Writers talking Climate Change and Place at #MWF15 Footscray – @takvera

Melbourne skyline from Footscray wetlands. Photo: John Englart

Melbourne skyline from Footscray wetlands. Photo: John Englart

How we communicate climate change is important.

Whether it remains a distant event in time or space, or can be intimately connected to the present and locations we know and love, can make all the difference in how people perceive and act on the issue.

Writers are coming to terms with this in different ways, in different places. The Melbourne Writers Festival in 2015 features several sessions associated with climate change, including two sessions with Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein.

I attended one at Victoria University at Footscray on ‘Climate Change and Place’ which proved thought provoking and interesting. The panelists for this session included Tony Birch, a writer/lecturer from Victoria University, Jacynta Fuamatu from 350 Pacific, journalist Michael Green and Vanessa O’Neill from the Malthouse Theatre.

Climate Change and Place. Photo: John Englart

Climate Change and Place Panel. Photo: John Englart

Climate change will have a different impact depending upon the location.

For Melbourne, bayside suburbs may become swampy and more suitable as coastal wetlands as the sea level rises this century. Unless we do some major engineering to put a dyke and a shipping lock across the Heads of Port Philip Bay. This may sound expensive, but might prove cheaper than surrendering all the coastal infrastructure around Melbourne to being inundated. Such climate adaptive engineering would raise substantial environmental impact issues.

Inundation has happened in the past and is remembered. Between 8,000 and 6,000 years ago sea levels rose resulting in the loss of aboriginal hunting grounds in Port Philip. According to Wikipedia, “Oral history and creation stories from the Wada wurrung, Woiwurrung and Bun wurrung languages describe the flooding of the bay. Hobsons Bay was once a kangaroo hunting ground. Creation stories describe how Bunjil was responsible for the formation of the bay,[9] or the bay was flooded when the Yarra river was created (Yarra Creation Story.[14])”

As temperatures rise, extreme heat events and heatwaves are directly impacting the population of Melbourne, amplifying the urban heat island effect. Extreme heat is a silent killer that has killed more people in Australia than any other natural disaster combined. People need to be aware of the dangers, and the need to implement adaptation and resilience building social measures. (see my Literature review on Heatwaves, climate change and Melbourne)

The session was started by Tony Birch from Victoria University. He outlined the importance of connections we build up with the local environment, how climate may impact that local environment, as a lever to engage people on the issue.

For Pacific Island nations, rising seas and more intense cyclonic storms and the associated storm surges are of greatest concern.

Jacynta Fuamatu from 350 Pacific highlighted the intimate risk of climate change to Pacific Island nations and cultures. Freshwater is a big concern on many of these islands, with storm surge or king tides contaminating soils to grow crops and freshwater lenses where drinking water is sometimes drawn from. It requires a measure of climate adaptation already with use of more temperature and saline tolerant crop varieties, and use of raised vegetable beds to reduce extent of soil contamination.

Fuamatu told the session about the emergency procedures for Kiribati when storm surge threatens the population. The highest part of Kiribati is less than 3 metres high, so there is no high ground for the population to seek refuge. When an emergency occurs, a siren is sounded which signals that everyone should go home to their families. Each family will use a rope firmly tethered to a deep stake or a tree which each family member is then tied to. This prevents people from being washed away during storm surges.

The Pacific Climate Warriors, who visited Australia last year, highlighted the direct connection between Australian coal producing greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change that results in rising sea levels and changed weather patterns for Pacific island nations now.

IMG_0362-MWF-climate-and-place-Collapse-of-civilisation-400x300Michael Green, a journalist, used Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s 2014 book, The Collapse of Western Civilisation, to highlight the risk for Australia. This tale is written from the point of view of a Chinese historian from the Second Peoples Republic over 300 years in the future looking back and assessing and asking why we didn’t act with any sense of urgency. The book details on page 33 “The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.” Although it is fiction, the science it is based upon is rigorous. Both authors are respected historians of science.

Green recounted a couple of stories of human reckoning with the high variability of Australia’s climate. The first was on the Darling River drying up with Broken Hill presently running out of water. The nearby Menindee Lakes is an environmental wetlands which stores huge amounts of water, but when precipitation levels are reduced during lengthy droughts, even this water supply can not be relied upon.

As an essentially arid and dry continent, water and it’s availability and variability across years and decades, is fundamental to understanding place. Climate change is changing the patterns of precipitation, flood and drought, with the south west and south eastern Australia both showing a long term trend of drier conditions. It is a difficult reckoning to come to terms with.

Also highlighted in Green’s talk was the suburb of Elwood, it’s origins of being reclaimed swampland, and the likelihood that later the century with rising sea levels, much of the suburb may again become swampland. The Council is very aware of this impact and have drawn up flood overlays for much of the suburb.

Vanessa O’Neill explained how the Malthouse theatre and playwrites are working to engage particularly younger people with climate issues through theatre. The theatre has been commissioning a suitcase series of plays on the theme of climate change. The current play in this series is ‘normal.suburban.planetary.meltdown’ by Angus Cerini.

The theatre company has an outreach program for schools, particularly aimed at Year 9 and Year 10 students, for performances of the play, discussion of the issues, and students to respond on the same theme of climate with their own short production from either the play or their own ideas put into dramatic form.

SUITCASE SERIES – Writer Angus Cerini discusses normal.surburban.planetary.meltdown from Malthouse Theatre on Vimeo.

Many issues were raised in this Melbourne Writers Festival session about how writers can connect and communicate climate change and the urgency of addressing mitigation and adaptation issues through a sense of connectedness to place.

Climate Change and Place as it occurred on twitter

John Englart (@takvera) and his teenage daughter Tarryn Clancy will be travelling to Paris to report on the United Nations COP21 climate talks (including for Australian citizen journalist site Nofibs), and in particular what role Australia plays in those negotiations.

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