AC in DC

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AC in DC

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Last week I had the privilege of taking up an invitation from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to participate in the Australian Ambassador's Speaker Series in Washington, D.C.   After a few days at an international workshop for knowledge professionals (see blog) in Hamilton, near Toronto in Canada, my body clock was pretty much in sync with the time zone when I arrived in Washington on 29 April.

the Capitol building, Washington D.C.

the Capitol building, Washington D.C.

The helpful staff at the Australian Embassy had recommended the Dupont Circle Hotel, just a few blocks up Massachusetts Avenue from the embassy. Fabulous location, if you are into cool coffee shops, cafés, restaurants, bookshops and embassies — so on a balmy Sunday afternoon in spring it seemed like an excellent place to start.  A very pleasant dinner/briefing at Kramer's Books with Rachel Steven-Smith, the Science Counsellor at the Embassy, was an ideal first meeting, setting me up for the rest of the week.

The briefing with Rachel was followed by a stimulating conversation on science and policy over lunch on Monday with Professor Dan Sarowitz, director of the NSF-funded Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes (CSPO).  Dan is highly regarded in Washington circles (and beyond) as somewhat of a guru in his framing of the science-policy relationship.  In essence, Dan contends than when contentious issues become 'scientized' (climate change being the classic contemporary example) they cannot be resolved just through investing in  more and better science, but only by making value conflicts much more explicit and resolving them through the political process.  Coincidentally, Dan had planned a trip down under for the following week, so I'll be interested to hear from ANU and University of Tasmania colleagues how his ideas were received.

Wearing my two hats as Director of RIEL at Charles Darwin University and as chair of the advisory board of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), I also had meetings on Monday and Tuesday with senior officials from NASA, the US Geological Survey (USGS), the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Those meetings and the potential for intensifying Australia-US science collaboration are covered in another blog.

On Tuesday afternoon, after working on preparation for my DC and University of Maryland (see blog) talks, I rented a bike from one of the Capital Bike Exchange checkpoints on Dupont Circle.  This is a fantastic service.  The cost was $7 for 24 hours (plus a $100 credit card deposit in case you damage or don't return the bike), the process even for a first-time user was smooth and painless, there are heaps of stations in downtown DC, and the bike itself was fine — a sturdy 3 speed with dynamo tail lights and a solid carry basket up front.  The system seems to be popular and works very well. I think it works  in large part because, consistent with American ideals about freedom and individual responsibility (and possibly private healthcare), helmets are optional.  This avoids the disincentive of choosing between carrying your own helmet around with you, or wearing one that has recently been worn by someone else.

another flabby tourist in front of the White House

another flabby tourist in front of the White House

My comfortable red machine enabled me over a couple of hours to cruise around many of the main public buildings, parks and monuments of the city.  And what a city.  Monumental is the word that first springs to mind — in its layout, its generous public spaces, beautiful parks and wide footpaths, its grand public buildings, cultural institutions and government offices, and of course its countless memorials, military iconography and monuments.  Downtown Washington feels like Canberra squared in the sense of a spacious, planned layout showing off national institutions and in its lack of overt commercialism.  It also has the gracious feel of the more beautiful European capitals with its harmonious streetscapes of handsome 5-6 level 18th and 19th century buildings in stone and brick, softened by deciduous trees in the green flush of spring.  The scale is monumental without being overpowering, many of the buildings, memorials and statues are striking, and the sense of national pride is palpable.  It would reward weeks' exploration, but a couple of hours was a nice intro and a break from the computer screen.

the central courtyard of the Smithsonian

the central courtyard of the Smithsonian

Smithsonian gardens

Smithsonian gardens

At the request of Dr Sara Scherr, Director of EcoAgriculture Partners and a Washington contact from many years ago in my landcare days, I gave a presentation to senior representatives from the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature coalition at the United Nations Foundation on Wednesday afternoon.  It covered some of the same territory as the talk I had planned for the embassy gig that evening, so it was a nice warm up.  Fortunately it was well received.  US farmers made very perceptive observations about how the integration theme of my talk is more feasible at local and regional levels, where it is often easier for farmers, ranchers, fishers, hunters and environmentalists to find common ground in their care for the land and their communities.

