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Published: 11 January 2012

100% Renewable campaign powered by grassroots

Andrew Bray

Australia’s 2011 Young Environmentalist of the Year is achieving national impact by uniting community climate campaigners with her inclusive, solutions-based approach.

100% Renewable is a campaign of geographic diversity. Here, regional organisers gather at Parliament House, Canberra: Tom Driftwood, Lismore Climate Action Group; Jo Lewis, Clean Energy for Eternity, Bermagui; Dean Bridgfoot, Mount Alexander Sustainability Group, Castlemaine; Andrew Bray, BREAZE, Ballarat; Lauriston Muirhead, Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health, Table Top; Lydia Andrews, Climate Action Newtown, Newtown; Jim Rees, Climate Rescue of Wagga, Uranquinty; Nicky Ison, Chair, 100% Renewable campaign; Jenny Curtis, Climate Change Balmain Rozelle; Lindsay Soutar, National Coordinator.
Credit: 100% Renewable campaign

In mid-2009, Lindsay Soutar emerged from the Marrickville office of her local Federal MP, Anthony Albanese, feeling subdued. It was the first time she had met with an MP, and she’d just presented the senior Australian Government minister with a bevy of the latest facts on climate change. After listening politely for some time, Mr Albanese (known locally as ‘Albo’) stopped her.

‘I know what’s going on with the climate,’ he stated. ‘And I know people in my electorate care about this. But our government needs to see support from people in communities and electorates beyond the inner city, before we’re able to do more.’

Reflecting on the meeting, Ms Soutar says, ‘I realised that the forces working against change were incredibly powerful. What we needed was to build people power – locally and from the ground up – that could be focused on the national decision makers.’

Two-and-a-half years later, Ms Soutar was named Australia's Young Environmentalist of the Year for her work building 100% Renewable, a grassroots campaign that coordinates the efforts of more than 100 community groups in every Australian state and territory.

Regional groups spreading the message locally is key to 100% Renewable’s growing success. Here, Cairns and Far North Environment Centre representatives help take the ‘conversation’ approach to the community.
Credit: 100% Renewable campaign

Ms Soutar had noted that, as the Australian community became more aware of the dangers of climate change, many climate action and sustainability groups had started to spring up. The groups were full of committed people who were frustrated by government inaction and eager to ‘do something’, but unsure what exactly they should do.

‘When the [100% Renewable] campaign started, many grassroots activists had few experiences of campaigns with a clear structure and strategy,’ says Dr James Whelan, founder and director of The Change Agency and an early advisor to the campaign. ‘100% Renewable provided that cohesion and direction.’

Jim Rees was a case in point. Mr Rees lives outside Wagga Wagga in south-western New South Wales and is a member of Climate Rescue of Wagga (CROW). Along with seventy other groups, CROW took part in the 14 000 Conversations project in the first part of 2011. Under the initiative, more than 800 volunteers across the country were trained and equipped to strike up conversations with people in their communities about renewable energy – at front doors, community events, workplaces and even cricket matches.

‘The Conversations project attracted people to CROW who hadn’t been involved before,’ says Mr Rees. ‘They saw that their efforts would be more valuable because they were part of a larger national effort.’

The national results, which showed overwhelming public support for renewable energy, were compiled into a report that was taken to Parliament House in Canberra. It was delivered to members of the Multi Party Climate Change Committee, who were in the middle of making critical decisions on the shape of the Clean Energy Future package.

This action was accompanied by a range of other campaign tactics, including local media exposure, local meetings with politicians, phone and email blitzes to key decision makers and delivering flyers in key electorates.

‘I believe the 100% Renewable campaign was instrumental in securing $10 billion for renewable energy projects,’ says Dr Whelan.

Presenting the14 000 Conversations Report at Parliament House Canberra. L-R: Lindsay Soutar, Greens MP Adam Bandt, key Independent MP Rob Oakeshott, and Tom Driftwood from the Lismore Climate Action Group.
Credit: 100% Renewable campaign

How 100% Renewable works

All major aspects of the 100% Renewable campaign, such as strategy and tactics, are worked out through widespread consultation with those people and groups involved.

This gives participants a sense of ownership over the campaign’s direction. Even the decision to focus the campaign on renewable energy was a group decision.

‘A lot of us were becoming discouraged by scaring the pants off people when we talked about climate change,’ explains Mr Rees.

‘I was drawn to the campaign because of the positive messages. People are much more receptive to talk of hope and solutions rather than gloom and doom.’

A team of a dozen regional organisers provide the conduit between the campaign and participants. They stay in touch with the groups in their patch and keep them informed of the campaign’s activities, providing training and assistance to local contacts.

‘Identifying and nurturing leadership in local communities is incredibly important,’ comments Ms Soutar. ‘These leaders not only help run their own groups, but often go on to nurture the talent within their own group and so on. It’s a virtuous circle.’

A notable feature of the campaign is its strong presence outside capital cities, with many active participants working in rural and regional areas.

John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute, sees this as an important part of the campaign. ‘They’ve demonstrated support for renewables in unexpected places, such as Armidale in Tony Windsor’s electorate, where they held a very successful public forum,’ he says.

