Weathering the change

Published 27 Mar 2018 

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's a councillor for the publicly-funded Climate Council of Australia, while also contributing her expertise to bodies such as the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

Speaking to us ahead of the 7th annual Women in Conservation Breakfast, jointly hosted by Bush Heritage and Trust for Nature, Lesley explained why, after more than 25 years, she's still deeply rooted in this research area.

Prof. Lesley Hughes, as photographed for the 'Scared Scientists' photo exhibition. Photo by Nick Bowers/nickbowers.com
Prof. Lesley Hughes, as photographed for the 'Scared Scientists' photo exhibition. Photo by Nick Bowers/nickbowers.com
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 in 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 that 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.

Bush Heritage: What are the key actions we should be taking to help those species adapt?

Lesley: 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 that idea.

We need to be strengthening and extending our protected area system to increase habitat availability and build resilience in species populations. We also need to protect places that are going to be refuges for species in the future, and we need to look at creating new habitat 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 climate is changing so rapidly.

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. 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 I think it can be a pretty lonely and frustrating path just trying to do it all by yourself.

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