if we reach 3 degrees by 2050.

Last year I read an article that described the commitment to climate action in this way:
“This work must be habitual. Every day some learning and conversation. Every week a call to Congress. Every month a donation to a nonprofit advancing the cause. In other words, a practice”

Inspired by this, I came up with the pillars of climate practice and how they might be incorporated into a busy life:

Be informed - half an hour a day of reading (commute time) - share at least one article on social media.
Make system change - 2 hours a fortnight. Put aside a regular time. Invite some friends. Sign up to climate mailing lists, file their actions in a folder in your email and each fortnight go through them and do as many as possible.
Make personal change - every other fortnight do one new thing to reduce your carbon footprint.
Reach out - at least once week consciously make an effort to engage someone in a constructive conversation about climate change.

Donate - x% of your income to not-for-profits advancing a safe climate. The giving pledge recommends 10% of one’s income to charity. Obviously, personal finances will dictate this, but I do want to say that vested interests against climate action invest a lot to make their voices heard. Clive Palmer recently spent $60 million on advertising to influence the most recent election. The whole climate not-for-profit sector has an annual income of $50 million dollars. Unions are the voice of the workers. Industry bodies are the voice of business and professionals. Advocacy not-for-profits are the voices of the people. If we want our voice to be louder than Clive Palmer’s, we have to support those organisations.

Volunteer - similarly those organisations need people power. Ideally we can commit both time and money. But if you are time poor, then consider giving an additional amount to represent the time you cannot give and if you are strapped for cash, look for a way to give a regular amount of time - even data entry makes a huge difference or the truly under-resourced sector.

And it’s not just time and money we need to give to climate action - we also need courage and creativity. We need to be prepared to step outside our comfort zone, stand up for what is important even when it is unpopular or we’ll receive pushback. We need to be prepared to think the impossible; think the unconventional. We can no longer afford business as usual thinking. We have to think in terms of “what if” and “how can we”.. If someone says yeah but, that shouldn’t be a reason not to do something but a reason to make it better stronger to overcome that yeah but. If someone questions you, question them back.

We have solutions. There is hope. There is an alternative future - but we are running out of time. It’s time for all of us to make a choice to prioritise climate action in our lives. Because only if enough of us do, will the world do too.

Aboriginal flag Torres Strait Islander flag

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia, whose sovereignty was never ceded. We acknowledge that Indigenous peoples around the world are at the forefront of climate change, both in experiencing its effects and leading solutions for change. We pay our sincerest respects to all Elders, past and present.