Q&A with Dr. Paul Sinclair, Director of Campaigns for the Australian Conservation Foundation

Dr Paul Sinclair is Campaign Director at the Australian Conservation Foundation, the national non-government conservation organisation supported by over 700 000 Australians. Since 2002 he’s led advocacy campaigns that have protected wildlife, restored rivers, increased renewable energy, shifted public support for climate solutions and created national networks of community champions.

Kylie Browne of the Solar Trust Centre spoke with Dr Paul about the conservation organisation, its challenges and steps to solve problems.

1. Thanks for your time, Paul. To begin with, would you tell our readers a little bit about your background before you came to join the Australian Conservation Foundation?

I came to ACF from Environment Victoria. That is a state-based conservation organisation. I was running our Healthy Rivers program there. I was an accidental activist in that I wrote a book on the Murray River many years ago, and that took me into working in the conservation area. Through a set of unexpected events, I ended up becoming an activist at Environment Victoria in the early 2000s, and since then, I have sort of worked across a whole heap of different issues, conservation issues around water, land management, climate, democratic reform, economics, and community organising.

2. No need to reveal any trade secrets, but can you take us through what a typical day of duties look like in your role as director of campaigns at ACF?

So day-to-day, there's a fair bit of variation in what happens, but largely, I work with the executive of ACF to set our strategic direction, then work with our team of campaigners to create campaigns to make those strategies come to life and activate our supporters and others.t. My job is making sure that day-to-day that our campaign team is doing the work that our supporters - of which we have over 500 000 - want us to do, which is to disrupt the big systemic drivers of unsustainability that are destroying natural habitat that wildlife and we depend on, and which are polluting the atmosphere.

So our supporters want us to make sure we're not just doing whack-a-mole, trying to fight a million different fights. We want to hit the big levers that drive the unsustainability, and day-to-day, that just means supporting - coaching sometimes - staff around how we can best do that, solving problems that get in the way, trying to ensure that people are feeling up and about and ready for the challenge, and increasingly, it's about developing strategies that empower our local community to acting independently themselves in pursuit of ACF's objectives, and that's a really exciting area of growth for ACF at the moment.

Right now, one of the big challenges that's happened since the last federal election is supporting our CEO, Kelly O'Shanassy, who's doing an amazing job in influencing the federal government on the implementation of a whole lot of commitments made by the Albanese Government to take action on renewable energy, climate action, and nature conservation. After the last few governments, it’s a really pleasant challenge to have.

3. Undoubtedly, the role as a campaign director in a conservation organisation must feel akin to a David and Goliath battle at times, given the political power and financial resources some stakeholders hold in Australia and abroad, who prioritise acquiring more cash on their books over conservation efforts. What's the biggest challenge or frustration you find in your role as it surrounds this dynamic?

The biggest challenge is converting the desire most Australians have to see the protection of the natural world and the transition off coal and gas towards renewables into action.. So the last federal election is being seen - and I think correctly - as an example of where people's aspiration and their action came together and decided how thousands of Australians voted, especially in electorates held by Liberal MPs. Struggling to convert popular aspiration into impactful action is often the biggest source of frustration for climate and nature activists. We know the evidence is that most Australians want to protect nature, they love nature, and most want really significant action on climate change, and really quickly.

We also know that most businesses understand there’s big opportunities around the energy transition to make good money from doing good things. But getting the urgency of that action occurring requires our fellow citizens to drive, push and cajole, because in a democracy, it's those people who really can balance out the corporate power of fossil fuel industries who want to slow down that change. Our theory of change is we have to work with people to convert their aspiration to action - that's the source of our power, as opposed to having millions of corporate dollars.

4. It's a very sad reality that Australia is known to be the extinction capital of the world in terms of species dying out. There's no simple answer to this, of course, but can you outline some factors that are driving this trend?

There's a couple of big dynamics. One is that we bulldoze and cut down wildlife habitat. Habitat is home for wildlife. . I know I'm expecting to go home tonight and to be able to walk into my house, have dinner and something to eat, feel safe and comfortable, and be able to talk to my family. If I came home and someone had put a bulldozer through that, it'd be a really bad day. So there's no difference, really, between us and wildlife in that sense. We all depend on our habitat. Habitat loss is a massive driver of extinction, so too, the invasion of weeds and feral animals like cats, for example.

And then another dynamic that's at play is climate change, the warming of the Earth. It's a different sort of bulldozer. Species that have evolved over millions of years for a particular sort of environment are having to adapt super quick, unnaturally fast to oceans that are warming or landscapes that are getting hotter, dryer, or, experiencing more regular and intense extreme weather.. So, that dynamic between invasive species, weeds, feral cats and stuff, habitat loss, and climate change, those things are big drivers of extinction. So, we're an intelligent species - we need to solve multiple challenges all at once.

5. So similarly, what steps could we take to quickly arrest the problem and, if not solving it decisively right now, put the country back on good footing in this area?

There are a couple of really quick things on the table. One, the Australian Parliament have passed the Climate Act that sets a solid set of national emission reduction target that needs to be increased regularly and take scientific advice about what it needs to be. So, we’ve got a decent national target, but now we need to have the public and private sector investments in renewable energy production and distribution systems that we need to move towards net-zero emissions by 2035, by 2040 at the latest. We know how to do that - so let's get on with it.

