David Suzuki: “I can now speak the truth from my heart”

He may be approaching 80, but David Suzuki’s far from slowing down. If anything, the Canadian environmentalist has only grown fiercer, more outspoken and more determined to tip from power those who ignore global climate change.

It’s a crime against future generations in the name of profit,” Suzuki, who will visit Adelaide next March as part of WOMADelaide’s acclaimed Planet Talks program, booms down the line from his Vancouver home. “It should be punishable in some way. Throwing [them] in jail is a beginning.” It’s not the first time Suzuki has called for the imprisonment of the rich and powerful for “wilfully ignoring the biggest issue that confronts us today”. In 2013, Suzuki attacked the Coalition’  climate change policy and accused then prime minister Tony Abbott of “criminal negligence” over his policies, including the dismantling of the carbon price and de-funding of multiple climate change agencies. Needless to say, Suzuki watched with a measure of delight as Abbott fell on his sword at the hands of his own party in September. Suzuki had been equally critical of outgoing Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a politician from Alberta’s oil patch who’d dragged his feet on carbon emission targets before being ousted last month in a landslide election that ended nearly a decade of Conservative rule there. This changing of the guard, Suzuki says, must be used to demand action ahead of the major United Nations climate change conference in Paris next month. “(Politicians) are our servants, not our bosses,” he says. “We put them into office. So get the hell off the couch and start demanding that they start doing what we want them to do. And that is to look out for the future of our children and grandchildren. We want major targets to get off the destructive path we’re on. That’s absolutely number one.” Suzuki himself has not exactly been sitting on his haunches over the past half century. He’s best known as host of The Nature of Things, a television show now in its 55th season in which he explains the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling yet easily understood way. He’s also penned 52 books, including 19 for children, and is a practicing geneticist with a PhD in zoology; his 1976 textbook An Introduction to Genetic Analysis remains the most widely used genetics textbook in the US. But he admits his advancing age has renewed his drive for change. “I’m beyond worrying about fame or money or power. I don’t have to worry about kissing someone’s ass because I want a promotion or a job or a raise,” he says. “I can now speak the truth from my heart. And what motivates me to speak the truth is my grandchildren. I am part of a generation that has left them an absolute mess. Their entire future is at stake from what politicians do or do not do in the next few years.” That’s why last September Suzuki jumped in a big bus and drove east to west across Canada for seven weeks, calling for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to a healthy environment. Get enough towns and cities to commit, he figures, and eventually there will be enough support to force a federal law change. The movement, named Blue Dot and backed by Suzuki’s non-profit environmental action group, the David Suzuki Foundation, has already gained support from a line-up of respected Canadians, including musician Neil Young and novelist Margaret Atwood. “Right now, if a developer wants to build a polluting plant, the burden of proof is always on the possible victim. We have to prove that this is going to cause problems with our health,” Suzuki says. “But when we guarantee a healthy environment, the burden of proof is always on the developer because the highest priority is protecting the air, water and soil. It changes the way we do everything. So I’m very, very excited about this. Why couldn’t Australia do the same thing?” Australians, he says, ought to be at the forefront of climate change action because we are the “canaries in the coal mine”. “For God’s sake, what do you think is responsible for the mega fires and the droughts? You think this is all completely natural?” he says, bristling with anger over the continued discrediting of established climate science by denialists. “If Gina Rinehart or Rupert Murdoch want to tell us that climate change is not happening or that scientists lie, let’s ask if there’s a hidden agenda here. Ask them: ‘Where are you getting your money?’ The fossil fuel industry has known for years that global warming is real and that the use of fossil fuels is one of the major contributors. The industry is simply applying the same techniques that tobacco industry publicists used.” Instead, Suzuki says Australia must take a more progressive stance and seize its opportunity to be “the global leader in solar technology”. “Australia’s got something Canadians would kill for, called sunlight. “You’ve got huge areas of the continent where you can install windmills and solar panels. We have to get off fossil fuels. We’ve got no choice if we want to avoid absolute catastrophe.” Despite these gloomy predictions, Suzuki’s convinced we still have time to turn things around. “There’s no question that we’ve created an immense problem. I don’t think we can go back now to what once was. We’ve already changed the very chemistry of the atmosphere, which in turn is changing the very chemistry of the ocean. So we’ve embarked into totally unknown territory. But I feel we have no choice but to act and to act heroically,” he says. “I always operate on the hope that we don’t know enough and if we pull back and give nature a chance, nature will give us some surprises that we don’t deserve.” WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks is a series of six live panel discussions featuring globally respected scientists, leaders, activists and writers, held in the Speaker’s Corner of Adelaide’s Botanic Park from Friday, March 11 to Monday, March 14. womadelaide.com.au

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