Sparking an interest in climate change

Dr Jenny Newell, Manager, Climate Change Projects (Engagement, Exhibitions and Cultural Connection), Australian Museum, Sydney. Image: Anna Kucera/supplied.

Dr Jenny Newell is the Manager of Climate Change Projects at the Australian Museum in Sydney. She curated the new Spark exhibition and spoke with the Sentinel about why people should come and see it. By Rita Bratovich.

Dr Jenny Newell’s role at the Australian Museum is one of only a few climate change dedicated-roles in any museum in the world. Its purpose is to create exhibitions that are interesting and educational to “more effectively engage the disengaged”. 

“We really need everybody everywhere to fight climate change. Anyone who’s a grown-up really does need to get on board right now,” says Newell, believing adults need to rectify their legacy.   

“It’s really the most grave, most serious injustice that has ever been visited by one generation on another.”

With such high stakes, it’s hard to imagine there’d be any resistance, but one of the challenges for climate scientists is fighting misinformation in the community. 

Rocky de Nys and Sam Elsom collecting algae. Image: Sea Forest/supplied.

“What we’re finding is that there’s still actually quite a lot of people who feel that climate change is really just a natural process … that this is all part of a natural cycle,” says Newell. 

She explains that if that were true, we’d be in a cooling cycle by now. Instead, the warming is faster than anything previously experienced. 

Those who do accept the reality of climate change and want to take action often get stumped on exactly what to do next. A major focus of this exhibition is providing practical and actionable solutions. On display are the top ten innovations that have recently been developed in Australia. Each is themed around sustainable technology: wind power, solar power, electric transport, hydrogen power, cultural burning (Indigenous knowledge), biodiversity support, micro-algae, seaweed farms, regenerative agriculture and smarter building. 

The museum has worked with a number of companies and organisations to create the displays and provide materials and information. 

“For instance, the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation has developed ways of sharing cultural knowledge around using the right fire at the right time with the Rural Fire Service and with land owners, just to really broaden the uptake of those essential ways of better caring for land,” explains Newell. 

Savic electric road bike, C-Series. Image: savicmotorcycles.com.

LAVO is a brand that produces hydrogen energy storage systems. They’ve developed the first domestic hydrogen battery unit. 

“What you can do with hydrogen – it’s a very safe form of energy – you can have this unit outside your home or next to your business place, and a bucket of water a day is all you need to run your home off this unit,” says Newell. 

Meanwhile, established technologies are getting even better. Australians are among the highest adopters of rooftop solar panels. Advancements such as flexible solar panels and printed solar panels that can be rolled up or applied to windows are more practical and aesthetically appealing and will likely increase uptake among households. 

“We’ve got the most efficient silicon solar cell which has been developed in the world. That’s been developed by Dr Martin Green, and he’s been forefront of world solar technology for like the last three decades,” says Newell. 

Algae is forging its reputations as a super plant. It is particularly efficient at capturing carbon and generating oxygen; it can replace petrochemicals to produce fuels and plastics; it can be used as food and fertiliser. 

The University of Technology, Sydney is displaying large, glass cylinders containing glowing algae. There’s also be a cow (not real) as part of an information display about seaweed farming to produce feed. 

Dr Jenny Newell with a Spark exhibition display, Australian Museum. Image: Anna Kucera/supplied.

Electric vehicles are definitely cleaner and quieter than their predecessors, and they’re quickly becoming faster and cheaper. 

“The thing about an electric car is that it’s really, really well engineered. It’s top notch technology – cutting edge technology that far surpasses anything that’s being developed for burning fossil fuels. An electric car is really efficient, not only in driving around, but you also don’t have to fix it very often because there’s not many moving parts in the engine, so they’re really cost-effective,” says Newell. 

The exhibition will feature displays from electric car companies as well as Australia’s first electric motorbike which is “super cool and super fast”.

Renewable energy is cleaner, safer, cheaper, and more equitable, and Australia is at the forefront of developing sustainable technologies. At the political level, however, the country is dragging its feet. 

“Australia is certainly extremely distinctive in the international scene as putting the brakes on addressing climate change,” says Newell.

“It’s not only an injustice for Australians and future generations of Australians, this is an injustice for future generations of all people and all species, so it’s incredibly serious. But what gives me hope is that we still have so many great people working at the state level who are really making sure that there’s a lot of good renewable projects going forward – even though some of the very perplexing fossil fuel projects are going forward as well.”

The Spark exhibition runs until Sunday, 3 October, 2021 at The Australian Museum, 1 William Street, Darlinghurst. Free admission. For more information visit https://australian.museum/exhibition/spark/.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.