Giselle Wilkinson

on Sunday, 20 May 2012. Posted in Expert Climate Change Panel

Giselle Wilkinson

Giselle Wilkinson is the President of Sustainable Living Foundation, Australia. She is a social innovator who has been working to promote sustainable living in a full time capacity since co-founding the Sustainable Living Foundation (SLF) in 1999. As an author she has presented a paper, ‘Accelerating Sustainability’, to an international conference of the Australasia and the Pacific Extension Network and released a book on sustainable living and food, packaged to reach a mainstream Australian audience. She is currently undertaking a Doctorate in ‘Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Safe Environment’. 

Giselle maintains her commitment focussing on ways to galvanise individuals and whole communities to respond appropriately to the sustainability emergency. She does this through her involvement with SLF as President; with Safe Climate Australia as a founding Board Member; as a Board member of the Climate Emergency Network; through public speaking; and by facilitating an ‘affordable / sustainable’ Cohousing rental development for 18 households in Heidelberg, Melbourne to be completed by the end of 2010. 

The overarching conviction driving Giselle’s work stems from her knowledge that the next ten years are crucial if a safe climate is to be restored. Her inspiration comes not just from a desire to avoid a human and planetary catastrophe but also from a vision of an achievable, community initiated transformation – a sustainability renaissance. To that end, she has been part of a recent move establishing an alliance to campaign for a Transition Decade enabling the restoration of a safe climate. 

Interview with Giselle Wilkinson

There still continues to be much contention about global warming and human contribution to it. What do you see as being serious global warming impacts that are happening now?  

Firstly, let’s look at the “contention”. The tobacco industry knowingly lied over decades that cigarette smoking did not damage health. The fossil fuel industry and stakeholders have employed the very same marketing agents. Their one product – doubt – has kept in “contention” the evidence both of climate change itself and what causes it. What motivates these various people – the moguls, tycoons, politicians, journalists, media personalities and spin doctors, to use their influence to put lives and ‘life as we know it’ at risk?  

Is it money and status, money and power, money and business interests? Or, in the case of the politicians of either major persuasion, do vested political interests trump their sense of responsibility for governance for the common good? Will these people behaving badly face the “retribution and accountability” that Gilding speaks of in The Great Disruption? These base motivations have brought the biodiversity of the planet, on which humans depend and are a part, to a precarious place. As a country perceived to have “laughed all the way to the bank”, Australia can expect to be looked on with dismay and disgust by other parts of the world when the penny finally drops. Should we also expect to be castigated, even punished, when the geopolitical picture changes?

 We now have extremely robust science to contend with the relentless attack but this does little to abate the anger and frustration when seen against the decades of valuable time wasted in false argument. Now evidence from the Arctic and the Great Barrier Reef informs us that this very decade is absolutely critical to turn the developed world’s suicidal trend around and achieve the restoration of a safe climate. 

Impacts are being felt in human communities all over the world. The people of Tuvalu, the CataretIslands, the Maldives, the Solomons and elsewhere already face the reality of sea level rise, the inundation of the food growing areas and the sad relocation from their beloved homelands to higher ground. Climate impacts on food production, on water availability, on the diminishing biodiversity of the oceans and forests and savannahs; human populations dislocated and poverty and instability exacerbated through direct impacts of increasingly intensified heat, drought, floods and storms. 

Ice loss at the poles – both in extent and pace of melting – is worse this year than the frightening previously record-setting year of 2007. The thickness of the ice has halved since 2001. The warming of the atmosphere at the poles is many times more severe than at the equator and amplifying sea level rise in conjunction with the warming expansion we are also seeing happening now; acidification and anoxia of the oceans (there are ‘oxygen holes’ in the Pacific) is probably far worse than we have even begun to realize – we know so little about our oceans; Recent severe droughts in the Amazon causing extensive die-back and fires in the newly-flammable forests. People are now walking in dried up waterways where before they paddled their canoes; Thawing permafrost beginning to release methane – seventy times more dangerous than carbon dioxide in the critical short term – from huge reserves that we must not allow to escape; significant loss of mass of the Greenland ice-sheet and the appearance of moulins ­– the vertical shafts that drain the melt water and effectively lubricate the ice-sheet bed speeding up the melting and the calving of glaciers. The receding glaciers of the Himalyas and South America, have huge implications for the many millions of humans that depend on the seasonal snow melt and glacier melt for their water and agriculture; the warming temperatures, droughts and desiccation of landscapes causing dire consequences like the Victorian heat-wave and Murrundindi fires of February 2009 that took 500 human lives; the extinction of species at 1000 times the base rate; desertification in north-western China, their acute water shortage and collapse of many aquifers; These are just some examples of the serious impacts that are already occurring. 

