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Australian Academy of Science President: why we divested ourselves of fossil fuel investments

Part of the coal loading facility at Kooragang Island, NSW. Flickr/eyeweed , CC BY-NC-ND

Australian Academy of Science President: why we divested ourselves of fossil fuel investments

Part of the coal loading facility at Kooragang Island, NSW. Flickr/eyeweed , CC BY-NC-ND

The Australian Academy of Science has been involved with the promotion of climate science since the 1960s, when it co-ordinated Australia’s participation in the Global Atmospheric Research Program, which subsequently became the World Climate Research Programme.

In 1976, the Academy prepared one of the first Australian reports for government on what was then termed “climactic change”. That report carefully examined the evidence and foresaw that the changes in climate would create social and economic problems that would require multidisciplinary solutions.

Four decades on, and the world is at a critical juncture. The issues canvassed in that 1976 report are now becoming our realities. Decisions taken by the global community at the United Nation’s Paris climate conference will greatly affect the extent to which our world is changed by the enhanced greenhouse effect. As scientists, it is our duty to help the global community make the best decisions that can be made.

The Academy stands ready to help scientists discharge this duty. Our activities in science policy, and in public awareness and outreach, are designed to take the collective scientific opinion and put it in the hands of the public and the government.

The Academy has a strong set of programs in school science education – Primary Connections and Science by Doing – both of which include units with relation to climate change.

But classrooms are not the only forum in which learning takes place, so the Academy provides science education for adults too. Nova: science for curious minds provides information on a very broad range of topical science, explained clearly and reviewed by leading scientists. Nova includes topics on ocean acidification, coral bleaching, the greenhouse effect, air pollution, biodiversity and the effects of climate change on human health.

Earlier this year, the Academy made a strong representation to the government on the issue of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. We have argued that Australia must aim to be carbon neutral by the middle of this century, and an important step along that process would be to reduce our emissions by 30% to 40% by 2030, compared to 2000 levels.

I am heartened that the government is listening to the scientific community and has progressed the work of emissions reductions in Australia. I look forward to hearing of more progress in that respect, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister.

The Academy has also produced two “questions and answers” publications on the science of climate change. The Academy believed the Australian public deserved to have factual, unbiased and authoritative information on the science of climate change.

The science and information the publication contains is clear, concise, authoritative, defensible, reliable and accessible. It has been read widely in the community. Perhaps more pleasingly, it has also been read widely within government.

Our updated Questions and answers of climate change science booklet was published at the start of this year. The working groups for both booklets were ably, professionally and generously co-chaired by Professor Ian Allison and the late Professor Mike Raupach.

Late last year, just a couple of months before his untimely death, Mike penned a quick hand-written note:

Our task is to fix a generation of problems that are global and centennial – to learn to share a finite planet. We have the capabilities to repair climate and to lighten our footprints to what the planet can sustain.

We do have those capabilities. But in order to meet this grand challenge for our modern age, we as scientists must move beyond being truth-seekers. We must be truth-tellers.

We might not believe that truth conquers in the modern world, but I am determined that the Academy will act on one simple principle: scientific fallacy shall not stand.

The Academy will use its voice – the voice of Australian science – to stand for facts, to stand for rigour and to stand for free-minded and evidence-based analysis. As scientists, we can stand for nothing less.

As scientists, we enjoy some incredible privileges. We have the means to observe the wonder of the world at closer quarters than other members of our community. More than anyone else, I would contend, we have the ability to follow our interest and curiosity where it leads us. We also are equipped and trained to critically enquire and to see the events in our surroundings in a dispassionate and analytical light.

Divestment

Of course, with any privilege comes responsibility. We have a duty to conduct our work in an ethical and conscientious way. We must be mindful of how our work might be relevant to the wider world, and how we might use the results of our endeavour to improve the community and environment in which we all live. Perhaps most importantly, we must show leadership in those areas which are within our expertise.

As scientists, it’s often not in our nature to be happy in the spotlight. But current and future generations are relying on us not to shirk our responsibilities; we must not leave the duty of leadership to those who seek only power and glory. We must ensure that we have a hand in shaping the future so it is fit for our children, and their children.

In this vein, I am delighted to announce that the Academy has taken some small steps in this area. This year, the Academy resolved that it would no longer hold investments in environmentally sensitive activities. Accordingly, in the last month the Academy has divested itself of direct links to fossil fuels in its investment portfolio.

Of course, divestment is a difficult political issue, and the Academy is fiercely apolitical. Despite this, it’s a decision that we can make on rational grounds. Is the value that could be derived from fossil fuel activities sustainable in the long term? Certainly not from the view of the Earth system, and probably not financially either. It is possible to put our support behind activities that are most sustainable, both financially and environmentally, so we have therefore committed to do so.

This is a small step that the Academy can take, but it is a step towards discharging our responsibility as scientists, and as leaders in society.

Our work in science education and science policy are small parts of being scientific leaders in the community. We will continue to expand our presence in the community, to be a bulwark of factual scientific advice when we can.

We will continue to support and encourage scientists to involve themselves in public discourse, and to encourage as many scientists as possible to be involved in the design and implementation of policy initiatives at all levels of government.

For those scientists who think that you don’t have a place in the policy process, I urge you to remember the words of Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.


This is an extract from the speech given by Australian Academy of Science President Professor Andrew Holmes at the Greenhouse 2015 Conference in Hobart on Tuesday 27 October 2015.

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