The Hon Kim Beazley & Andrew Campbell

The Hon Kim Beazley & Andrew Campbell

The Australian Embassy is in a large modern office building in a prime position on Massachusetts Avenue, well known locally for its Christmas display of Santa on a surf board being towed by a mob of roos.  After getting the presentation loaded and the controls sorted, it was up to the Ambassador's office for a briefing with his Excellency the Hon Kim Beazley, the Science Counsellor Rachel Steven-Smith and the Agriculture Counsellor Chris Parker.  Ambassador Beazley spoke of President Obama's recent visit to Australia, noting how he was struck by the vivid contrast between Canberra and Darwin, the only two cities he visited.

CDU hits Washington DC

CDU hits Washington DC

The presentation in the embassy auditorium went well, with a full house of about a hundred  people, from a cross-section of ex-pat Australians, senior US officials from science, energy, food and agriculture agencies, representatives from US and international NGOs and think tanks, diplomats, and a bunch of colleagues from the University of Maryland.  You can check out the slideshow here.  The key messages were that we need to see climate change, water, energy and food security issues as tightly interconnected parts of the same problem, and manage them much more holistically in science, in policy and between science and policy.

 

There was considerable interest in Australia's imminent carbon price, and the potential for this to be a game-changer with influence far beyond Australia.  Several people also asked me about Landcare, noting how they thought it was one of Australia's more remarkable exports.

Ambassador Beazley introduction

Ambassador Beazley introduction

Ambassador Beazley then hosted drinks (Australian wine and beer) and savouries in the impressive foyer of the embassy, with its magnificent Indigenous paintings, its gallery of photos of Prime Ministers and Presidents past and present, and its ceiling depicting the southern sky.  Kim Beazley is a marvellous host, with a deep understanding of the US scene and of course Australian government priorities, having been a long-serving Minister for Defence, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.  Overall he seemed chuffed with the whole event.  Nearly everybody stayed on for the hospitality, and there was a nice buzz in the room.  Dinner (soft shell crab) with Professor Bill Dennison from the University of Maryland, his wife Judy and her brother Mike, in the charming Hotel Labard on M Street, was a perfect finale to the evening.

the obligatory croc pic

the obligatory croc pic

Reflecting on this event and my few days in Washington, I'm struck by several impressions, not all of them pulling in the same direction:

  • This was one modest event among many meetings, talks and conferences happening every day in Washington DC, involving thousands of people from hundreds of countries.
  • In many ways talk is cheap.  Of course real change requires much more.  In Washington in particular, the enormous inertia invested in the status quo and the power of vested interests to frustrate progress  is very obvious.   In the current political climate in Washington, it is difficult to see how innovative reform could gain traction.
  • But in discussions with senior officials, with farmers and NGOs, and with university faculty and graduate students, it is abundantly clear that the US still has vast resources in human talent, in good ideas, goodwill and commitment.  There are hundreds of interesting projects on the ground and in the pipeline, and many many people, communities and firms keen to work out smarter ways of living in a carbon-constrained world.  While the national politics may be toxic and sclerotic, there are still many positive things happening in the US.
  • Finally, it is obvious to me that there is much to be gained for both countries in us working more closely together, particularly in scientific collaboration.  We have complementary expertise, infrastructure and geography.  The potential synergies through cooperation are enormous.

This very interesting study tour was made possible through a combination of generous contributions:

  • CDU's investment in my travel to the US and Canada;
  • Dr Alex Bielak of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (INWEH) who hosted the Canadian leg of the trip (see blog);
  • The event organisation and hosting of the Australian Embassy;
  • TERN support for my Washington flights and accommodation; and
  • The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science hosting my visit to Annapolis and Cambridge MD (see blog).

Thanks to all who helped make this journey so rewarding, and also to Professor Keith Christian and Roanne Ramsey in particular, who covered for me capably in RIEL during a very busy period in my absence.