NSW Environmental Defenders Office CEO Sue Higginson paints a picture of EDO lawyers, haggard and caffeinated, racing between their office on Clarence Street and the Land and Environment Court on Macquarie Street, chasing “mining companies with the deepest pockets you can imagine” and “lawyers who lodge Notices of Motion at 1 am”.
It’s comical until you realise the gravity of the work. The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) concentrates its resources on the cases that other lawyers don’t take on. Important public interest cases. Cases where there’ll be a lasting or permanent impact on the environment, where governments haven’t followed the law. Blowing the whistle, holding governments to account.
It was pretty clear to scientists in the 1990s that man-made carbon emissions were causing climate change—it had started with the Industrial Revolution. Two plans of action were mooted. Plan A: reduce emissions (mitigation). Plan B: adapt to the changes. But we weren’t going to need Plan B, were we? The fix was clear, and there was plenty of time …
Dr Helen Caldicott, anti-nuclear activist, humanist, physician, returned to Bermagui on 10 February during a week when South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was preparing to deliver its “Tentative Findings”. Dr Caldicott was speaking at the Bermagui Institute dinner; her topic was “Nuclear South Australia”.
The speaker shared anecdotes from her forty years of campaigning, detailed the hazards to human health and the environment presented by the nuclear industry, and advanced three main points: one, that the recent search for a site to store radioactive waste from Australia’s only nuclear reactor is premised on a lie; two, that Premier Jay Weatherill’s pursuit of a nuclear industry for SA is unnecessary and dangerous; and three, that public education and the democratic process are the only means by which nuclear expansion can be curtailed.
Upon hearing that the planet had warmed by one degree Celsius, a conservative politician said that he could get on a plane in Melbourne and get off in Sydney an hour later and find the temperature higher by a comfortable six degrees, so what’s the problem?
In fact, a global rise of one degree has increased the incidence of extremely hot days in southeast Australia by a factor of ten. It’s because temperatures, like most natural phenomena, arrange themselves along Bell curves. And a shift to the right of just one degree has massive ramifications, not at the height of the curve but at that very low, very sensitive-to-change high end. If it seems that bushfires are starting earlier in the season and becoming more frequent lately, that explains why.
Recently I heard the story of an American social worker whose job in the 1990s was to scour the mountains of Alaska, seeking the bolt-holes of Vietnam veterans who had decided to remove themselves from society, living off the land in isolated shacks. In the 20 years since the Vietnam War, more and more American vets had come to the grim realisation that they were now unable to coexist with their families and friends; to hold down jobs; to partake in society in any meaningful way.
Post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD.
The social worker’s task was to bring the vets into Anchorage to live in a halfway house and receive psychological therapy until they were willing and able to re-enter society. Of the degree of his success, I’m not sure.
In 1991 I was 25, a B.Sc under my belt, a brand new sales rep at a medical company in North Ryde, NSW. I was to meet with medical professionals in major hospitals and sell them consumables for kidney dialysis, including bloodlines – the tubing sets that take blood from patients, pump it through artificial kidneys and return it, purified. At my new company these tubing sets were assembled in a small factory downstairs, and the CEO deemed it necessary for me to spend a few days becoming familiar with their production before I was sent out to sell them.
It was thus I found myself, one morning, a cleanroom gown and elastic shoe covers over my smart suit and heels, my neat blonde bob in a hairnet, at a big, white, laminated table. I was surrounded by women from the Subcontinent and the Middle East chattering in various languages over the hum of the laminar airflow system while gluing lengths of medical-grade PVC tubing to drip-chambers, injection sites, T- and Y-pieces according to diagrammatic instructions on charts in front of them.
Having mastered my task of applying a smear of glue and attaching a short length of tubing to a drip-chamber, I turned to the middle-aged woman to my left. I learned that her name was Salma. She had arrived in Australia two years previously with her husband and daughter. They were refugees from Afghanistan.
The world’s sluggish response to climate change is a mystery to many. After all, overwhelming evidence of a problem usually results in mitigation of the problem. Witness the global response when scientists suggested in the 1990s that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) might be busting a hole in the ozone layer, leading to high rates of skin cancer, amongst other consequences. The reaction was swift; CFCs were banned from aerosol cans. In America, consumers voluntarily switched away from aerosol sprays, resulting in a 50% loss in sales even before legislation was enforced.
It was an unseasonably balmy night at the Bermagui Hotel. The speaker was Ken Henry and the subject “The Economics of Climate Change”. We’d all been congratulating the Bermagui Institute’s Jack Miller on his orchestration of the China-US emissions reduction deal just in time to create a dramatic backdrop for the talk, when Henry told us, “it won’t make any difference” to Australian government policy on climate change action.
It seems these days of political spin that you only find out what’s really going on from those outside the fray. Be they an ex-security advisor, or an ex-department head, or an ex-parliamentarian, at last they don’t owe any favours to anyone and can speak their mind.
The restaurant in the Bermagui Hotel is buzzing as I enter at 6pm on Thursday 3 April for the Bermagui Institute Public Dinner. Such is the interest in tonight’s speaker, the Institute has raised its booking limit, and still I meet a couple of ticketless friends hanging hopefully by the door.
Dr Mark Diesendorf is Associate Professor and Deputy Director at the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of NSW, and formerly a principal research scientist at CSIRO. He is the author of Sustainable Energy Solutions (UNSW Press) and an expert in renewable energy.