Anthropogenic climate change is exacerbating whatever nature is naturally responsible for and taking us into uncharted and dangerous circumstances for which we are largely responsible. Even if that were not the case, we may well have it within our capacity to avert cataclysmic climate change so we must give it our best shot. We have made a mess. We can stop making it now and we can clean it up. By luck or paradox the remedy that can restore safe climate conditions is consistent with the suite of actions that can bring about a sustainable world. So we can not only avert catastrophe but also usher in the next Renaissance. And if we accept that the first Renaissance started with a number of people with vision – “Two hundred people and the printing press” – we can see that our technology for this Renaissance includes the Internet and there are many more than two hundred people in the groundswell that’s happening now. The leadership is clearly visible at the grassroots internationally and communities reclaiming their democracies will have to steer their governments.

Which aspect of the science and or scientists research do you call upon as evidence supporting your views?  

I draw on the science that informs Safe Climate Australia which is currently raising funds to complete the “How Fast” project – the research required to determine the timeframe for the transition to a sustainable economy; [ Is it not extraordinary that the science hasn’t been done yet to tell us how long we’ve got before we reach the point of no return? Even ‘blind Freddy’ knows ‘time is of the essence’ and the Precautionary Principle should be applied as a matter of urgency.]  

I stay closely tuned-in to the work of Philip Sutton and David Spratt – co-authors of Climate Code Red and others in the movement such as Peter Christoff – the recent Melbourne University “Four Degrees” conference brought climate change scientists from all over the world to show us that four degrees is not an option – even two degrees of warming brings with it unacceptable risk; and I read and pay heed to numerous authors including James Hanson, George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, Lester Brown, Clive Hamilton, Ian Lowe and many others.  

The Transition Decade Guiding Team, comprising reps from Sustainable Living Foundation, Beyond Zero Emissions, Climate Emergency Network, Yarra Climate Action Network, Groundswell and Friends Of the Earth have impeccable sources.  

Over the twelve years of SLF and its comprehensive knowledge network, a great wealth of understanding of sustainable living, climate change and complex systems has been built; a depth of experience in the understanding of the social and structural changes needed to create the rapid transition to safe climate conditions and the transformation to a sustainable way of living has been shared; and a creative and courageous emergence-fostering practice and culture has been developed.

How have you been focusing on ways to galvanise individuals and whole communities to respond appropriately to the sustainability emergency?

SLF’s mission statement, since its inception in 2000, has focused on accelerating the uptake of sustainable living with a positive, solution oriented approach. The primary mechanism through which to achieve this has been the development of ‘platforms’ that create the contexts and conditions enabling people and organizations to more effectively communicate their work and reach receptive audiences. 

The Sustainable Living Festival celebrating sustainable living and now heading to its twelfth incarnation, is the most high profile platform. The full two week festival program, incorporating the popular, three-day iconic Main Event held in the heart of Melbourne, showcases exhibitors, debates, talks, art, music, food and creativity and reaches far and wide into the Australian community, rural and regional centers. Other platforms include the Sustainable Living Directory, the Sustainable Living Calendar, Sustainable Living Communities and the Sustainable Events Program.  

However, accelerating the uptake of sustainable living took on a greater sense of urgency as the telling evidence of the Artic ice melt came in along with the realization that the IPCC was not factoring in this vital piece of information at all. The awareness that we were already in a fully blown climate emergency was undeniable although hard to come to terms with. Striving to understand the scale and speed of the change needed was challenging. Realising that the change would need to be social as well as structural and that ultimately ‘everyone everywhere’ would need to be part of it, we began to focus on how to go about mobilising whole communities. In 2005 the Race to Sustainability was created but few then accepted the need to ‘race’. Early 2007 we ran the first of an ongoing series of meetings for the movement, The Sustainability Convergence, introducing the ‘Climate Emergency’ to the consternation of many.

