Tag Archives: Will Steffen

Angry Spring

Earlier this year Australia came to the end of a summer that was so outstandingly hot and stressful that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to its charts so as to be able to indicate the high heat levels. Will Steffen, a world leader in climate science and a key figure in the government-funded Climate Commission, wrote the report ‘Angry Summer’, showing the figures that enabled the public to get the picture of just what had been happening.

Eight months later, the story rolls on:  Angry Spring has flashed into New South Wales bringing fire, wind, heat, death, fear, injury, lightning, pain, peril, loss, despair, and, of course, anger. In the few months between February and October 2013 we had had a chance to think, evaluate, assess, and plan. Collectively, we hadn’t done well at all. The Climate Commission has been abolished (replaced, however, by the crowd-funded Climate Council). Climate change is treated as if it were a topic to be debated rather than a phenomenon about which to take action, and all the while it is accelerating.

As Peter and I continued our travels in North America, parts of our minds were focussed on home: on fires, on friends at risk, on the suffering of all who are in the paths of the fires. Parts of our minds were here where we were, of course, and the dissonance between the island country of the Pacific Northwest with its damp forests, lakes, inlets and sounds forms an incredible contrast to the news from NSW.

Those contrasts were with me when I walked into the Royal British Columbia Museum and found myself face-to-face with an exhibit on climate change that was without doubt the best I have ever encountered.

Debbie and mammoth Royal BC Museum
Debbie and mammoth
Royal BC Museum

The exhibit places contemporary climate change within the context of a dynamic, ever-changing earth system with all the changes in flora and fauna that have been part of the story of earth. It focuses, though, on the most recent era of human life in the north – the end of the most recent ice age. The life-size mammoth is an awesome reminder of the fact that change is earth’s way of life, and nothing lasts forever.

One section of the exhibit gives clear explanations of the main forces in climate dynamics: including the pulses of ocean currents and oscillations, the tilt of the earth, the earth’s orbit, and other factors that pulse at different rates and intersect to form patterns through time. Human impacts were set within the wider oscillations, and then it made good sense to talk about what the current changes imply for the future. Having always thought of this region as one of endless rainfall, it was fascinating and horrifying to learn that British Columbia, too, has recently experienced terrible fires, and can expect more. Indeed the great forests of the region could be lost to a range of impacts, including the devastating effects of the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). This voracious little beetle is kept in check by freezing winters. As winters lose their frosty bite, the beetles multiply so rapidly that they are destroying forests throughout the western part of North America. The stories rolled on, with strong sections on greenhouse gases and global warming, and excellent suggestions for what individuals could do to reduce impact.

Canada is far from being a perfect society, as government bans on the public reporting of scientific findings attest.  Nevertheless, the climate change exhibit is supported by ’Environment Canada: Environmental Action Fund’, ‘Environment Canada: Eco-action Community Funding Program’, and the ‘British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection’.  As Libby Robin has discussed in an essay on climate change and museums, the role of the museum is to address big questions. In the BC Museum, the stories unfold in urgent scenarios that leave sensible people asking the great question: ‘what can I do?’ And indeed, the Museum offers a strong educational action program to accompany the exhibit.

While I was still immersed in this sense of urgency, I was shocked to learn that once again the PM Tony Abbott denies links between climate change and bushfires. And perhaps even worse, that there has been some suggestion in Australia that it is not good to talk about climate change in the midst of terrible fires. I gather that the idea behind this notion is that climate change is political, and no one should be politicking in the face of the fear and suffering of bushfires and the heroic efforts to contain the fires. But this idea is wrong. We in the ecological/environmental humanities  have been talking about climate change and bushfires in Australia for a good while now, and with a new government that wants to stifle research and informed conversation and action, it is imperative that we continue to tell the stories that move people to understanding and action.

