Q&A with Dr Kirsten Davies

Q&A with Dr Kirsten Davies

Q&A with Dr Kirsten Davies

Image credit: Martin Barhon

How do we tackle one of the greatest global challenges we face today: climate change? Dr Kirsten Davies, Lecturer in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Macquarie Law School at Macquarie University has some ideas. Kathryn Ford, Project Coordinator at the Big History Institute asks Dr Davies about climate change during the Anthropocene and beyond. 

What are some of the most dangerous or significant impacts we humans have had on the planet during this new era, the Anthropocene?

Population growth, the inequitable human consumption of natural resources, production of goods and associated waste and pollution and generally the decoupling of people from nature. With the exception of some Indigenous communities, I think that we have become separated in our thinking and activities from nature. This is dangerous! Of course, in reality, we are not separated from nature, and we are constantly reminded of these inseparable relationships by events such as floods, droughts, earthquakes and tsunamis.

What do you think are the main driving forces behind global climate change?

The main driving forces behind anthropocentrically driven global climate change, in my opinion, are much the same as the responses given to the first question. Population growth is driving the demand for energy and goods to sustain the well-being and livelihoods of people across the world. Rising standards of living are supported by the increasing production and consumption of goods and depletion of natural resources, which leads to waste and pollution.

Why do you think we need to reframe climate change as a social and cultural problem?

I think of climate change as a biophysical symptom of a critical social and cultural problem. Through my viewpoint CO2 emissions should be understood as pollution emanating from human decision making and behaviour. Therefore, mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change should be focused on decision making processes.

Every behaviour, big or small, from deciding what you will wear today to a global company deciding what products they will manufacture, is underpinned by decision making processes. There are many social and cultural variables that impact on this decision making processes. The most influential being our values, which include social norms. Values are cultural!

So I believe the recognition of the role of culture in response to climate change is an imperative. Then there are the other social and cultural responses that need to be included that all underpin decision-making processes. Such as knowledge, education, communication, awareness, attitudes, skills, capacity (including technology), conduits and barriers. By 'conduits and barriers' I am referring to sectors such as government, economic and legal, that facilitate and/or impede responses to climate change.

To make this picture more complicated, human decision making processes are also influenced by intrinsic human variables, such as: gender age and personality.

And how do we go about reframing it as a social and cultural problem?

I think we are reframing climate change as a social and cultural problem. For example IPCC reports increasingly recognise anthropocentrically driven climate change and the need for social responses. This approach does not diminish the role of biophysical science, rather it recognises that we need to be working simultaneously on all fronts.

Personally I am an advocate for localisation to rebuild new forms of relationships between people and nature. Reinforcing the responsibilities of local communities as the stewards for the ecosystems they live in provides huge opportunities to respond to climate change. This localised approach requires support from higher levels, for example state, national and international governing bodies and policies. So I guess it's a simultaneous bottom-up and top-down approach. I do acknowledge that this is easier said than done.

What challenges do we face in addressing climate change and how can we tackle them?

One of the challenges we face is that communities are often transient and may not stay in the same place for any length of time. This makes it difficult for them to form deep relationships with, and invest, in their surrounding environment. Most of us are also 'crazy busy' and time poor so looking after local ecosystems is not even remotely on our radar screen. I don't have all the answers, but I do think that working with local communities intensively is a very important thing to be doing.

We can't go back 200 years, pre-industrial revolution and before the technology age, to a time when most people lived in the landscapes of their ancestors. We are in a new age now, with social media connecting us 24/7, and all sorts of incredulous advancements in technology.

Forming contemporary connectedness with nature requires embracing these advances but it also requires finding the time to fall back in love with nature. To enjoy walking in the bush, listening to the birds, swimming in the ocean. Our physical and psychological health is inseparable from healthy ecosystems.

I firmly believe that we should be listening carefully to the voices of Indigenous peoples when it comes to rebuilding relationships with nature. I would like to see their worldviews more formally integrated into responses to climate change.

I would like to see stronger relationships built between urban and rural communities. As the majority of people globally now live in urban centres, connections to rural people, landscapes and food production are diminishing. In my experience rural people usually have stronger connections with nature than those living in urban contexts.

Can you explain what the Draft Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change is, and what you are hoping the Declaration will achieve?
The Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE) has developed the Draft Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change this year. I was honoured to be one of the thirteen drafting authors.

The Draft Declaration was released recently as the world prepares for the upcoming 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21). The Declaration, its future development and adoption, forms part of a suite of urgent actions required to respond to the impacts of climate change.

At the foundation of this Declaration is the need to secure, for our children, grandchildren and future generations, the right to inherit a planet that can sustain their well-being and livelihoods. At this moment they do not have the right to a viable environmental future. The science is telling us that climate change is threatening their futures through its impacts on the life sustaining ecosystems of nature.

Of particular concern are vulnerable people, including those living in developing nations, who are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Individuals, families, and people working in all sectors, are deeply concerned about the impacts of climate change on the future of humanity. They have been working on many levels to address this problem. This Declaration has been developed to aide their efforts. It recognises the need to establish environmental rights for future generations and to formalise the responsibility of present generations, as the stewards and custodians of nature.

You can read the draft Declaration here.

GNHRE is inviting any individual or organisation wishing to offer their 'in principle' support for the future adoption of such a Declaration to email me before Friday February 19th 2016 with their full contact details: kirsty.davies@mq.edu.au  

What do you think the future holds for us humans?

I think the future will be wonderful. People are rising to the challenge of climate change, it is bringing them together in all sorts of ways, amazing initiatives are emerging. The big question is will it be enough and in time? The science is stressing the critical need to respond meaningfully now in terms of capping and reducing emissions. As the eternal optimist, I believe that the global goodwill combined with the creative and ingenious capacity of individuals, families, businesses, industry, government and communities will secure the long term health of the planet.

Dr Kirsten Davies will be speaking at the Big History Anthropocene conference in December on the 'Reflections on Paris COP 21' panel. Professor Lesley Hughes and Dr Jonathan Symons will also be sharing their thoughts on Paris COP 21. Register for the conference here.

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