In 2008 I published a book as a way to reach a mainstream audience. About the many issues related to food, agriculture and sustainability seen through the lens of sustainable living, it was designed to slip under the radar screen by being packaged as a cookbook. The Conscious Cook, now in second edition and third reprint, is still the only book of its kind written for an Australian audience. It gently encourages and enables the reader to consciously raise and apply their awareness of the issues via the icons used with each recipe.

Most recently (February 2010) was the launch in the MelbourneTown Hall to an audience of around 14,000 people, of the Transition Decade Alliance, an initiative SLF is proud to have made a pivotal contribution to its founding and to continue to play an active part in its development. 

What are your views on what the Gillard government is attempting to put in place to reduce Australia's carbon emissions? 

The carbon tax would have been better expressed as a ‘fine on climate pollution’. Few decry the fining of container ships that dump their pollution out at sea while bringing us the goods we need and want. The same should apply to the deliberate polluting of the atmosphere that encompasses our Earth, the aerial ocean that we all share with every breath we take. 

This ‘carbon tax’ is a positive, albeit tiny, first step that has opened the way for further, more powerfully effective measures. It has also put the wind in the sails of those working on clean technologies and social solutions and for the restoration of a safe climate future. 

The Gillard government’s plan includes the decommissioning of 2000 megawatts of coal power which, with any luck, will mean the shutting down of the decrepit Hazelwood power station, indisputably Australia’s dirtiest and least efficient coal plant. However, since it’s at the end of its life anyway, it would be mad and setting a very bad precedent indeed to give in to the ridiculous claims for compensation from the owners who know full well it’s overdue for retirement anyway. Such money from the public purse would be far better spent on ensuring a just transition for the workers. Another grave risk in this package is that we may see this fossil fuel powered station being replaced by another one, gas or otherwise. The BZE Stationary energy report clearly demonstrates we have renewable energy options. The increasingly dangerous days of fossil energy are almost over. 

If it is true that things get most dangerous when they’re in their death throes and we’re currently seeing an unholy  coal rush of frightening proportions happening in many parts of Australia, perhaps this can be seen as a good sign. A sign of imminent change. Around 80% of Queensland is under mining lease. NSW is similarly at risk of great destruction. Some of our most productive land, such as the Queensland Darling Downs with its up to 10 meters deep of rich topsoil, is being mercilessly fracked and mined right now. The Lock the Gate Campaign is gathering momentum to stop it. France has banned the devastating practice of coal seam gas fracking (the first country to do so) and other parts of the world are urgently instituting moratoriums, yet we here are going gangbusters to mine it, dig it up and ship it off as fast as possible before we’re stopped – as we know we will be.

Do you see it as providing a good transition plan to a net zero-carbon economy?

The Transition Plan to a zero-net economy is not there yet. The Labor government now has a hung parliament and a strong Greens presence to deal with which is setting the scene for some meaningful action in this area at long last. However, they are setting targets of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 – way too late and not enough. The hardest part of this transition will be getting the commitment to it in the first place and getting it started. After that the infrastructure, momentum and community acceptance will be in place making the rest of the transition easy by comparison. 

We need to see our political leaders paying closer attention to the science; to the moves starting to be seen around the world; the evidence of the noticeably intensifying climatic events; the telling and record-breaking loss of Arctic ice this very year; and the growing level of concern in the community and among well-informed people that we have to move much, much faster. 

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, from the Potsdam Institute in Germany, and many others are stating unequivocally that we must peak our emissions by 2020 “in order to avoid the unmanageable”. He is saying this in the context of having a 60 to 70 percent chance of avoiding a 2 degree temperature increase. BZE talks about these odds being equivalent to playing Russian roulette with two bullets in the barrel. Not good odds.  

I believe, as do a growing number of others, that we need to achieve zero emissions by 2020, to have begun to draw excess carbon out of the atmosphere to bring about the conditions we know give us a safe climate and we need to cool the already overheated planet.  