Mr Connor regards 100% Renewable as part of a ‘welcome flowering’ of new organisations in the climate movement. ‘Their strength is their simple and clear message, which is important in a complicated debate.’

By contrast, Dr Whelan – a social movement researcher and theorist with more than 30 years’ experience in grassroots campaigning in Australia – sees 100% Renewable presenting a challenge to the way the community has been represented in the climate change debate.

‘For more than two decades, the non-government organisations working for action on climate change believed that communicating climate science politely to politicians would bring about the necessary changes in public policy,’ says Dr Whelan.

‘We know now that their confidence was misplaced. It's time for the community to hold Canberra to account: to demonstrate that failing to act on climate change is not an option and that there will be political consequences.’

Either way, Ms Soutar is heartened by the campaign’s progress.

‘It’s a great feeling to know that it’s not just me going to see Albo in inner Sydney anymore,’ she says. ‘There are groups in Cairns, in Port Macquarie, in Ballarat, in Perth, all telling their local MPs to get on with the job of building renewable energy.’

Deep commitment

Helping ordinary people have a say in their energy future has motivated Ms Soutar since she spent five years working in the Mekong region with communities fighting hydropower developments.

She left her job as a geographer with the Australian Mekong Resource Centre at The University of Sydney to establish 100% Renewable.

‘While I felt that research played a critical role, I wanted to get my hands dirty and start to change the power structures that kept energy decisions out of ordinary people’s hands,’ she says.

While she takes some credit for her Young Environmentalist of the Year award, she sees it primarily as ‘a validation of the work being done, day-in and day-out by volunteers at the grassroots level.’

But Dr Whelan says Ms Souter’s role has been important. ‘Like many natural leaders, Lindsay would say that the campaign's success isn't about her qualities or actions – and she'd be right. Equally, though, her dedicated, patient and humble leadership has fuelled and steered the campaign. Her political instinct and passion are remarkable.’

Building on the campaign’s achievements remains Ms Soutar’s focus. ‘Anyone can join. In 2012 we’ll be focusing on building big solar in Australia. The more people who get on board, the better the chances of seeing large-scale solar plants starting to appear around this continent: the sunniest on the planet.’

Lindsay Soutar receives the 2011 Young Environmentalist of the Year Award from Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke.
Credit: Office of Tony Burke

More information:

Twitter: @100renew
Facebook: 100renew

Published: 11 January 2012

Managing the future of the north’s aquatic biodiversity

Bradley J. Pusey

Northern Australia features prominently in visions for Australia’s future. Plans for capturing, storing and transporting the region’s water to make it available for increased agricultural development in the region and elsewhere are frequently proposed. But what is our current understanding of the biodiversity, and the ecological functions and services and of the northern region, and how might these assets be affected by such development?

A comb-crested Jacana, one of the 30 per cent of the nation’s waterbird species that are recorded in the northern region.
A comb-crested Jacana, one of the 30 per cent of the nation’s waterbird species that are recorded in the northern region.
Credit: With permission of MV Jackson

The recently published book, Aquatic Biodiversity in Northern Australia: patterns, threats and future, by the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) research consortium, examines the biodiversity of northern Australia’s freshwater ecosystems, its dependency on the natural water regime and how increased water use might be managed to avoid future degradation of the region’s sensitive ecology.

TRaCK is comprised of leading tropical river researchers from five Australian Universities (Charles Darwin University, University of Western Australia, Griffith University, Australian National University and James Cook University), federal research organisations (Geoscience Australia, eriss, AIMS, CSIRO), State governments of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and the Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA). More than 30 researchers from TRaCK contributed to the book.

Northern Australian freshwater ecosystems sustain a very rich and distinctive biodiversity. Although it comprises only 17 per cent of the continent’s land area, the region contains a large proportion of the nation’s aquatic plants and animals.

For example, waterbird diversity accounts for about 30 per cent of the nation’s waterbird species, whereas freshwater fish account for almost 60 per cent. A third of the nation’s frog species, and half the turtle species, are also found in northern Australia, as are many water dependent lizards, snakes and of course, crocodiles.

A graphic flutterer (<i>Rhyothemis graphiptera</i>).
A graphic flutterer (Rhyothemis graphiptera).
Credit: With permission of J Clark

Such high biodiversity is perhaps not surprising as the region’s freshwater ecosystems sit within a savanna landscape of globally significant ecological integrity1.

Moreover, northern Australia contains the highest concentration of free-flowing rivers in the world2. Consequently, the biological systems of northern Australia’s swamp, wetlands and rivers remain relatively pristine and capable of supporting such biodiversity riches. Importantly, the connectivity of different parts of the riverine landscape (for example, headwaters, main channels, floodplains and estuaries) and between the riverine and near-shore marine environment, remains largely intact across the region, allowing the free passage of organisms, nutrients, carbon and energy necessary to sustain high biodiversity.

A view across the majestic Hann River in the Fitzroy River catchment (Western Australia).
A view across the majestic Hann River in the Fitzroy River catchment (Western Australia).
Credit: TRaCK

“Hot-spots” of biodiversity vary between taxanomic groups, making effective conservation and protection measures difficult. The national reserve system currently does not adequately cover the distribution of all aquatic biota. For example, up to 80 per cent of all species examined had less than 5 per cent of their total distribution contained within existing protected areas.

