Three tips for creating environmental change

As someone who is interested in creating environmental change, whether that be fighting climate change or reducing plastic usage, the advice I usually hear is quite formal: encourage technological innovation, use market mechanisms, improve regulation, change consumer behaviour.

Which is why quite different advice I heard at a recent talk really struck me. When asked for three tips for creating environmental change Dr Astrida Neimanis, a lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney,  suggested we “be less racist, be more feminist and learn about decolonisation.”

These are huge topics to dive into but on the surface Neimanis’ advice appears quite powerful. Environmental problems are not just technical issues caused, for instance, by pollution, overuse of resources and destruction of habitats and species. They are driven by the beliefs and values which underlay our political, economic and legal systems and which shape our damaging behaviours. To create change it is crucial not only to understand how these systems damage the environment but why they do and who is paying the greatest price.

I might rephrase Neimanis’ tips: learn about race, learn about gender and learn about colonialism. Each of these concepts and bodies of knowledge helps us understand how the global economy we are all a part of today shapes our lives and the systems we live within. They also help us address issues of injustice regarding which groups experience the impacts of environmental issues the most severely.

Gender for instance is central to understanding climate impacts and climate solutions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which shapes global climate agreements like the Paris Accord, describes women as being “disproportionately affected by climate change impacts” yet having “a critical role in combating climate change.” Gender equality is the fifth of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which all 194 countries of the UN General Assembly have adopted and are working towards by 2030.

Indigenous peoples too, according to the UN, are likely to be the first to suffer the impacts of climate change, impacts which will exacerbate the issues many still face as a legacy of colonisation. Environmental impacts like pollution can also be closely tied to race with communities of colour (non-white) more likely live in areas which suffer from high rates of pollution. This has led to recognition of environmental racism.

Learning about race, gender and colonialism then are important for recognising these injustices and creating environmental change to address them. They might also help us understand and address the wider environmental problems we are facing today as well as help us avoid creating future ones. That’s why I’m taking Neimanis’ tips on board.


Photo at top by Neil Palmer (CIAT)


Sun check

There’s been some preeeetty cool stuff happening around renewable energy in Australia over the past couple of months so I wanted to do a little round up as some of these are world-leading projects!

  • Queensland finalises the details of a deal with General Electric to build Australia’s largest wind farm which will power 260,000 homes once completed in 2019.

  • Victoria announces Australia’s largest renewable energy auction as part of efforts to meet its renewable energy targets of 25% by 2020 and 40% by 2025. The auction will secure renewable energy that is projected to help reduce power bills for homes and businesses, create thousands of jobs and provide power for 389,000 homes.

If these huge announcements don’t provide a sense of the potential for renewable energy in this country then here is GE chief executive in charge of onshore wind farm projects, Peter McCabe:

“After the US, it [Australia] is GE’s second largest region globally for renewable energy.”

That’s right. After a country of 325 million people, a country of 24 million is GE’s next largest market.

And to make it extra clear here’s a ranking from a 2015 Beyond Zero Emissions report of the top ten ranked nations for wind and solar resources.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 1.05.47 pm

It’s great to see state governments working to capitalise on this potential and positioning their state, and even Australia, as a global leader in renewable energy.

You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic

This is such a great, simple message. It looks like it comes from a marketing team (hey, they know their craft) but it shows how powerful a few words can be in communicating a message that challenges the way people see themselves and their behaviour.

We have a tendency to not see ourselves as part of systems, to analyse our or others’ behaviour as isolated rather than symptomatic of a larger social, economic or political structures, particularly when it comes to collectively undesirable or unsustainable behaviours. A message like this puts our behaviour in context, perhaps in a new light, prompting us to question it.

It reminds me of this great illustration on how unsustainable our addiction to cars over public transport or cycling is.


Interestingly recent research suggests that, for some, our attachment to cars is largely about a sense of privacy, autonomy and personal space. This is interesting because governments tend to make public transport “competitive” with private transport in terms of cost and convenience yet these are not always the main considerations for people’s preference for driving. As the researcher Jennifer Kent of Sydney University put it in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“It is an attachment to notions such as privacy, autonomy and predictability, as well as comfort provided by things like air-conditioning, private sound systems.”

Which suggests that if we want to cut down on private car use we need more than just neat slogans to cut through and challenge people to think about their behaviour. We also need systems level thinking. As Kent suggests, we need governments to conduct “a full-scale evaluation of transport and land use to see which policies might be inadvertently, or quite obviously, perpetuating car reliance and car appreciation.” Systems level change and design while bringing people along with that change and the reasons for it.