What we need from the Gillard government is simply responsible risk management and good governance. We need our governments to be paving the way with intelligent community education campaigns, appropriate policy development now; and preparation for the pulling of the big levers (coal OFF, renewables ON) to change direction, transition to clean energy and to, in effect, step-up to the need for whole systems change. 

The time for incremental change is over. We now urgently need a rapid social and structural transformation on a massive scale.  Underlying all our profligate energy use, rampant consumerism, retail therapy and huge waste, is our misplaced faith in a growth economy and the flawed concept that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible. We have to live within our limits. We need good government now more than at any other time in human history and we need proactive government to participate in the planning, already underway in the non-government sector, for a rapid transition to a net zero carbon economy.

The Gillard government is at least, and at last, providing a good first step to an urgently needed transition plan to a net zero-carbon economy. We need to congratulate them on this initiative, encourage much stronger measures and demand this critical transition be treated with the greatest urgency.

Do you believe that there is a climate tipping point? When do you see this as being?

A comprehensive understanding of whole systems at the meta end of the scale and the tipping points contained within is not widely held and so responses being proposed are currently inadequate to the task. Yet with the knowledge we do have, we can be certain there are tipping points that we can see coming. Probably, in our ignorance, there are others we can’t as yet predict. 

It may well be that we have already passed a critical tipping point and that now we have to just watch it play out. This is the greatest fear of many who do this work. Perhaps we have a one in five chance that we’ve blown it already, maybe one in ten. We have known for decades that we would arrive at this point. We just didn’t think it we’d be anywhere near reaching it so soon, that it would affect those of us alive at this time.  

The scientific evidence tells us that the Greenland ice-sheet is almost certainly doomed. If it melts sea levels will rise by seven meters. As so much human civilisation is located in coastal regions this will mean a lot of lives lost and a lot of relocation most of which will be unhappy, unwelcome and disastrous. If we were serious about adaptation we’d be drawing up plans now for the safe and peaceful relocation of millions of humans. We’d be looking at the planet thinking beyond the outdated nation-state mentality, which simply wont work for our species any more. My fear is that we will be late and unprepared and therefore fail to manage the situations we find ourselves in. We will behave badly and many will suffer.  

We need to turn around the global warming trend and to apply mechanisms to cool the planet as urgently as is safely possible in order to prevent disastrous, methane releasing thawing of the permafrost. 

That we haven’t yet reached such a catastrophic point provides enough hope to be worth every bit of our attention and energy. This work is rewarding only in that it is based on this hope and engaged in with great determination and a deep-seated trust in the human capacity to be galvanized into intelligent survival action. Failure is not an option so half-hearted measures that don’t fully solve the problem are pointless. 

By contrast we have a chance and an opportunity we’d be mad to not go for. We can each play a thoughtful and proactive role in transforming our Australian society and, at the same time, contributing to the urgently needed global paradigm shift.  Do we not want and wish for a world that is sustainable and based on clean energy? One that delivers important benefits in human and environmental health, family and community resilience, creative self expression, pace of life and peace of mind? Are these outcomes not conveniently identical to the solutions that must be applied to the ‘problem’? How lucky are we to be able to trade our collective dysfunctional behaviours and their awful consequences for positive, sustainable ones that deliver a much saner, more equitable, more secure and therefore happier world.

How have you found developing your leadership profile in the climate change landscape in Australia

As in so many areas, it’s about ‘earning your stripes’, ‘getting runs on the board’. When SLF ran its first Sustainable Living Festival in 2001 we had no runs on the board and no money in the bank. We were basing our proposals for funding on our sheer enthusiasm, commitment and a capacity to bring in a strong and robust network of expertise, to find the caliber of participation – all voluntary of course – and our belief that it was so obviously the intelligent thing to be doing it would receive the appropriate support.  

Amazingly we pulled it off and continued to grow from strength to strength always ‘lean and keen’ and therefore highly creative, always relying heavily on the support of the volunteer participants, the exhibitors and the handful of ethical partners to help us get over the line. These days we still deliver a million dollar event that belies the scant financial resources available to it and that still relies on, and gives opportunity for, a large component of voluntary participation and risk sharing. 