In terms of the coal and gas industry, we can't afford to allow banks and financial institutions to continue to invest in coal and gas infrastructure that will last for decades. That's just contrary to what everybody knows that the world needs to do. And we need to get donations from companies like Woodside and Santos, big gas producers, out of our political parties, and out of our parliament. And on nature, we need to pass some strong national environmental laws that mean that those laws actually protect nature. So, since our current environmental laws got passed, we've lost an area of threatened species habitat about the size of Tasmania. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of threatened species habitat is still being cleared. This can’t continue. So, we have to get nature protection laws that actually do protect nature. That shouldn’t be controversial. !

And finally, there is a need to find ways to leverage lots of investment from the government and the private sector into the restoration of nature, because we know that most of the Australian economy is dependent on nature to be prosperous. We've just released a report showing about $900 billion worth of the Australian economy has a direct dependency on nature. It's not rocket science, right? We depend on the Earth for the food we have, for the shelter we require, for stable weather conditions - to be able to live a decent life. So, strong environmental laws and investment into the protection of the habitat that we currently have, and the restoration of habitat that we need, are things that we can get on with and do right now.

6. Just as renewable energy is unquestionably an asset when it comes to seeing the world go green and becomes sustainable, it's also, of course, the case that the installation of renewable energy sources must be done in a way that minimizes environmental impact. So when it comes to the growth of renewable energy alongside conservation initiatives, what would you like our readers to understand about meeting the needs of both in a harmonious way?

That's an excellent question. I don't see, at one level, a difference between a wind turbine, a solar farm, and any other sort of development. We need strong national nature laws to manage the impact on the environment. Having a strong framework is essential for making those decisions on what developments do and don’t go ahead. Everything people do has some impact. A strong national nature law, along with the creation of an independent regulator to help enforce those laws, will be critical to managing the inevitable impacts created by the transition to a clean energy economy. As important will be a nationally funded program to create more and more wildlife habitat.

8. We recently had a very significant federal election, this might touch on what you were talking about earlier, one that has since been dubbed the Climate Change Vote, where voters in numerous seats signified very clearly their desire for more positive environmental action. So in terms of outlook pre and post-election for the ACF, in what ways does this election result and a new parliament bode well for the work of ACF?

Yeah, look, I think the election this year was the result ofa decade of work to convince people there was a problem and convince people that solutions were necessary, possible, and achievable. It felt like it was an ‘overnight success’ that actually took about eight years! The work that people did in seats that are known as teal seats, to shift the dynamic of politics to say that you don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool activist to care about these issues to do something about it, and that if you do get organised and do something, you can make it happen. I love the idea that there are just thousands of people through the last election who realised that if they get their stuff together, no matter what community, no matter how conservative or whatever they think the electorate is, they can make a difference. That’ll be a life-changing experience for thousands of people..

The last federal election sends a really important signal to other governments, state governments, local governments, and communities in our region, particularly in the Pacific that Australia is going to take climate positive action seriously. We had almost a decade of a Government blocking climate positive action, it had a chilling effect on people and businesses. The inverse is true, so when a government actually takes a strong position on an issue, it sends a motivating signal to business and communities. They've got the confidence and should have the confidence to go and act.

Accordingly, I'm excited by the specific legislation and policies that the federal government will implement to drive the uptake of renewable energy and get us to those targets. But I’m more excited to see how businesses, investors and communities will act now we’ve t got all the bullshit out of the way about whether the change was necessary, possible, or achievable. The thing that excites me is to see what we can achieve now there is more certainty about the federal government's commitment to climate and nature positive action. We know that it's going to be economically great for people, it can be good for nature, and it can be good for as many people as we can make it.

9. When it comes to conservation endeavours, what keeps you up at night in terms of worry for Australia and the world?

The speed of change we need to make. So the questions that I and many of my colleagues ask themselves regularly are, "Do the solutions we are calling for match the scale of the problem that we face?” And, “Are we acting fast enough to have the impact that we need to have?" T These questions can keep me up at night..

10. In contrast to that prior question, what signs do you see that give you hope?

Well, we passed a Climate Act today! For a long time, people have shared a view that we need to make the transition but have been too scared to say so out loud, particularly in the business sector. There's a growing consensus across the different parts of the Australian economy that change needs to happen, and can happen and will happen. That's something that gives me hope. You see it everywhere. We've run campaigns against the Business Council of Australia. We ran a campaign to get them to change their position on climate change, which they've done. They're now a significant proponent of many of the changes we agree we need to see. That's a good thing.

I see growing numbers of y people involved in trying to make a difference in their local communities. I think seeing the growth of independent politicians heading to Canberra is also a good thing. It shakes up the incumbents who have been there for a long time that have said, "This is how we're going to run it. Shut up. This is what we do." I love the way that the teal MPs and other independents have chucked a metaphorical hand grenade into that smug entitlement.

11. For those looking to get involved in a more direct way, what would you encourage people to do who are keen to learn more and get more involved? I think you just covered that, actually. I think you just covered in the community groups, getting to understand what ACF does, make donations, become more involved. Is there anything you would add to that?

Only that you should just find your people, right? There are lots of different sorts of organisations out there. So have great technical plans for how to go about creating technological change. That might be your vibe. You might be interested in more non-violent direct action. Or you might be interested in being champions of ambitious and practical policy solutions that are powered by community power - if so, come to ACF! Just find your people. They're out there. Imagine we’re all trying to climb the same mountain. There are many ways to climb a mountain. If you come across a group and you go, "You know what? Their way of doing it, it's really not for me," don't just throw in the towel. There will be another group who does connect with your skills and passion, that are still trying to scale the same mountain but just using a different path.

STC thanks Paul for his time.

Further info regarding his work can be found here.