Australian surfers ride climate action wave

Surfers have an intimate knowledge of the ocean, but have not been seen as leading figures amongst groups leading on climate change solutions. Thanks to groups such as Surfers for Climate in Australia, that perception is starting to change.

The image of the typical, laid-back surfer does not sit easily with the stereotype of earnest environmental campaigners. But elite bodyboarder Chris Kirkman is proof that surfers have a part to play in fighting the climate emergency.

He has competed everywhere from Portugal and Chile to Tahiti and Brazil, and it was through surfing that he first started considering humans’ effect on the climate.

In 2019, Mr. Kirkman, along with champion longboarder Belinda Baggs, co-founded Surfers for Climate. The organization has four key goals: to mobilize and empower an alliance of surfers to care about the climate; take climate action; help the surfing community play a role in stopping coastal and offshore fossil fuel developments; and make politicians who represent surfing communities take climate action.

Australia, which has suffered drought, wildfires and flooding across the country in recent years, is at the frontlines of the climate crisis, sparking increased concern amongst all sectors of the population, including surfers.

“A lot of Aussies had taken their heads out of the sand when it came to the climate, but then the fires and the floods really stepped up the urgency of the issue,” says Mr. Kirkman. “It still a difficult pathway for people, as they don’t know where to start, or where to go”.

Part of Surfers for Climate’s remit is to reach out to surfers and point them in the right direction. “We are still learning about our audience and how to engage them,” explains Mr. Kirkman, “figuring out how we take every surfer on a journey of climate action. We refer to it as a wave of engagement with multiple take-off points on that wave”.

The non-profit has done everything from hosting climate-themed pub trivia nights to producing environmentally friendly consumption guides. Last month, they launched a new initiative called Trade Up, aimed at surfers who are also tradespeople, such as builders, carpenters, and electricians.

“We ran a one-day seminar, where we brought in different suppliers of materials and builders who were embracing best practice on their job sites in terms of materials and carbon neutrality,” Kirkman says.

“They had never had anyone engage with them on the environment during their whole working lives. We know there are huge emissions from construction, yet we are not talking to the tradespeople. They haven’t been engaged in the climate movement, but they just needed someone to talk to them and give them examples of best practice,” he adds.

Mr. Kirkman also points out the discussion has been quite intellectual for a long time, with “people in suits in big meetings talking about frameworks and emissions, and we have forgotten that there are everyday people who can be involved if you take the time to engage with them, and that’s what we try to do with Surfers for Climate.”

Communication is vital, as is knowing who your audience is and what they are going to respond to, and Mr. Kirkman argues that people who aren’t scientists but are passionate about the issue, need to work out how to get their message across.

As the climate crisis gets more intense, more and more people are experiencing the devastating reality of a changing climate. In 2021, Australia experienced disastrous floods in the northern rivers of New South Wales, and many surfers took the initiative to help with the rescue efforts, using jet-skis to rescue people stranded in their homes, and delivering vital supplies.

Mr. Kirkman hopes Surfers for Climate can scale up its Trade Up initiative, engage with politicians ahead of upcoming elections and – like many non-profits – raise money so it can continue to do its work. “It’s the toughest yet most enjoyable job I’ve had,” he says. “There’s definitely nothing else I would rather be doing.”

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