EVENT REVIEW: ‘Long Conversations’ Climate Knowledge Exchange in Beechworth

Posted on June 2, 2011 by



Event: ‘Long Conversations: Climate Knowledge Exchange’.

Date: Tuesday 31st May, 2011.

Location: The Gallery, Beechworth Secondary College.

Local Sponsors: Beechworth Urban Landcare & Sustainability, and Beechworth Secondary College.


  • Will Grant, researcher and lecturer at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University.
  • Dr Janetee Lindesay, Deputy Director of the Climate Change Institute, Australian National University.
  • David Dumaresq, Senior Lecturer in the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University.
  • Dr Elizabeth Hanna, Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health, Australian National University.
  • Tim Cadman, Sustainable Business Fellow in the School of Accounting Economic and Finance, University of Southern Queensland.
  • Luke Menzies, PhD researcher at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University.
  • Melanie Bannister-Tyrrell, researcher at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University.
  • Oscar Hunter, documentary film maker.


About 35 people attended the meeting, which was chaired by Will Grant. The audience was mostly of smaller landholders, smaller older landholders leading reasonably sustainable rural lives, and being well informed about environmental and ecological matters.  Most were evidently also well informed about the science of climate change, accepted its serious implications and were concerned about the lack of action from the political circus in Canberra.  As we went round the room describing ourselves it became more and more evident that no sceptics had come along, leave alone deniers, though if anyone did have doubts they mightn’t have been prepared to say so.

We had a questionnaire to fill in which set out the basic objects of the project: To find out how concerned ‘farmers’ living in the Murray Darling basin are about climate change, what they think is likely to happen in the next fifty years, and what they would like to see happen.  Also, they asked if ‘scientists’ are providing sufficient information on this subject, and do people want to know more on how to adjust and plan for the future changes.

The visiting scientists did not speak specifically on their research specialities until asked questions, so it was a true conversation.  I’ll now summarise each speaker in turn:

 Janette Lindesay

A real climate scientist who gave a very interesting digest of how climate models and weather forecasting are used to try to predict changes here in Australia.  She explained the difficulties in understanding various aspects of the global processes driving the climate.  We discussed what sort of climatic information it would take before the masses accepted the reality and the need for action.  I asked her to offer comment on the dramatic graph of the ‘Arctic sea ice death spiral’ that I took along, and she talked more about the sort of extreme events we are seeing, such as the first cyclone in the south Atlantic, as well as the problems in explaining to people that ‘global warming’ doesn’t mean it will be hotter everywhere.

David Dumaresq

David was once a farmer but now concerned with learning from farmers as well as advising them. He was quite keen to point out that Australia usually produces four times as much food as it needs, feeding 70 to 90 million people overseas.  He was concerned at the possibility of agricultural land that needed to be productive being locked up as carbon storage for offsets, a new sort of hobby farm.  He is currently involved in a project comparing Canberra, Tokyo and Copenhagen, and explained how Japan ‘expects’ Australia to produce food for Japan, which imports 80% of its requirements.  He was concerned that two potential limiting factors in our agriculture were imported diesel from the United Arab Emirates and phosphorus from Morocco.

Elizabeth Hanna and Melanie Bannister-Tyrrell

Liz and Mel both worked on climate-related changes in disease organisms such as dengue fever, both abroad and within Australia.  Liz expounded enthusiastically on the need to control population, as well as the difficulties that she faced in getting anyone to talk about it, leave alone do something.  It was I felt generally agreed that population was the greatest and most unacknowledged problem which affected all action on climate change, one that can neutralise all advances we make in emissions control.  There was some discussion on the question of population reduction in the developing world through disease and starvation, while we in the rich west continued to live at their expense.  Sadly there is not much threat to Australia in this, as we are one of few countries in the world that doesn’t depend on others for food or for most resources, and we are also an island largely immune to the hunger-driven population displacements we might expect to see on other continents.

Tim Cadman

Tim is a ‘political scientist’ who offered a special perspective of his own, as well as one that was far too kind to some of our leaders, proffering that all parties were presenting policies around carbon emissions and climate change when this wouldn’t have been the case in the past.  Whether they actually meant what they said wasn’t really his concern.  He presented various statistics on acceptance of climate change science in relation to political allegiance.  He also got special mention for ‘being positive’, and in fact about ten minutes before the end Will Grant said he would only take positive messages from now on.

Questions from the Floor

Views expressed from the floor centred around some basic issues: Why was it that farmers generally went for the ‘climate is always changing’ argument, and how could we sell them the idea of permanent change?  David Dumaresq found that farmers were great innovators and adapters, and suggested that the knowledge of what could be done is already there.  Will Grant was concerned that too much emphasis was put on adaptation rather than mitigation, and that in the absence of mitigation, adaptation will be short lived and ultimately hopeless.  There was a reminder from the floor that two years ago some towns in the area actually ran out of water, yet despite the long and serious drought, the floods of the past year have washed away the memory of it and reinforced the perception that the drought was part of natural cyclical variation (not that anyone present believed that!).

A chestnut farmer from Stanley, who had quite a bit to say about the difficulties for doing the right thing in the current commercial climate, asked Janette Lindesay if she could give him an idea on the likely development of the climate for the next ten years.  The questioner was disappointed, as Lindesay explained that only climate change deniers can give this sort of forecast with certainty.  The recently released report on Climate Change: The Critical Decade was evidently central to the thinking of the scientists present, although it only makes a direct observation on the climate trend in Western Australia.

Stephen Mclnnes had a bit to say about the importance of leadership, thinking that it was a waste of effort to try to persuade the sheep, better to educate the leaders who the sheep will then follow. There was much discussion about the evident difficulty in getting the message out and a fair agreement that a positive message was desirable, although I personally have my doubts about this.

While the panel was definitely preaching to the converted, they also provided the audience with reasoned evidence and rhetorical ammunition to use in the campaign to educate less climate-savvy members of the community.  I appreciated that we didn’t have to spend time on explaining evidence for climate change to people with heads full of the deniers’ chaff, so the debate was able to go a bit further.

The panellists brought a video photographer with them who conducted interviews with members of the audience (including me), which will appear in due course on the long conversations website (see below).


Further Information:

The Long Conversations: Climate Knowledge Exchange hopes to achieve a range of outcomes, including:

  1. Community outcomes, including discussion of our shared climate future, and greater engagement with climate research and researchers and scientists in general.
  2. Outcomes for scientists and academics, including generating greater understanding of your community’s needs and concerns.
  3. Creation of a documentary film and photographic record based on the events and content of the project. We aim to document people’s past and present experiences, stories of climate, and vision for the future.
  4. Research outcomes including publication in scholarly journals and PhD thesis.

Long Conversations hopes to make leading climate science and climate scientists more accessible, and to engage with the community’s goals and climate knowledge, with the aim of working together to build a shared climate future.


David Macilwain is a member of Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH).