Prof. Lesley Hughes is much more than your average climate change expert, for she hails from that ever-so-rare breed of scientists that allow the world to see the passion and emotion driving their work.
An ecologist and Pro Vice-Chancellor at Macquarie University, Lesley studies the impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems. In her ‘spare’ time, she is a councillor for the publicly funded Climate Council of Australia, while also contributing her expertise to bodies such as WWF-Australia and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.
Speaking to us ahead of the seventh annual Women in Conservation Breakfast, jointly hosted by Bush Heritage and Trust for Nature, Lesley explained why, after more than 25 years, she is still deeply rooted in this research area.
Lesley: The thing about working in climate change is that once you get into it you never get out of it – it's a bit like the Hotel California. The more you find out, the more of a moral imperative it becomes to stay. I got into it more than 25 years ago, and I’ve never left because it is, for me, the most important issue that I could be working on. Morally, I don't see I have a choice.
Bush Heritage: You once said your main fear for the future was ‘species extinctions’. What did you mean by that?
Lesley: All organisms on the planet exist within a certain range of physical conditions, such as temperature and water availability. Basically, climate determines where everything lives and how everything lives – it's fundamentally important to all life on Earth.
We know the climate is changing very rapidly and many species are already being negatively affected. The inevitable upshot of this rapid change is that many species will find themselves in environments that are no longer liveable. If they can't adapt where they are, or move somewhere more suitable, extinctions will necessarily follow.
There's a lot of work being done to try and estimate the extinction risk of different species. But what’s clear is that the current very high rate of species extinctions due to human activity is continuing, and will continue to accelerate under climate change.
Bush Heritage: What are the key actions we should be taking to help these species adapt?
Lesley: Ultimately, we need to fix the root cause of the problem which means reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially from fossil fuel burning. These days I spend quite a bit of my time working for advocacy organisations because this is such a fundamental issue.
Of course, even if you’re successful at reducing emissions, the climate will continue to change for some decades to come. So, we do need to think more boldly about climate change adaptation.
I'm a great advocate of seriously considering moving many species to new places - especially species that are clearly going to go extinct if they stay where they are now. But there's a lot of resistance to this idea. We also need to be strengthening and extending our protected area system to increase habitat availability and build resilience in species populations. We need to actively protect places that are going to be refuges for species in the future, and we need to look at actually creating new habitats in places - sometimes in places where that particular habitat has not existed before.
Business as usual – where we just try to conserve everything where it has been historically – is not an adequate approach when our environment is changing so rapidly.
Bush Heritage: What have you seen happen in recent years that has given you cause for hope?
Lesley: Well, I've seen plenty that has given me cause for despair. But in terms of hope, the Paris Climate Agreement was a great step forward. One hundred and ninety five parties came together in Paris in December 2015 to draft an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions such that global warming would be limited to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This was really a remarkable achievement.
But while there is a lot of positive action globally, Australian emissions have continued to increase since the carbon price was abolished. There has now been a decade of climate policy confusion, which continues under the current federal government. We're still opening new coal mines and shipping coal to the rest of the world rather than moving to clean renewable energy as quickly as we need to.
Bush Heritage: What can everyday people do to make a difference?
Lesley: We can think about our own individual footprint and be aware that everything we do has an impact on the planet, and try to minimise that impact as much as possible. But there's a lot of environmental tokenism around. People think: ‘Well, as long as I put my recycling in the recycling bin, that's enough.’ And then they'll get into their four-wheel-drive and roar off to the shops. We need to start thinking holistically about the net impact of living on the planet and trying to minimise that.
There are also lots of things individuals can do for little or no money. Actions like installing solar panels or buying green power are great, but they’re not within the capacity of many individuals financially. We all just have to do what we can.
For people who want to do more, my best suggestion is to join a network of like-minded people and draw strength from others, because it can be a pretty lonely and frustrating path just trying to do it all by yourself.
Bush Heritage: Your resume is dotted with recognisable names like the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, the Climate Council and the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). What have been your observations on the importance of having women involved in those groups?
Lesley: Women are still a minority in many of these groups. When I was working on the fourth assessment report for the IPCC I think women made up only about 10% of the authors. That has improved a bit in more recent reports, but it’s certainly nowhere near 50%.
Any organisation needs the best people. If you make the reasonable assumption that men and women are just as good on average at most things, then you should be aiming to get the better talent and that means getting roughly 50% of each gender. I don't think that it's necessarily that women bring different things than men to those organisations, although maybe they do, but really if we're after the best talent and the best expertise there's no reason to believe that we should have anything less than 50% women.
Bush Heritage: In your early days of climate change research, do you remember receiving any kind of advice about being a woman in science?
Lesley: No, I really don't. I've often thought about this and other people have asked me, "Well did you have a female role model or did you come from a particularly feminist background or anything?" The answer is really no. I certainly had some mentors, but they were all men, and I don't think I had any particular role models. I think I was just like, ‘well this is what I want to do’, and I just did it. I didn't do it consciously as a woman – I don't think I ever really thought about gender in relation to what I was doing. In the early days, I was often the only woman on a committee or board but it wasn’t something I dwelled on particularly. I just accepted that was the way it was and hoped it would change.
Bush Heritage: Is it something that you think about more now?
Lesley Hughes: I think about it a lot more now, not so much in relation to climate change or conservation in particular, but at Macquarie University I'm now very heavily involved in the university's gender equity strategy. I’m actively working with a lot of people across the university, and in fact chairing one of the committees, to increase the representation of women, particularly at senior management levels. I actually spend a lot more of my daily life on gender diversity issues now because of those roles.
Bush Heritage: Having just reflected on not having those female role models or women giving you advice when you were younger, is there any advice that you would give to young women starting out in science now?
Lesley: The advice I would give to anyone, not just to women, is that you need to find the thing that you're passionate about, that is meaningful to you, and let that lead you through your career.
I would certainly emphasise to young women that having a family and a fulfilling career are not mutually exclusive. There can be challenges in having both, but there are plenty of women –including myself – who have children, a social life and a career. Compared to when I started as an academic, working conditions now are far more flexible and family-friendly – for both men and women.