Claire O’Rourke

Spend 10 minutes with Claire O’Rourke

Claire O’Rourke is an incredible woman. She has extensive experience campaigning for organisations that deliver positive impact and in social movements making real change. Claire is on a mission to accelerate and inspire Australians to take action — and fast — towards a future of clean, renewable energy.

We live on Dharawal country, just north of Wollongong in New South Wales, at the foot of some of the most magical rainforest on the planet, in the Illawarra escarpment, wedged in a weatherboard house a few minutes’ walk or ride to the beach.

My habits in the morning vary depending on how frenetic work or life is, but I do try to have a few moments of quiet in the morning — a cup of tea, a short meditation when my habits are in good shape, then followed by exercise, preferably outside.

I have an intense hip injury at the moment (caused by age, loads of activity, yoga, who knows?!), so my usual beach BootCamp has been replaced by regular rehab at a local women’s gym. I found this change disheartening at first, but the more I got into it, I realised this is a lesson in adaptation that I need to learn while I heal. And the gym has an infra-red sauna which I love.

What does ambition look like for you?

For me, there is nothing more important than good relationships. Strong connections and healthy friendships are fundamental to sustaining us.

We know that loneliness is destructive to our health, and according to the 2021 Telstra Talking Loneliness Report, 44 per cent of Australians say they regularly feel lonely. US social neuroscientist and loneliness expert John Cacioppo’s research reveals that loneliness in the long term hampers our ability to think and sleep, damaging our willpower and our immune systems.

I’m grateful to be a mum to two strong, hilarious, fun, feminist teenage daughters and have a bloke who is a partner in the truest sense of the word.

I’m part of a big family who support each other, and my circle of close friends has become our extended family — our children have grown up together and we holiday at least twice every year in extravaganzas of camping or holiday houses. There’s something about packing up half a dozen muddy tents in the pouring rain that forges friendships stronger than steel!

My colleagues across the climate movement have become close friends, and my local community is inspired to act to protect people and planet. In this diverse, complex movement I never feel lonely.

How do you create work–life balance?

I think there are seasons for everything in life: times for rest, times for intense work, times of struggle or grief (or both) and times of pure joy, laughter and general silliness.

Right now, I’m in the thick of getting the message of my new book, Together We Can, out into the world. So typically, work–life balance is a big challenge. But here’s the thing: as I’m travelling around Australia, I’m finding so much joy in this experience it doesn’t feel like work.

I’m meeting some of the inspiring people I feature in the book (many of the interviews were done by Zoom during lockdown), and many of the events to launch the book have been a reason for communities to come together and connect as the pandemic is shifting into a new stage. It’s such a privilege to be in the same space as people from all walks of life who care so passionately about healing our world.

It turns out positive stories of climate action are an infinitely renewable resource — they’re everywhere once you look up from your doom-scrolling device and search for them. After more than 20 years working in journalism and social change, this work is helping recharge my batteries in a massive way.

I also sing in a gospel choir: Café of the Gate of Salvation. It’s a Sydney institution that’s been around for about 35 years. I’m still a relative “newbie” (only seven years in), but singing is one of the best things I have ever done for my health and wellbeing. No matter how tough my day is, I always leave practice buzzing, and it’s another thing I’m so grateful for.

You share stories of Australians making a difference when it comes to action on climate change. Tell us about that.

I’ve been campaigning to prevent the worst consequences of climate change for years before I had my climate freakout moment — and I don’t use that term that lightly, because so many people I’ve spoken with have had a similar experience: crushing fear, anxiety, intense grief for what is lost and frustration at how the pace of change is too slow and more. A study I commissioned in 2020, Climate Compass, found that around five million people aged 16–75 are so worried about climate change that we called the category the “Alarmed”.

This project came about because after I hit that point I completed a 10-week program run by the Good Grief Network that helped me to look climate distress in the eye and decide to be intentionally hopeful. It helped me deeply consider the role I could play at this critical decade.

