Giant Spirit, Global Citizen, Good Sport Tribute Speech

Nov 26, 2014 - 9:52am

Speech by John Connor, given at an ANU Memorial to Professor Tony McMichael AO, 26 November 2014

I am honoured to be asked here to say a few words about Tony, a founding and continuing member of The Climate Institute Board.

To me Tony was a giant of spirit, a pioneering global citizen and a good, if not fiercely competitive, sportsman!

Thinking of this giant made me think of another giant from ANU, Professor Manning Clark and his bold division of humanity into enlargeners and straiteners. 

Gareth Evans applied this division to the field of international relations so I'm sure I can do that for Tony.

Tony was an enlargener.

Tony tenaciously and consistently sought to transcend humanity's petty tribalism for a greater vision of equitable wellbeing and excellence.

His was the civilising and passionate spirit of a global citizen.

It was a shame Tony wasn't around for the last couple of months because he would have enjoyed them - perhaps his indomitable spirit assisted.

Tony would have been delighted how the ANU has been steadfast in its endowment's fossil fuel divestment decision - investing as if the future mattered now.

Divestment efforts are connected to a deeper and more profound change underway in the nature of global capitalism. Some call this the emergence of fiduciary replacing financial capitalism, others call it the rise of checks and balances in an emergent civil economy.

Both relate to opportunities that arise from the unprecedented power institutional investors with long term responsibility now have to challenge the chronic short termism driving so many of our current ills.

In the 1990s Asian crisis these funds, superannuation funds, insurance funds and sovereign wealth funds owned about 15 per cent of global stock markets.

Now they own over 50 per cent and are awakening to their power to be active owners with regard to the longer term responsibilities they have, often for you and I with our long term nest eggs, or with endowments such as that held by ANU.

Tony was a great supporter of the work of The Climate Institute in pioneering greater disclosure of carbon and climate risks amongst these funds and in enabling fund members to engage with their trustees - and students with their universities

Tony would be proud of the ANU's endeavours in this area and the steadfastness shown in the face of a shocked political and economic incumbency

As a great appreciator and applicator of irony, Tony would have enjoyed the farcical events surrounding the G20 and climate change

One of last Tony public acts was to write to the Prime Minister to have climate change and its health, as well as economic, impacts on the G20 agenda.

Money couldn't buy a better education campaign - of which Tony was a passionate supporter - than that generated by the current government's obstinacy regarding climate change.

The events around the G20 demonstrated clearly to millions of Australians that world leaders do make the link between climate change and economic prosperity.

What could have been managed quietly with the same relatively benign paragraph in the final communique was magnified by the theatre of resistance, followed by a possible repentance, then yet further resistance.

But what Tony would have most enjoyed is the way that the economic and public health impacts of fossil fuel pollution is increasingly being fused with climate action in driving a richer agenda of the co- benefits of climate action.

This fusion of public and economic health is a key driver behind the US-China climate partnership and is a fusion that Tony pioneered in a number of key dimensions.

His innovative research linking human health with impactors like climate change and lead would have been sufficient for many.

But Tony also invested his time and energy in altering the social and political landscape to help deliver the changes these research outcomes demanded.

The breadth of his support for organisations from The Australia Institute to the Climate and Health Alliance, to The Climate Institute and more, as well as his mentoring and counselling of many many students is breathtaking.

How he managed to do so and have the time to raise such a brilliant and creative family is astonishing.

Amongst that he also found time for his sport.

At Tony's funeral my Chair Mark Wootton recounted how we battled Tony and another into the dark on a tennis court. His wile and guile ultimately besting our energetic endeavours.

The Climate Institute is honoured to be asked to establish a memorial fund in his name to further his passion to tell the human story of climate change. 

It is hopefully appropriate the first project we are working on with the support of this fund is one on the impacts of climate change and sport - watch this space.

Finally, in researching this speech I came across a quote from Mark Twain on the death of a corrupt politician: "I refused to attend his funeral but I wrote a letter saying I approved of it."

My feeling for Tony is obviously the reverse, he has passed from us way too soon.

As it happens I couldn't attend his funeral because I was in New York for the UN Climate Summit but I am privileged to attend, let alone address, this memorial to his work.

Thank you Tony, I hope the work we do honours your giant spirit, your global citizenship and your good, but tenacious, sportsmanship.

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