Also of significance is the high rainfall of the region – more than 1 million gigalitres per year! This means that the area’s rivers transport huge volumes of water. The Mitchell River in Queensland, for example, conveys an average of 24 000 megalitres a day, more than any other river in Australia.

Such high flows and abundant rainfall also mean a great diversity of aquatic ecosystem types, across a huge area. For example, floodplain wetlands are so vast that they may cover about 25 per cent of the catchment area of some basins. They are hotspots of biological production which is later transported widely throughout river systems and is, therefore, of enormous ecological, cultural and economic significance.

Measuring fish during fish surveys on the Daly River, Northern Territory.
Measuring fish during fish surveys on the Daly River, Northern Territory.
Credit: TRaCK

However, despite the huge amount of rainfall, it is highly seasonal and often unpredictable in incidence and volume. Most of northern Australia incurs an annual water deficit (rainfall minus evapotranspiration) of about 1000mm. This places extreme pressure on the region’s biota and greatly limits production. Most rivers cease to flow, often for periods of up to nine months, and contract back to series of isolated refugial waterholes. Such large contractions in available aquatic habitat constrain the development and maintenance of high biodiversity.

In intermittent rivers (the dominant river type across the region), aquatic species are either forced to retreat to these refuges, which become increasingly less hospitable as the dry season progresses, or seek shelter underground. Refugial waterholes often persist only when in contact with shallow groundwater.

A prawn shell on cracking clay, Fitzroy River, Northern Territory. The northern region is characterised, and tested, by extremes of wet and dry.
A prawn shell on cracking clay, Fitzroy River, Northern Territory. The northern region is characterised, and tested, by extremes of wet and dry.
Credit: TRaCK

Groundwater is also critical in sustaining high levels of biodiversity in larger rivers. For example, the highest levels of fish biodiversity are found only in those rivers that have perennial flow sustained by groundwater contributions during the dry season (for example the. Daly, Mitchell, Wenlock and Jardine rivers).

Groundwater resources have been identified as suitable for development and exploitation in order to support agricultural expansion. The 2009 Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review3 suggested that further development of agriculture in northern Australia would most likely be of a mosaic style, where agriculture would be confined to areas defined by the coincidence of suitable soils and exploitable groundwater.

A helicopter being used by TraCK researchers to rapidly collect water samples from a remote area of the Fitzroy River, Western Australia
A helicopter being used by TraCK researchers to rapidly collect water samples from a remote area of the Fitzroy River, Western Australia
Credit: TRaCK

Such a development option is less likely to have negative impacts on freshwater biodiversity than broad-scale agriculture and large-scale water capture and diversion schemes, which are sometimes proposed.

A greater focus on sustainable use of resources and a greater appreciation of the values of aquatic biodiversity from economic, cultural and spiritual perspectives suggest that alternative visions for the future of northern Australia are gaining traction. These visions recognise that the economic value from commercial fishing, recreational fishing and tourism more generally, is significant.

Similarly, the substantial dependence of Indigenous household economies on riverine production (for example fish, crustaceans, and birds etc. are used for food), represents another, significant form of economic value.

Combined with the central cultural and spiritual importance of the region for Indigenous peoples (about 60 per cent of the population), this multiplicity of values require that the maintenance of healthy aquatic ecosystems and the rich and productive biodiversity they sustain is key to a sustainable future for the north.

Horticultural development on the Daly River, Northern Territory.
Horticultural development on the Daly River, Northern Territory.
Credit: TRaCK

A set of guiding principles for improved management of aquatic biodiversity was proposed by the book’s authors. These are:

  1. Prioritise and protect high value aquatic ecosystems;

  2. Address current threats;

  3. Explore development options and their consequences carefully;

  4. Improve planning processes to secure environmental water allocations;

  5. Improve the available information base; and

  6. Improve public awareness and engagement.

Although visions of the future are useful, a clear focus on the present is critical. Aquatic systems across the north are currently threatened by feral animals (including pigs, buffalo, and alien fishes), weeds, altered fire regimes and a range of other diffuse pressures including resources extraction. We need to urgently and efficiently develop counter measures to these immediate threats to limit further and potentially widespread degradation of the region’s unique riches, and to ensure its broader values and future are assured.

Bradley J. Pusey is a researcher at the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) research consortium, and editor of Aquatic Biodiversity of Northern Australia: patterns, threats and future. 2011. Charles Darwin University Press, Darwin.

1 Woinarski J, Mackey B, Nix H, and Traill B. 2007. The Nature of Northern Australia: Natural Values, Ecological Processes and Future Prospects, ANU E Press, Canberra.
2 Vörösmarty C J, McIntyre P, Gessner M, Dudgeon D, Prusevich A, Green P, Glidden S, Bunn S E, Sullivan C, Reidy C, and Davies P M (2010). Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature 467:555–561.
3 Stone P. (2009). Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review. Final report to the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce, CSIRO Publishing, Canberra.

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