I think people lose hope when they feel that fixing the world is all up to them: it’s like you need to be a perfect person, a heroic figure, to be able to make any kind of useful contribution to the climate fight. It’s overwhelming. But when I realised how the skills and the passion I have for hearing people’s stories and spreading the word could be useful, I decided to give it a go.

What’s resulted is enormously nourishing. I’ve met so many inspiring people and I’ve learned a lot about what I believe is necessary to making the change that is required. It’s learning from Wiradjuri cultural linguist Nola Turner-Jensen that we can build in to our day practices that remind us of how everything in nature — including us — is connected.

It’s making a decision, as Sobah founder and Gamilaroi man Clinton Schultz did, to build a business on the principle of “do less harm and do more good”. It’s having a cup of tea with friends, as psychologist Carol Ride did in 2006. That conversation sparked Darebin Climate Action Now, which achieved the world’s first climate emergency declaration. Simple acts have the power to transform us together.

How do we change behaviour around climate change action?

In writing my book, I discovered the work of social scientist Damon Centola, whose research has found that when it comes to behaviour change, the power of our networks isn’t at the centre, it’s at the periphery, on the edges of groups.

Centola’s work shows us that behaviour change spreads more quickly when multiple people in one network are also in another network, making “wide bridges”. Multiple connections are key to making change happen faster.

So you don’t need to be Oprah, Lizzo, Sir David Attenborough or Leo DiCaprio to make a big difference. Your influence in your networks is more powerful when it comes to changing behaviour.

What does a world in balance look like?

Air we can breathe, clean water, nourishing food, a safe home, good health, thriving relationships, a place to walk in nature, swimming in summer, music, art, joy and loads of laughter.

What should our three non-negotiables be when it comes to climate change action?

You will find lots of information online on how you can reduce your own carbon footprint and switch your bank, superannuation and energy company to a zero-carbon provider. That’s a great place to start your climate journey.

But there are three things that will make a massive difference. Each of them is simple to do and much less daunting once you’ve done it once (or if you do it with a friend).

One, visit your local members of parliament. You don’t have to be an expert at all, you just need to demonstrate that you and people in your networks are really concerned. This action has a big impact on the decisions that are made in our society.

Second, join a group. Joining a local group that’s working on climate or sustainability where you live, in your profession or other networks will help build new social norms and build the relationships. Remember you’re not signing up for life. If you don’t click with one group, find another, because there are so many around.

And third, talk about climate change: the stories in Together We Can provide so many examples and ideas that will open up space in a conversation. Plus, there’s a handy guide on how to talk about climate change if you’re feeling a little freaked out about the prospect.

Remember, leveraging networks, intentional conversations and political action is the recipe that has changed the world over and over again. And we can all be part of it.

How do we speak to our children about climate change?

I’m not an expert in this area, but answering questions honestly and sharing what we’re doing about the problem is critical. Allowing kids to take part in accessible practices and habits, like composting, gardening, walking and riding, that are connected to nature and community, are as useful for them as they are for adults.

For parents who are seeking more specific — and frankly, far more expert — advice, I’d recommend heading to the Australian Psychological Society or Psychology for a Safe Climate. Both organisations have resources and tips.

My children are older now, but when they talk about climate change I remind them that what I’m doing — and what we’re all doing as a family — is part of a big movement of change. We’ve gone to school Strike 4 Climate rallies and marches, which has been a great way to connect on this massive challenge.

If they complain about any injustice they see, I ask them: What are you going to do about it? Then we workshop it, and look at who the decision-makers are and how they might be influenced.

What’s next for you personally?

This project has clarified my role in this movement. I aim to welcome as many people and organisations as possible into the climate movement. However, I can make that happen is what I’ll be doing.

Kate Duncan

Kate Duncan

Kate Duncan is the Editor of WellBeing and WILD. She loves surfing, creating raw desserts, flowing through nourishing yoga sequences and spending time with her new pooch, Maribou.

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