2020 Summit – symbolism or substance?

Head of UOW’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences PROFESSOR LESLEY HEAD was a delegate to the Federal Government’s 2020 Summit in Canberra in April.

Saturday morning, and for me the most powerful symbol of the opening plenary comes during the Governor-General’s welcome. Eschewing powerpoint, Major General Jeffery had a gloved attendant bring a steaming section of Antarctic ice core onto the stage. His message was that the unprecedented challenges of climate change and sustainability should pervade all our conversations during the weekend.

We assumed the ice core was the real thing, but I suppose it could have been carved by a Parliament House chef. Such was the mix of spin and substance through the weekend that you could never be quite sure. But like most participants I was happy to take the chance.

My theme, one of 10, was called Population, Sustainability, Climate Change, Water and the Future of our Cities. We were asked to think big, achievable and cheap. Easy! The group was energising, but our discussions were constantly torn between vision and practicality. The tight timeframe rewarded talking more than listening, assertion rather than justification, reaction rather than reflection. The value of brainstorming – diversity, messiness, creativity – was undermined by the drive for early consensus. The volunteer facilitator with the texta was the most powerful person in the room.

Many of our big ideas were not new, they have just never been implemented. How many times have people called for next generation investment in public transport infrastructure in Australian cities? (Big idea = Just Do It.) Small but useful ideas seemed not to have enough wow factor. Would the Prime Minister care to climate-proof one million low-income households? What about setting targets for urban greenery to help sequester carbon? The mill of discussion ground down to vital but not exactly sexy process and policy things – strategies, commissions, revised federal-state relations, audits, targets, new environmental currencies.

Saturday evening wrap-up. The bullet points are bland and we mope into our drinks in the big foyer under the flagpole. Can I go home and tell my kids that, not only did I not meet Hugh Jackman, but that we came up with a plan for action?

The bottom line is that the challenges of sustainability and climate change cannot be met by a single big idea or action. These are complex, wicked problems. Yet, if the ideas are not so new, the present time does offer an unprecedented window of societal momentum towards an environmental culture change.

Dinner, and Minister Penny Wong works the room. She picks up on the widespread desire not to go home empty-handed. We attack our task with renewed urgency, having seethed with frustration at the time wasted early Sunday morning on an ill-judged plenary for television. Somehow, a summary document emerges. If Australia can do half what’s in there we will be much better placed for the future than we are at the moment.

Several weeks on, and it’s back to normal life, for summit participants and politicians alike. The final report of the summit has come out and petrol prices have gone through the roof. I guess the PM didn’t like our idea about making cities car-unfriendly as he is wringing his hands over $1.60/litre, rather than embracing this as an opportunity to enhance non-car choices.

Like any cultural process, the 2020 Summit was a messy mixture of symbol and substance, conflict and contradiction, power and engagement. The same goes for sustainability - symbols are most likely to catalyse action when they are congruent with wider community attitudes and can be translated into relevant institutional processes.