Philip Sutton, who died suddenly at the age of 71, was a pioneer in the climate emergency movement and had a powerful influence on environmental activists in Australia and internationally.
Sutton’s work challenged the prevailing paradigm of “reform as usual,” a strategy of incremental change based on unclear goals. He campaigned for the understanding that climate risks threaten the future of the planet and humanity, and thus require community-wide mobilization on the scale and speed of emergency. Sutton argued that entering emergency mode quickly was the main challenge for the climate movement.
This understanding was codified in his 2008 book Red Climate Act: A Case for Emergency Action, co-written with David Spratt, who coined the term “climate emergency,” and shocked many readers into becoming climate activists. The book played a key role in shifting the narrative to the level of climate risk and response we needed. Since then, risk assessments, the effects of the Red Climate Act, and the fundamentals of climate system reform have been validated by mainstream analysis.
Sutton has been at the forefront of environmental activism in Australia for more than 40 years. He was an assistant manager keep Council of Victoria (now Environment Victoria) and served as a consultant to Conservation Australia from 1973 to 1976, and again from 2009 to 2015. In 1978 he co-authored Seeds for Change, a detailed alternative energy strategy for Victoria.
His influence and associations span across a wide range of innovative environmental and climate organizations including Breakthrough – the National Center for Climate Recovery, Beyond Zero Emissions, Council and Community Action in the Climate Emergency, the Sustainable Living Foundation, the Australia and New Zealand Association for Environmental Economics and many more.
He was a junior member of the movement that led Darbin City Council in Melbourne To become the first local council in the world to declare a climate emergency, and played a leading role in the international campaign that has resulted in more than 1,000 local, regional and national governments to follow suit.
Sutton stressed the need for climate strategy to be based on a clear, if disturbing, analysis of the physical evidence of climate change, and for an approach to risk no less rigorous than that applied in fields such as engineering and aviation. He criticized against the “safe warming limit” 2C adopted by most climate change advocates and institutions. Sutton argued that such an outcome would amount to “a death sentence to millions of human beings and millions of species”.
Normalizing goal setting based on the protection of “all people, all species and all generations” or “maximum protection” was a framework he pursued with tireless dedication.
Sutton’s ability to synthesize big-picture thinking with attention to detail, as well as his personal enthusiasm and generosity, were remembered in many tributes paid posthumously.
Greens senator Janet Rice said Sutton was an “intellectual giant” who was “unparalleled in his passion and absolute dedication to a secure climate”.
Paul Gilding, former CEO of Greenpeace International, described Sutton as a “pioneering thinker”, while Mark Auge of the Australia Institute said he was “exceptional and incredibly influential in our focus on the urgency of climate change”.
Former Victorian Labor Environment Minister Gavin Jennings said Sutton’s death was “very sad”.
“Philip has dedicated his life to mobilizing citizens, institutions and government to take the urgent action necessary to preserve life on this planet.”
Philip Sutton was born in Sydney on March 2, 1951. The greatest influence on him in his early years was his mother Faye, who became an environmental activist serving on the board of Conservation Australia for more than 30 years. His father, Ralph, was an Australian Army officer and as a result of his role the family moved a lot until they settled in Sydney where Philip, as a teenager, joined the Sydney Boys High.
He studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney in the late 1960s, but gave up his degree in order to pursue urban creek protection and other local environmental causes.
Early in his career, Sutton began the campaign that led to a ban on nuclear power in Victoria in 1983. He was the architect of the pioneering Victorian legislation to ensure plants and animals enacted in 1988, the first of its kind, which became a model for the revision of wildlife legislation throughout Australia. He has also worked on the Federal Government’s Advisory Committee on Endangered Species (1990-93), the Victorian Government Energy Strategy (1982-83), the Victorian Conservation Strategy (1983-84), and with the Victorian Environment Office to develop strategies for a successful green economy ( 1991).
Sutton met his former partner, environmental advocate Cathy Press, in the late 1980s, and together they worked on pioneering environmental legislation. They had two sons, Daniel and Joey, and as a family they happily spend time together and explore the wonders and sciences of the natural world.
Sutton’s assertive, warm, genuine, and humble nature has won him the respect of many with whom he has worked, even as he has progressed in the face of facts.
“I had great respect for his thought, commitment and courage to keep telling him what he was, no matter how uncomfortable people might feel,” said former Green Party leader Kristen Milne.
Sutton is survived by Daniel and Joey. Plans for a public memorial are underway.
Philip Sutton, environmental activist; Born March 2, 1951, Died June 13, 2022
Luke Taylor is the managing director of Breakthrough – National Center for Climate Restoration