Huonville High hits the jackpot in Abu Dhabi

This southern Tasmanian school has long had a dream to be a beacon for a better world. Now it’s getting reward for its effort.

Toby Thorpe (left) and Zephryn Fox at work on a renewable energy project. PHOTO ABC

Toby Thorpe and Zephryn Fox at work on a renewable energy project. PHOTO ABC

For years, Huonville High under its former principal, Alison Grant, sought to become a beacon for learning about the environment, the climate and our carbon footprint.

I first became aware of that dream in May 2009, when teacher David Brown invited me to talk to his students about man-made climate change and its implications for their school and community.

Last winter I had the chance to see how things had developed at an “energy futures think tank” organised by environmental educator Nel Smit and led by Huonville High students Toby Thorpe and Zephryn Fox, at the Education Department’s Sustainability Learning Centre at Mt Nelson. A discussion led by expert outsiders ranged across solar energy, batteries and electric cars, inventing things, biofuels, energy auditing and the energy-efficient home.

Of my many encounters with students over the years, this one ranked as one of the best, because the students themselves were driving it. My take-home message was that anything seems possible when young people are given the chance to take a leading role.

Changing the direction of society takes time, work and resources. Huonville High put in the hard yards over many years, but at the time of that seminar it still lacked the resources needed to really make its community sit up and take notice.

But this month, when schools are supposed to be in summer hibernation, Huonville hit the jackpot.

Toby Thorpe (second from left) with other Oceania candidates for the Zayed prize. PHOTO Geoff Williamson

Toby Thorpe with other Oceania candidates for the Zayed prize, in Abu Dhabi. PHOTO Geoff Williamson

In Abu Dhabi, on behalf of his school, Toby was presented with the Oceania award for the Zayed Future Energy Prize for Global High Schools by the city’s Crown Prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed. There were four other winners, schools in Ireland, Bolivia, Kenya and Bali.

The annual Zayed prize, celebrating innovation, vision and leadership in renewable energy and sustainability, pays tribute to the former president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, who championed environmental stewardship.

The prize provides Huonville High with $US100,000, or a little over $130,000 Australian. That level of funding is rare or unprecedented in Australia for a single public school, opening up prospects that the school could previously only dream about.

The school’s solar array produces 2.5 per cent of its energy needs; Zayed funding will raise that to 60 per cent. A disused campus building will be made into a “Zayed Energy Hub” showcasing solar PV, battery storage, insulation, low-carbon lighting and heating and smart energy management.

The prize complements the school’s existing effort in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as a pilot school for EnergyWise, a TasNetworks-Greening Australia program producing resources and curriculum materials, which gets under way this year.

Besides transforming the school, says Toby Thorpe, the prize offers opportunities for students and the broader community to learn about renewable energy. His new principal, Geoff Williamson, sees his school contributing to “a global blueprint” for schools offering renewable energy studies.

These are worthy and eminently achievable aims. Huonville is in a growing cohort of schools, households and communities who see the future value of distributed renewable energy. A total of 27.4 million solar panels now grace Australian roofs, more than one for every single citizen.

But cutting back our uncontrolled carbon emissions demands a whole-of-society, whole-of-economy response that this country has barely begun to address. Compared to that, one grant of $130,000 to one school in the Huon Valley is chickenfeed.

Energy minister Matthew Groom congratulated the school, but he, his government and their federal counterparts should be considering the level of resources required to make a difference community-wide, and come up with something more than our present, pathetically inadequate climate response.

Every journey starts with a step. I’m glad the minister was pleased at this step because it suggests he sees value in what the school is doing, and gives a glimmer of hope that he will come to see why this kind of effort is needed on a much larger scale.

The Zayed prize will enable Huonville High to show its community how good energy management can work for everyone. If a smidgin of that awareness could filter through to people with influence in the wider world we might start to get somewhere.

Posted in Australian politics, batteries, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, community action, education, energy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, energy research, renewable energy, science, science teaching, social and personal issues, solar, Tasmanian politics, wind | Leave a comment

Margaret Steadman and other nation-builders

The Australian of the Year awards reflect our nation at its best

Margaret Steadman, 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year

Margaret Steadman, 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year

I thought I knew something about living more sustainably when I started advocating for stronger climate action. Then I met Margaret Steadman.

At that time Margaret managed the Tasmanian Environment Centre on the cramped upper floor of a quaint old stone building in Bathurst Street, Hobart, where the TEC had operated since it was first set up as a resource for environmental education in the 1970s.

In the late 1990s Margaret and her small, hard-working team of staff and volunteers saw something that many environmentalists didn’t: that in the great battle to conserve Earth’s natural values, the big issue wasn’t wilderness, but how people lived, worked and played.

Under Margaret, the TEC was transformed into SLT – Sustainable Living Tasmania – with a focus on urban life and how we make it work better for the planet. Tasmanians were able to see how this might work in a new annual expo, now called the Sustainable Living Festival.

Margaret moved SLT into roomier premises at 71 Murray Street, where it has gone from strength to strength promoting energy efficiency under another exceptional leader, Todd Houstein. That success didn’t come easily; SLT has always had to battle for every cent of its limited funding.

Since retiring a few years ago Margaret has applied her teaching and advocacy skills to helping people live more sustainably while lobbying government and galvanising public support for more effective climate action.

She does it without fuss and with no expectation of reward. For Margaret, sustainability has never been just something to be thought and talked about, but an integral part of daily life. She prefers walking, cycling or catching a bus to using a car, buys second-hand whenever possible, and uses local food including her own garden produce.