For myself, my action became the antidote to despair. I spoke with passion and persuasion but naturally enough it took time to earn the credibility in the eyes of some. I was perceived as the ‘holder of the flame’ and to this day, see this as an important part of my role in SLF. The flame is one that embodies a ‘can-do’ approach: inclusive, empowering, creative, courageous and committed.

 As the years passed the sense of urgency grew. Our understanding of the implications of the much faster-than-predicted melting of the Arctic propelled us into even more concerted action. While we continued with our work of promoting the ins and outs of living more sustainably for all the reasons of which we were already aware, we also steered our path into exposing the new information, generating new awareness, new urgency. We sought to find ways to guide people into turning their concerns into action.  

In 2011 there are now many organisations focused on adaptation and mitigation and a growing number on the climate emergency ( I see part of SLF’s particular role now is to shine a spotlight on the opportunity and urgency to transition to a carbon free economy and ‘restore safe climate conditions’; to help develop the methodology and mechanisms for a full and rapid social transformation; and to articulate and promote the benefits a clean, healthy, just and sustainable world.

What are some qualities you regard as being necessary for leadership in this field?

All of us, not just those in the field, are being challenged by the unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves. We’re all in this together and as a society, wherever we are located in our work and communities, we all have the very same threat / opportunity and responsibility to face up to.  

The sheer momentum of change, peer group pressure and the buzz will sweep along the majority of people in the end. Some will resist to the last and be forced by legislation. However, many of us will need to step up and take a stand somewhere in our lives. Whether that involves speaking out, making major change, being innovative or courageous, we will need to dig deep within ourselves, search our souls, decide when to take action and perhaps step into leadership roles. In these conflicted times, our politicians are not our leaders; they are followers of the vote. Government will swing into ‘transition mode’ when the social tipping point has been reached.  

Right now the leadership is coming from the grass roots, the community, the better informed and the few enlightened. It has to. 

Leadership can be out in front and very visible. It can also be leading from behind “Follow me, I’ll be right behind you”. It can have high profile or no profile at all. It can be in paid positions but, as often as not, isn’t. As in other situations of great crisis, people step forward left, right and centre, to play their part. Many are visible only to their families, friends and colleagues. Some are seen as heroes. 

The timing is vital. The writing is on the wall; we have run out of time for incremental change, we’ve procrastinated far too long already. We have a golden opportunity tantalisingly close.  Seize the day. 

The numbers of people becoming active are growing. Not all activists are leaders but at this time the challenge to draw on leadership qualities within ourselves is paramount. So much of the work is about breaking new ground, being innovative, reflexive and creative. We are living in extraordinary times at a personal and collective crossroad. 

Each ‘green leader’ will have their combination of leadership qualities ­– essential, important or helpful depending on the context.  

Leadership in this ‘green’ field really requires a high level of authenticity; strong values of honesty, integrity, respectfulness, are essential. To be open to growth and to feedback, to be able to give and receive, be self-disclosing, empathetic, compassionate and people & community-oriented is important; it helps if ‘green’ leaders  can give the benefit of the doubt at times, be trusting and trustworthy, loyal, idealistic and altruistic. It also helps if they have a strong sense of connection other sentient life forms.  

Leadership in this work requires a person to be highly self-motivated, independent, autonomous, inner directed; they need to set their own standards and strive to be effective. Being a good organiser, rational, affiliative, a problem-solver, a planner, a strategist and someone who meets deadlines and commits (as much as possible) to not holding up the work of others is important.  

They need to be able to creatively conceptualise, communicate well, articulate vision and be non-hierarchical and highly collaborative; to have a macro overall approach as well as being prepared to pitch in on the minutiae, wrestle with difficult ideas, be able to be reflective. Probably most important of all, is that they express optimism, have a sense of humour, a courageous streak, a healthy sense of impatience and determination to overcome obstacles. 

To have some of these qualities – some of the time – must contribute to useful leadership in this work and in our world. But perhaps being ‘open to growth’, doing the work on a personal level, learning how to live with grief and hope and channel our activity to be as generous and effective as possible, delivers an altogether unexpected benefit? Perhaps we finally get to grow up.