Engagement Leader of the Year Award

Lesley Hughes

Finalist of the Engagement Leader of the Year Award

"Engaging all for climate change action"

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Over the past 25 years, I have established a national and international reputation as a pioneer in the study of climate change impacts on biodiversity. In addition to my research program, I have been passionate about promoting climate change science, and the risks that climate change poses to society and ecosystems. This work has been recognised by invitations to represent Australia and the university on many influential bodies and to deliver multiple keynote addresses. I am a former federal Climate Commissioner and now a Councillor with the publicly funded Climate Council of Australia, and widely regarded as one of the most active and influential climate change communicators nationally. I am also a Director of WWF-Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, and the Director of the Biodiversity Node of the NSW Adaptation Research Hub.

As Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Integrity & Development) at Macquarie University, I have been the driving force to develop the Early Career Researcher Support Network, and the Primary Carer Conference Support Scheme at Macquarie University. I have also been an active participant in the university's successful application for an Athena SWAN Bronze Award as part of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot, and co-chair the Gender Equity Self-Assessment team, charged with implementing the university's Gender Equity Strategy.

Key People

Ms Amanda McKenzie
Climate Council of Australia

Prof. Tim Flannery
Climate Council of Australia

Prof. Will Steffen
Climate Council of Australia

Mr Rob Purves
Board member
Climate Council of Australia & Head of Purves Environmental Fund


I would like to acknowledge my boss, the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) of Macquarie University, Professor Sakkie Pretorius, for giving me his support and the freedom and flexibility to follow my passions and ideas. I would like to acknowledge my PhD supervisor Emeritus Professor Mark Westoby who first inspired me to start a career in climate change research, for which I am now very grateful. Finally and most importantly, I would like to thank my husband Professor John Hunt, and my children Matthew and Elena Hunt, who have always been very tolerant and forgiving of my work patterns, and continue to provide me with their love and support.


Interview on The Drum, 2018

Presentation at the Biodiversity Across Borders Conference, 2019

Interview on Sky News

Community engagement presentation

Lesley Hughes “Rock Star” podcast for Australian Geographic:

Eureka Prize for Promoting Australian Science, 2014

Australian Museum Research Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, July 2019

Women in Conservation Breakfast, 2018


Impacting lifes

In 2011, I was appointed by the Australian government as one of six federal Climate Commissioners, tasked with communicating climate change science and its implications to the Australian public. After more than two very active and successful years in this role, a change of government saw the Climate Commission abolished. Knowing that our work as Commissioners was far from complete, we collectively gambled that the Australian public would support us. So we set up the Climate Council, and made a public appeal for funds. One week later, we had raised AUS$1.2 million and we were off! Six years on, we are the premier climate change communication organisation in Australia. We have published over 110 reports (of which I have authored or co-authored >30), produced nearly 90 videos, have a substantial social media following with a potential reach of nearly four million people per month, have 28 staff and 16,000 engaged donors, and have been mentioned in the media ~24,000 times. My individual contribution has been recognised with awards such as the 2014 Eureka Prize for Communicating Australian Science, the 2019 Australian Museum Research Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2019 Ngara Institute Activist of the Year (awarded jointly with fellow Councillor Will Steffen). I believe that the Council’s work has contributed to greatly increased awareness and concern about climate change, as well as enhanced support for clean, green energy options. Several recent surveys have shown this concern in the Australian community is now at an all-time high.


Lessons learned

I have learnt many lessons on leadership in climate change communication - some of them difficult ones. I've learnt that more information does not necessarily lead to more understanding, and more understanding does not necessarily lead to more action. Instead, science communicators must think deeply about the framing of messages that resonate with the everyday lives of the people we are trying to reach. We must deliver simple messages with local interest, be honest about risks, but offer hope for the future. Striking this balance is hard, and differs for every audience. We must be brave in the face of opposition that at times is extremely strident and aggressive. We must acknowledge that advocacy is not a dirty word. We must never shy away from promoting good, evidence-based policy. At times, all these things have meant not just getting out of the ivory tower, but leaping from its battlements! Having said that, I have no regrets about becoming a "public scientist/academic". I know I have had a far more enriched, purpose-driven and satisfying career by choosing this path than I would have had with a more traditional academic trajectory.

Leadership is about being a change agent. It's about having good ideas, then bringing people along to implement them. When faced with uncertainty as to who in power should make decisions, I have found that simply assuming I could do it has hardly ever backfired. I have faith that good ideas, presented logically and energetically pursued, will triumph in the end.


What's coming?

My goal is to continue to be an agent for political, social and environmental change in Australia and beyond, to ensure my children and my future grandchildren's future is not put at risk from dangerous interference in the Earth system. The road ahead is a very tough one, but at the end of my life, I want to be able to look my future generations in the eye and say "I really tried". I want to continue to mentor younger people, whether in public advocacy or scientific research, to be bold, brave, pursue their dreams and develop their talents to achieve great things. I also want to continue to be a role model for young women in academia generally, and science in particular, to show them that gender does not have to be a barrier to success.

At a personal level I would like to develop a "second career" in popular writing to bring science and other topics I am passionate about, to new audiences. I want to continue to break down the barriers around academic institutions, making them more porous to the community, and promote the principle that experts of all persuasions should be part of decision-making processes that affect people's lives.



Enrolees in my free online climate change course (2013-2019)


Talks on climate change at conferences and public events in past 5 years


Of 5 top spokespeople from the Climate Council, Australia’s premier climate change communication organisation


Members of the Macquarie University Early Career Researcher Network I founded in 2014

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