Climate change is not politics. It is reality. Much of what we love is at risk – not only our own lives, but forests, animals, birds, plants, oceans, homes, neighbourhoods, communities, the future. What could be more important for us to talk about than the real world in which we are living? This is our life, our time, our responsibility, our debt to the future.

'Climate Rules' Royal BC Museum
‘Climate Rules’, Royal BC Museum

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)


Take-Back Time ~ Science and Economy

Dendrobium speciosum
Dendrobium speciosum

David Suzuki is one of the great moral leaders in the world today. For decades, now, he has advocated a changed culture, changed relationships between humanity and nature, and a shift in values away from self-centred opportunism and toward connectivity and mutualism. It was great to read the text of a recent speech and learn that he believes that many of our contemporary leaders, the Abbot government in Australia and the Stephen Harper government in Canada to name two relevant groups, could rightly be charged with ‘criminal negligence through wilful blindness’. Their willingness, indeed their raging eagerness, to trash the future in order to secure their own power and influence in the present is surely a crime against the generations to come. Under the label ‘intergenerational justice’ we recognise our ethical responsibilities to the future. If we trash those responsibilities, we will suffer for it, our children will suffer for it, their children and children’s children will suffer for it, and the great thriving mass of earthly life will suffer for it. To think in terms of generations is also to confront the fact that many generations will not come forth, as whole species of creatures (plants, animals, fungi and others) go extinct. For many, the word ‘future’ has no meaning.

Climate change is just one factor in the whole process of trashing the future, but it is a major factor, and one that should have been addressed forcefully decades ago, as many thoughtful analysts have told us. The Garnaut Review in Australia, the Stern Review in the UK, Al Gore in the USA, and the on-going work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have all made it abundantly clear that it is better by every measure of social, economic and environmental well-being to take action sooner rather than later. So when Tony Abbot got rid of Australia’s Climate Commission, the disservice to our nation, our society, our environment and our future was potentially incalculable.

Lots of us aren’t willing to let that happen. The good news is that we have now entered the era of ‘take-back’. The newly established Climate Council will act “largely in the same way as the commission”, Tim Flannery tells us. It will continue the work of informing the public on climate change impacts. Anyone who doubts the value of the work of the Climate Commission should read Will Steffen’s report ‘The Angry Summer’. It details the facts of the 2012-2013 summer, including the fact that the Bureau of Meteorology had to add new hot colours to its diagrams to account for the new, off the top of the range, temperatures recorded around Australia this past year. The new Climate Council will rely on donations from the public, and the former climate commissioners will work pro bono. This is the moment to join the take-back: sign up, donate, and become part of a movement to take back climate science.

Take-back has been coming for a long time, and it is now shaping up in fascinating ways. Back in 1996 J-K Gibson-Graham published a wonderful book: The End of Capitalism (as we knew it). The key idea was that capitalism is not the only game in town: we all participate in numerous and diverse economies. The book was a feminist analysis that re-visioned alternative economies. Just a few weeks ago they published a new book: Take Back the Economy. The co-authors are Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy, it is published by University of Minnesota Press, and it has the lovely subtitle: ‘An accessible guide to demystifying the economy and creating a more just and sustainable world’. The Press has done a great job in allowing the authors to produce a seriously deep and theoretically informed book that is still accessible way beyond the academic world. I particularly love the title of the last chapter: ‘Any time, anywhere’. Take Back the Economy affirms the capacity of every person everywhere to become involved in their own destiny.

A few weeks ago I interviewed Kathie Gibson. We sat amongst the rock orchids that grow prolifically in our sandstone area in south-west Sydney, and we talked about the key ideas of community economies. We discussed how ‘economy’ can be re-framed to encompass the work we do to survive well, and how the commons includes not just humans but other living beings and habitats. The video is now posted on the Environmental Humanities journal website.

Take-back matters both for the future and, equally, for today. Will we be puppets, manipulated by whatever coalition of power happens to jerk our strings? Or will we be active participants in our own lives and destinies?

Take-back time is exactly now.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)