New environment commissioner appointed after horror fire season

Dominic Giannini 8 May 2020
Dr Sophie Lewis standing outdoors.

The 2019 ACT Scientist of the Year, Dr Sophie Lewis, has been appointed ACT Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment. Photo: Supplied.

ACT Scientist of the Year and lead author with the International Panel on Climate Change, Dr Sophie Lewis, has been named as the new ACT Commissioner for Sustainability and Environment. She has been appointed by ACT Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability Shane Rattenbury to lead the territory’s charge against climate change following the devastating bushfire season in the region during the past summer.

Inspired to become a scientist from a young age, Dr Lewis says she has not considered herself a role model, but wants to do what she can to inspire the next generation of scientists in the ACT by focusing on the connection and experiences children can have with the natural environment.

“I wanted to be a scientist since I was a very young child, but I have always had an interest in the environment and that is something my parents encouraged,” she said. “My dad always took us outdoors. We were always camping, hiking, skiing – he was an outdoors person and that was a love he really fostered in us.

“I think a lot of children in Canberra have that love of the environment because they are in an urban environment that is so rich with wildlife – flora and fauna – and these beautiful nature reserves that we have.

“During the COVID-19 health emergency, we are seeing many more children in our parks and reserves. Let’s build on this to connect our children with our beautiful environment.”

Dr Lewis is stepping into the role during a difficult time when the COVID-19 pandemic means the business-as-usual approach has become distorted because of social distancing restrictions.

“I am stepping into a role where connecting with people and networking is so critical during a time when we are really challenged with doing that because we cannot be close to each other,” she said.

“Some of the things we were hoping to work on may have to wait a little in terms of community engagement events, but, really, the big thing for me is that challenge of climate change.”

The devastating Black Summer bushfire season put climate change firmly on the national agenda as hotter and dryer conditions exacerbated the intensity of the blazes that enveloped Australia’s east coast. In the ACT, more than 80 per cent of Namadgi National Park – 80,000 hectares – was burnt by the Orroral Valley fire.

As the new Commissioner for Sustainability and Environment, Dr Lewis will be responsible for preparing State of the Environment reports, conducting investigations into environment-related matters, advocating for the environment and raising environmental awareness.

“As we have seen with our recent extreme heat, drought and fires, climate change is a huge challenge now and for our future as it will continue to impact on our environment at local, national and international levels,” said Dr Lewis.

Dr Sophie Lewis sitting on grass in front of Parliament House.

Dr Sophie Lewis says she wants her new role to foster a love for the environment among Canberra’s youth. Photo: Supplied.

“The ACT is already a world leader in addressing climate change in particular, but there is still a lot to be done to address the challenges and vulnerabilities around our environment and sustainability. I’m keen to be involved through the commissioner position.”

Minister Rattenbury said Dr Lewis’s background as a researcher, well-respected scientist and a Canberran has positioned her as the perfect candidate for the role.

“Dr Lewis has extensive experience in researching Australia’s changing climate extremes,” he said.

“She also has a long history with Canberra and a love of the Canberra environment, which she is keen to bring to her conversations with the public, community groups, academic institutions and government.

“I warmly welcome Dr Lewis, noting the unusual COVID-19 period in which she is starting the role.”

Minister Rattenbury also thanked outgoing interim Commissioner, Dr Margaret Kitchin, for all her work and expertise she brought to the role.

“I would like to thank the interim Commissioner, Dr Margaret Kitchin, for her contribution to the position during the past several months to initiate and progress important work,” he said.

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