Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Young citizen canes Turnbull on climate
Monday was Labour Day. The day would-be Australians were first expected to expectorate knowledge of obscure prime ministers (rhymes with carton), archaic metaphors (a raw prawn is a … ?) and abstruse English spelling practice (gurt? gert? girt?). The day our federal Environment Minister told a worried 15-year-old to “be more upbeat and optimistic” about climate change. The first day of spring, and already 30 degrees in the shade. Oh, it was Labour Day all right.
It was also World Architecture Day, with a cheery climate change theme, and the inaugural Sydney Architecture Festival. There were free design mags, the world’s longest drawing, and walking tours that were booked out in advance, suggesting people are starting to grasp that they live somewhere made, not given. There was also Iron Architect – you know, Iron Man, Iron Chef, Iron Architect – a competition that generated proposals for 400-storey towers and animal-filled aircraft carriers just metres from where Captain Phillip first dragged up the dinghy.
“Architects do it with models,” read the T-shirt. They wish, is the obvious riposte. But, in fact, the five Iron Architect teams competing at Customs House did just that. They had four hours to design and model – from card, chicken wire, marshmallow and popcorn – enough housing, entertainment and workspace for a catastrophic influx of 1.25 million people into Sydney city centre, then graft it onto the city model that glitters under-floor like some glass-cased effigy.
It was wild – a 6000 per cent increase on current population, 30 times denser than Hong Kong. The solutions were always going to be silly: wind farms along motorways, sewage treatment in the casino. But they did show one thing: the unique mix of the graphic and the abstract, the second- and the third-dimension that comprises what we call architectural thought.
Upstairs, meanwhile, the big draw was a David-and-Goliath debate between Alastair Wadlow and Malcolm Turnbull. Alastair is a year 9 student from Baulkham Hills and co-founder (with his sisters) of a kids-for-climate-change action group called Planet Patrol. Turnbull is, well, Turnbull. There was a third participant, Carbon Cop Sean Fitzgerald, and splendidly he smote his fiery sword. But it was Malcolm versus the kid that everyone wanted to see.
Alastair opened. Within minutes it was clear that, if it’s citizenship you’re after, you’d come to the right shop. Funny, articulate, passionate, brave and modest he applied his clear-eyed critical faculties to us all – baby boomers, government, Australian culture and his own mob, Gen Y. These he described as “self-absorbed, demanding and impatient”, fully connected and needy of communication yet making it a “badge of honour” to avoid meaningful exchange of more than two syllables. “We’d all rather play dead rather than stand out.”
Meanwhile, reflected Alastair, the world uses 80 million barrels of oil a day, mostly for road transport. And yet, out “where I live, the Hills District,” there’s no rail (“this train is over 20 years late”) and no nearby bus. “We even had to fight to keep the school bus.”
And it’s getting worse. While Australia led solar research in the ’90s, the baton has now passed to far less sun-blessed places such as Germany.
“I want to be part of a creative, intelligent, innovative country,” Alastair continued. “There is something missing in Australia, and I think it’s pride.” Not nationalistic jingoism. Not spontaneous back-patting. We’ve more of that than sunshine. No, what’s missing is “the sort of pride that makes you want to do things well”. What things? Alastair listed them: commitment to public education, public transport, effective research, firm government policy, legislation and to sign Kyoto.
Then it was Malcolm’s turn. Sure, he had a hard act to follow. But he fell back mainly on decibels (you don’t often hear a public speaker politely asked to reduce volume) and bluster. There was the usual emphasis on “global context”, a does-my-carbon-footprint-look-big-in-this attempt to trivialise our world-beating per capita greenhouse-gas production by stressing that China and India are worse. Or will be, if they get to copy us.
After which the Environment Minister rolled out the old coal-lobby line, “you’ll never get baseload power from sun and wind”, though no one else still believes it. He said our renewables brain-drain was fine, a good thing “in any business”. Which just looked daft when, that same evening, a former Sydney Uni solar researcher, David Mills, hit the news as the latest scientific refugee to Silicon Valley, building mega-scale solar power stations with private-venture backing.
Perhaps Malcolm overestimated audience knowledge – not of global warming, so much, but of Malcolm: “As everyone in Sydney knows, I’m a devotee of public transport” and “as many of you will have seen on the news I’ve just returned from Washington.” He also relied heavily on future techno-fixes such as carbon sequestration, electric cars (forgetting that you still need zero-emission power) and solar panels “like Lucy and I have on our roof”.
Turnbull repeated his exhortation to “be optimistic about the future”. I agree, but less because of Prime Minister Turnbull than because of citizens such as Alastair Wadlow in the pipeline.