Passionate science communicators at Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival

Science writing panel: Tim Cadman (chair), Gisela Kaplan, Jonica Newby, Robyn Williams and Marty Branagan
Science writing panel: Tim Cadman (chair), Gisela Kaplan, Jonica Newby, Robyn Williams and Marty Branagan

A powerful, passionate conversation about science communication engrossed the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival audience in the Memorial Hall on Saturday.

Facilitated by Dr Tim Cadman, the expert panel included Professor Gisela Kaplan, Dr Jonica Newby, Robyn Williams and Dr Marty Branagan.

Their main preoccupation was how to get the message across to those in Canberra that we are heading towards an environmental crisis and urgent action is required.

ABC radio Science Show host Robyn Williams said finding solutions demands a bipartisan approach, but somehow the climate emergency has been cast as a party-political issue.

"It's not ideological," he said flatly, "it's a fact."

They discussed how to convey the seriousness of the threat without provoking defeatism and despair by using the creative arts and encouraging individuals and communities to fight for what is important to them.

Former Catalyst presenter Dr Jonica Newby said people need to connect to what they love, not what they fear, so they feel inspired to face the challenges with courage.

Tim Cadman, Gisela Kaplan and Jonica Newby

Tim Cadman, Gisela Kaplan and Jonica Newby

In her case, she has a deep love of snow, and after losing her job when Catalyst folded, she sought solace by skiing in Japan.

But then she had the gut-wrenching realisation that like the Great Barrier Reef, the world's snow fields are being lost to climate change.

Australia's snow will go first

Dr Jonica Newby

"And Australia's snow will go first," she said. "We've lost one-third of Australia's snow in the last 40 years and projections show there will be none by 2070."

She's working on a script for a feature film called "Saving Snow" and says it is not just skiing aficionados who will be affected when winter dies. Eighty per cent of the water supply for the west coast of the USA comes from snow, she said.

Emeritus Professor in Animal Behaviour Gisela Kaplan spoke about how climate change is affecting our native birds.

When enormous flocks of corellas were causing a nuisance in a coastal area of South Australia and people were calling for them to be gassed, she asked if they realised that if they did this, they'd wipe out the state's entire population of corellas.

The birds had congregated there because they were fleeing hot weather elsewhere.

Professor Kaplan also talked about the housing crisis facing larger birds like magpies, cockatoos and kookaburras.

She said the shortage of old trees with hollows for nesting would be exacerbated by changes to Forestry regulations last year that allow logging of trees up to 1.5m in diameter, which take over 100 years to grow.

Old growth forests on the North Coast from Taree to Grafton are threatened and so is the wildlife that depends on them, she said, and as large old trees provide more food and nesting resources than younger trees, it is not simply a matter of replanting what has been harvested.

People may think there are plenty of birds about, but they are seeing long-lived adults and not realising they are not reproducing at a normal rate due to lack of suitable nesting sites.

She said when she gave a Tamworth audience the news that kookaburras in their area were dying out, the community began building nesting boxes and managed to save their local population.

"I can give you a thousand examples of small communities taking action and succeeding," she said.

In a similarly inspirational vein, Marty Branagan, author of Locked On, spoke about the community of Bentley and how it banded together to stave off coal seam gas mining.

As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."