Although she has much to be proud of, Margaret remains refreshingly free of that holier-than-thou attitude sometimes found in people who strive for a better life. She’s one of us, and she’s for us – a proud humanist and humanitarian.

Now she has been recognised by her adopted home state. Named 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year, she will stand with other state and territory champions in Canberra tomorrow night for the announcement of the 2017 Australians of the Year.

With her will be speech pathologist Rosalie Martin, named 2017 Tasmanian of the Year for her ground-breaking work as a volunteer at Risdon Prison – a pilot project aptly called Just Sentences which is opening doors for prisoners with low literacy skills.

Young Tasmanian of the Year Mitch McPherson will be there too. He responded to his brother Ty’s death from suicide by setting up a hugely successful suicide prevention charity, Speak Up – Stay ChatTY.

And Anthony Edler, who was awarded Tasmania’s Local Hero of the Year for developing the Risdon Vale Bike Collective, serving not just young Tasmanians but others in less developed places.

Rosalie, Margaret, Mitch and Anthony join 28 other outstanding Australians, young, old and somewhere in the middle, who have unselfishly given their time, energy and talent to improve the lives of people in their communities.

Whatever we may think of Australia Day (and I believe the date should be changed), the Australian of the Year awards is where our celebration of the nation really gets it right.

Of the many ways of commemorating our nationhood, none is as important as the achievements of people like these. They richly deserve our applause.

They are the tip of a very big iceberg. For every person who is recognised in this way there are thousands of others toiling just as hard for the benefit of those around them.

Some of them may benefit financially while others necessarily live very frugal lives, but their motivation isn’t money. It’s a sense of belonging and a passionate desire to make things better.

I invite you to tune in to the Australian of the Year awards on ABC television, radio and online services at 7.30 tomorrow night, and celebrate with the rest of us the achievements of these nation-builders. This is Australia at its best.

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Warming record gets the cold shoulder

Those who govern us are alarmingly indifferent to warming extremes


More heat = less ice: 2016 data from NASA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center

More heat = less ice: 2016 data from NASA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center GRAPHS courtesy OpenMind

As I write this, climate monitoring organisations around the world including our own Bureau of Meteorology are assessing where 2016 sits on Earth’s 136-year temperature record.

Very soon the various conclusions will be out. Monthly year-to-date data indicate that 2016 will be the third successive record-warm year, after 2014 and 2015 had each set new highs.

This amazing run of record-breaking global warming is likely to end in 2017, in the absence of the powerful El Niño weather event that dominated conditions in 2015-16. But any lull will be temporary as high greenhouse gas levels continue to drive a relentless upward trend.

Temperature wasn’t the only bad news from 2016. The average extent of sea ice globally – taking in both northern and southern polar regions – was the lowest on record, driven by near-record lows in the Arctic and a dramatic drop in Antarctic sea ice cover from August onward.

We keep hearing about government progress in cutting emissions, but data from air monitoring stations, including Tasmania’s Cape Grim, tell a different story – not just a record high level of CO2 at the end of the year, but a record rate of increase. That’s truly disturbing.

Veteran US physicist James Hansen told an interviewer for the magazine Rolling Stone last month that our only chance of stabilising climate is to reverse the present emissions trend by making deep emission cuts year-on-year, beginning now.

The last time Earth experienced today’s mean temperature, around 120,000 years ago, said Hansen, sea level was six to nine metres higher than now. He added that if warming gets to 2C above pre-industrial levels, seas will eventually rise even higher than that and weather will be dangerously unstable.

Yet our current trajectory has us headed for 3C to 4C of warming, possibly more. Hansen believes the point where an unstable climate causes the global economy to collapse and the world to become ungovernable isn’t far away.

In 1988 Hansen testified before congress about the danger of greenhouse warming. Many scientists consider his projections to be on the high side, but while they sometimes chide him for going out on a limb they don’t reject what he says out of hand. He knows too much for that.

Here’s the thing. A few thousand people on the planet have taken the trouble to develop the tools and skills necessary to work out what’s happening to the climate. Unlike everyone else, they’ve done the sums – and they say that if we don’t change things, we’re cooked.

Most people with power and influence know nothing about the science but feel threatened by the message and pretend they didn’t hear it. Others even declare the message to be wrong, and try to undermine scientists’ credibility. Unfortunately for us all, those tactics are working.

In May 1940, when Nazi Germany had Britain on its knees, Winston Churchill spoke of “an ordeal of the most grievous kind” ahead, for which he could offer only “blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

If we had leaders able to articulate the climate challenge with that kind of courage and honesty we just might secure what is needed: an agreement crossing the full political and social spectrum to do whatever it takes to achieve real, substantial, permanent emission cuts.

But to articulate the challenge you first must understand something about science and its method, and that is in alarmingly short supply among our political and opinion leaders. Instead, we’ve had to put up with wimps and charlatans unprepared to call this for the crisis that it is.

Above all we must end the silence. More dangerous than the outright deniers in political ranks are those who pretend to be on the side of the science and then ignore it, turn away and do nothing.

In Australia, while our political masters see, hear and say nothing, the crazies bang at the gates demanding to be let in. In America the crazies are in already and about to take over the whole show.

The hard-won achievements of science and learning can be all too easily lost. Maybe a short, sharp dose of madness at the top will teach us to appreciate anew the value of sanity, knowledge, thoughtfulness and sweet reason, and commit ourselves to a science-driven regime.

Maybe, but why are we even countenancing such a thing? Why has it come to this?

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