If there was ever a time for a national conversation - and for our political leaders to listen and understand what Australians are thinking, feeling and aspiring for - it is now.
In April 2008 I attended the 2020 Summit in Parliament House, Canberra. Hosted by newly elected prime minister Kevin Rudd, the Summit was just such a national conversation, designed to "help shape a long-term strategy for the nation's future".
I joined citizens from all walks of life - educators, business people, workers, scientists, Indigenous elders, actors and musicians, and many more. We met in Parliament House to brainstorm ideas about how Australia could chart a dynamic, inclusive and prosperous course through a complex world of opportunities and hazards.
It was an exceptionally stimulating two days of ideas and engagement, both in the workshop sessions and at the tea breaks. I remember the prime minister spent most of the time moving from workshop to workshop, sitting quietly in the back of the room, listening, learning and taking notes.
Now, 12 years later and we have arrived in 2020, but Australia bears little resemblance to the visions of the 2008 summit. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, our society has become more divided and unequal, and climate change - a major theme of the 2008 summit - is no longer a future threat but an increasingly frightening reality.
The massive, violent bushfires of 2019-2020 scarred millions of Australians, the Great Barrier Reef is being heated towards extinction, farmers are being hammered by repeated severe droughts, and our coastlines are being battered and eroded by storms riding on rising sea levels.
Social disquiet about our future is rising. Respected sectors of our society like emergency leaders, financial institutions, doctors and farmers are demanding action on climate change. At Uluru, Indigenous elders stood their ground - and it is their ground - and turned back a planeload of tourists. Thousands of citizens and experts around New South Wales and beyond have raised objections to the proposed dangerous and unnecessary Narrabri Gas Project.
To quote the title of a recent scientific paper, we are "Dancing on the Volcano". Social, health, economic and environmental problems are escalating and merging to destabilise and challenge the world that has been created over the last several decades.
Now, in 2020, we are clearly at a "fork in the road". We know one pathway well - the one that COVID-19 has disrupted and climate change is damaging in the longer term.
But another pathway is rapidly emerging, promising a much more equitable, prosperous and safe future. A renewable energy-led clean economy can not only tackle the climate challenge, but also deliver jobs, reinvigorate regions, create a more vibrant society, and underpin a booming export industry to help support the energy transition in Asia and the Pacific. It is a world worth bequeathing to our families and future generations.
However, major decisions - choices that commit us to continuing on the increasingly dangerous and dysfunctional pathway of the last few decades - may already being made with little or no consultation or discussion with the broader community.
It appears that neither the climate science community, nor the public at large, has been consulted about a massive expansion of the fossil fuel industry.
The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), created to support the economic response to the pandemic and stacked with big business representatives, has apparently recommended that the government underwrite a massive expansion of the gas industry, locking in large greenhouse gas emissions for decades.
In February the Chief Scientist, in an address to the National Press Club, also supported a major expansion of the gas industry, inconsistent with the rapid and deep emissions reductions required to meet the Paris Agreement climate targets. It appears that neither the climate science community, nor the public at large, has been consulted about a massive expansion of the fossil fuel industry, despite that fact that the majority of Australians view climate change as a critical threat to Australia's vital interests.
Earlier this year, in the gap between the bushfires and COVID-19, I joined a climate change protest at Parliament House. Thousands of protesters formed a slow, dignified walk, with the lead group circumnavigating the sprawling building before the end of the group could even start. The building was cordoned off by a strong police presence. What a contrast to Parliament House in 2008, when the doors were opened and hundreds of Australians gathered with their political leaders to have a conversation about the nation's future.
I'll leave the final word to students, whose future will be determined by which pathway we choose now.
In a recent climate protest at Parliament House, two schoolgirls were holding handwritten placards. One summed up our challenge perfectly: "System change, not climate change."
The other, with classic Aussie humour, summed up why are not meeting this challenge: "I've seen smarter cabinets in IKEA."
- Will Steffen is an Emeritus Professor at ANU's Fenner School of Environment & Society and a councillor on the Australian Climate Council.