A breakthrough

Australia’s been a little short on good news stories concerning renewable energy over the last few years. But this week’s announcement from the South Australian government that Australia’s first solar thermal plant will be built in Port Augusta is a welcome ray of light.

Solar thermal plants capture solar energy and store it using molten salt so it can be released, as electricity, when needed. This one, to be called Aurora, will provide all of the state government’s energy needs. Not only is the Port Augusta plant an Australian first but, when completed, it will be the largest in the world! And it comes hot on the heels of the South Australian government’s July announcement that Tesla will build the world’s largest lithium ion battery in the state.

These world leading innovations in renewable energy generation and storage show that with ambition, policy certainty and support Australia can help lead the global transition to clean energy. They will help spur Australia’s technological and economic transition to a low-carbon energy system. And they will be tangible examples for the wider public of clean energy solutions in their own backyard. They represent exciting steps and long awaited signs of better things to come.

Climate action for a fairer, better world

Last month David Wallace-Wells penned a now much-discussed article in New York Magazine on a potential worst case scenario of a world riven by runaway climate change. I don’t want to comment on the article, per se, as much has already been written on it both critical (here and here) and supportive.

What I want to focus on is how we inspire people to take and support the kind of climate action that is needed to realise the huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are required to avoid dangerous climate change. People need to understand the severity of the threat climate change poses but also to be galvanised by a vision of the better world that can be created by tackling climate change and decarbonising.

Writer Kate Aronoff, in response (below) to the Wallace-Wells article, suggests the need to frame climate action as a means of creating a fairer, not just more sustainable, world.

Kate Aronoff

The causes of climate change are deeply intertwined with global and national inequalities and power structures. Those of us who live wealthy lifestyles create a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions while those who will suffer the impacts of climate change most strongly are the poor and minority groups. Indeed, according to Oxfam, “the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10% of global emissions” while 50% of emissions come from the richest 10% in the world.

As Aronoff suggests, tackling climate change presents a powerful opportunity for us to address these systemic issues and create a fairer world, one where more of us have access to affordable and clean energy enabling us to lead healthy, happy and prosperous lives. One where energy production is democratised and localised through new domestic or community owned renewable energy and energy storage technologies. One where air pollution is reduced in cities through widespread electric vehicle usage and cycling leading to better health. One where businesses, from multinational corporations to local corner restaurants, aren’t just held accountable for their social and environmental impacts but actively engage in minimising them as part of their responsibility to the society and environment they operate within. One where developing countries have access to clean energy technologies that allow them to prosper. And one where developed countries take responsibility for their legacy of greenhouse gas emissions by greatly reducing their emissions and aiding developing countries to grow in as clean a way as possible.

This kind of vision of climate action as a vehicle for creating a better, fairer world for all of us but is sorely lacking in contemporary political and media discourses. It may not have the headline grabbing appeal of doomsday articles but it just might help us avoid the kind of scenarios they envision.

Social. Connected. Visible.


Climate change is a wickedly complex problem, no small part of which is due to its causes being invisible in our everyday lives. This video from Vox and University of California is a great explainer of how particular types of messaging can make the causes of climate change visible and deliver nudges that help us change our behaviour to tackle them.

Give it a watch! To help lodge the message in your brain these are my key takeaways:

  • Make behaviour change activities social and competitive (eg. comparing energy savings with neighbours)
  • Connect the behaviour change to a wider problem, ideally one that people can relate to personally (eg. air pollution affecting kids’ health, particularly impactful for parents with kids)
  • Make the problem or impact of changes visible (eg. show people their home energy use by device, put data in their hands).

System check

Is capitalism the system that’s best suited to build our future society?

I love how simply and innocuously this question frames capitalism. It’s taken from an article by Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk.

Since the end of the Cold War capitalism has appeared unassailable, aided by increasing living standards and decreasing poverty, the growth of international finance and multinational corporations the narrative of global dominance. But with growing inequality, corporate influence, climate change and environmental degradation more people are questioning the merits and, indeed, inevitability of capitalism.

Hickel & Kirk’s question not only neatly captures this growing discomfort in a straightforward, non-ideological way but prompts us to think about how capitalism can be changed to address these growing failures and even what better alternatives might replace it. Most importantly, it inspires us to think about what we want a future society to look like and how we can reach it. Will the continuing pursuit of ever greater profit help us get there or do we need a fairer, more environmentally sustainable economic model? What new ideas, communities and business models are being explored right now that can help us create the future we want?

Read the article here, it’s a good’un.