Peter Garrett and Michael E. Mann
Peter Garrett and Michael E. Mann. Photo: Julian Meehan/Flickr

A star-studded lineup in Melbourne last week mobilised support for putting the climate emergency wheels into motion.

Speakers at the first-ever National Climate Emergency Summit came from all walks of life and industries that just a few years ago, you’d have been surprised to see at such an event. 

Adrian Whitehead, co-founder of Beyond Zero Emissions, the political party Save the Planet, and Community Action for the Climate Emergency, was part of the highly dedicated team that led Darebin City Council to become the first government of any level anywhere in the world to declare a climate emergency.

He told The Fifth Estate that the summit at Melbourne town hall was the first time he’d seen most people grasp the notion that what we are facing is, in fact, an emergency.

Back in 2014, when he was running some of the first climate emergency events, it was really difficult to find people willing to commit to terminology that strong.

“This time, there were so many people who really got that there is an emergency.”

Local governments have been instrumental in driving the climate emergency. But Whitehead says most are falling short of elevating climate action measures to the emergency level.

It’s easier to declare and not do too much.”

An emergency response, he explains, means throwing all available budget at it and hiring dedicated staff, as a start. Most councils are trying hard, however, and the sluggish start is not a reflection of a lack of will.

Overall, Whitehead thought that it was really positive conference filled with more than just the usual faces.

“A lot of people who were sitting on the fence are now immersed.”

The speaker list was also populated with big names from the built environment, such as David Williams, the chief executive officer of the Planning Institute of Australia. Williams told The Fifth Estate that the event struck a balance between despair and anger – the energising kind – and hope.

He says and the ACT government’s demonstration of running on 100 per cent renewables and independent Zali Steggall’s private members bill were some of the seeds of hope.

But Williams isn’t confident the bill will get up. However, that’s not what he’s worried about – “it’s that, ‘oh no, here we go again’ sentiment that successive federal governments have managed to create.”

The PIA declared climate emergency back in February last year, wanting to make sure it had a series of meaningful tangible actions it could deliver on rather than jumping on a “hashtag” movement.

A number of industry bodies have declared but Williams was also impressed by the number of organic groups of professionals on board, such as the Engineers Declare movement.

He says that often these organic bodies can do more than institutions because they are more agile and can actually put the wheels in motion.

Critically, some declared built environment professionals are talking about rejecting projects that aren’t displaying the appropriate attitude or support for the cause.

For Australian Energy Foundation’s chief executive officer, Alison Rowe, what’s still missing is action plans for achieving the climate emergency targets that have been set.

Her organisation has declared, which involved developing an action plan to net zero, believing in the science, and committing to achieving a safe climate, among other criteria.

It’s heartening to Rowe that jurisdictions that have declared a climate emergency make up 10 per cent of the geographic world.

Rowe also feels that there’s a wave of optimism, and that “the number of people denying climate change are less and less, and the people who are prepared to do something about it are more and more.

“There’s no one left questioning if we’re not already in a climate emergency, and that Australia is the poster child of what it looks like… and we shouldn’t be proud of that”

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