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Swimming for change

Updated Monday, 14th December 2009

Philippa Rowland, of Clean Energy for Eternity, talks about the feats of endurance that inspired community climate action in New South Wales.

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Copyright The Open University


My name’s Philippa Rowland, and I’m from Australia, from a country town in New South Wales called Bega, and I’m here at the COP15 representing a community climate change group called Clean Energy for Eternity, and I’m here accredited under an organisation called Climate Action Network Australia (CANA).

What first triggered your interest in environmental issues?

I’ve been aware of the climate issue for a number of years, about 10 or 15. But in fact the moment that I became involved myself was pretty clear to me. I’d moved to Bega for my husband to do medicine, he was doing GP anaesthetics, and he came home from the hospital one day and he said, “Philippa, there’s somebody you have to meet. He’s going to swim across Lake Jindabyne for climate change”. And I can still remember what I said, I said, “Well he’s either mad or he’s serious”. And nearly four years later I can say he’s the best of both. And that person was in fact Dr Matthew Nott.

He’s an orthopaedic surgeon from Bega, servicing an area around Bega, and he is a surf lifesaver in his spare time, and he’d been on duty on Tathra Beach, in 2006, and it was four degrees hotter than it had ever been on the historical record, and he was reading an Australian book called The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery, which was about climate change. So Matthew started reading about climate change and got concerned and invited the community onto the beach to make a human sign, and 3,000 people turned up and wrote ‘clean energy for eternity’ on Tathra Beach.

So that really was the formation of a community climate change group and probably the first step for me in moving away from what I’ve been doing in agriculture - because I’m an agricultural scientist - into spending the last three or four years gainfully unemployed on community climate change activities.

What are you working on and what motivates you?

Well I think one of the starting points for my involvement with Clean Energy for Eternity was that we’d come up with a great community target, which was called 50/50 by 2020, and we’d got bumper stickers that say 50/50 by 2020. And that is 50 per cent reduction of energy, so behaviour change, light bulbs, insulation and so forth, and 50 per cent clean renewable energy by 2020. And I was one of a seven member team drawn from the community who spent six months meeting every fortnight to try and work out, easy to say, but how on earth are we actually going to do 50/50 by 2020, so quite a lot of time over the last few years has been moving from awareness raising and talking about the how to, to getting practical projects on the ground. So there have been a couple which have been the micro renewable end.

So we’ve had community fundraising activities, largely through a big swim series where people convinced by Matthew Nott to swim large distances raised $60,000 last year, which was enough funds to put solar panels and micro wind turbines on four or five surf clubs up and down the coast. And we’ve now begun working with fire brigades, the rural fire brigade services, to do the same thing. Not to save the planet overnight but it’s a small sign of hope that it’s quite feasible, it’s not rocket science, it’s actually quite easy to begin a transition to renewable energy, the technology’s there on the shelf.

So, having begun there, with community activities on micro renewable, I became very interested in a transition to macro, because we’re not going to get there in time just by individuals, well meaning as we are, putting solar panels on our north-facing rooftops; we’ve got to try to move towards solar contributing more than 1 per cent of our energy needs in Australia. Currently it’s less than one per cent of our energy comes from solar. So I got involved in a community solar farm project. And it was probably really finding out I had two tipping points in why I came to Copenhagen.

One of them was discovering that unfortunately it looks that we won't qualify for the federal government’s rebate for solar for our community solar farm project. So I’ve come on a bit of a mission to try and find some international support and collaborative opportunities for the solar farm. And there’s another area of interest for me which is about just transitions. How do we move people from lifestyles that may be damaging and employment situations that may be costing the earth to give them somewhere to go; you can’t just pull the rug out from under their feet.

So I’m interested in talking and listening and learning from other people about some pathways to more sustainable living, yeah.

What do you anticipate working on in relation to environmental issues over the next 10 years?

I think two things are probably going to come together for me, that I did an agricultural science degree and I spent a long time working in issues about trying to reduce the impact on the environment of agriculture and maximise the conservation benefits of agriculture, and then I’ve been working in community climate change, and there’s probably a lot of synergies in fact between the two of working in land management opportunities with climate change.

But I think there’s no doubt that I would like to and I would continue working in these ways of trying to act as part of a catalyst to get community action on climate change. There’s a lot of people who feel quite, part of the community I feel has had enough of hearing about climate change, and I think one reason that they switch off is that they just hear the bad news about the science and the media stories, but they don’t have a personal connection to them, and they certainly don’t have a personal connection to what they can do about it in any powerful sense.

So I feel that with the small projects that are very tangible, like the one we began in Canberra, you can swim in any swimming pool and raise money to put panels on the swimming pool, and that’s a small contribution to people feeling a bit more powerful about getting up and doing something about climate change, finding solutions that can be rolled out. So I’d like to continue working in that area, and I’ve thought that it’s, I’ve been gainfully unemployed for a while now, and it might be good to get some more study under the belt to rejoin the workforce at a different level.

So I’ve been thinking about whether I might pick up a Masters or a PhD. But for me it would be very important with that education programme that it wasn’t sitting in a garret just looking at pieces of paper, that I'd want it to be action research about the real world, yeah.

Optimist or pessimist?

I’m an optimistic realist, and that means that there are dips in the road, because I think the reality of climate change and the speed at which things are changing, if you’re scientifically trained and you keep up with things, then there’s no doubt that we’re getting into fairly dangerous territory. But I take heart from one thing, which is if that you accept that this climate change we’re facing is human induced well it puts you in the box seat to do something about it. So therefore in accepting a challenge that this is human-induced climate change gives us an enormous opportunity as humans to do something about the planet for us and for other species.

So I end up optimistic, and the reason for that is that I think at base I’m actually a great believer in life and self-interest, and that is like the boiling frog, humanity will wake up to the fact that it’s actually in the process of trying to kill itself and most other things, and at that point change will be swifter.





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