Philip Sutton (1951-2022)
The world has lost a groundbreaking climate thinker
Luke Taylor, director of the National Sustainable Living Festival, wrote:
“It is with an extremely heavy heart that we send this message to notify the SLF community that veteran sustainability and climate activist, Philip Sutton passed away earlier this week from a suspected heart attack.
Many of us are in total shock and are devastated by the sudden news.
With over 40 years of the deepest dedication to the environment and climate movement, Philip’s association and influential work reaches into so many groups and organisations, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria, The Greens, Sustainable Living Foundation, Beyond Zero Emission, Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, Save the Planet Party, Climate Emergency Darebin and international groups such as The Climate Mobilization USA.
Philip’s innovative work led to the development of the Nuclear Activities (Prohibitions) Act, Philip was the key architect of the groundbreaking Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act and key initiator of the climate ’emergency’ movement both locally and internationally. And much, much more.
For all those that knew Philip, it’s more than fair to say that he dedicated every waking hour to the cause. His work was driven by a deep care for “all people, all species and all generations” and pursued with a genius mind.
Plans are developing for a memorial and actions to honour his legacy and will provide an update asap.
Philip is survived by his two children, Daniel and Joey.”
~ Luke Taylor
. . .
Fiona Armstrong, Strategic Projects Director, Climate and Health Alliance, wrote:
“Philip and David Spratt’s book Climate Code Red was my wake up call on climate change. I had a copy of it on my bedside table for about 18 months, before I could summon up the courage to read it.
When I did, I called both Philip and David to confirm what I’d read. After talking to them, I cried for about three days, and then I got on with the job of doing something.
I joined Phil and others on the Climate Emergency Network committee, and among other things, and worked with Phil for about two years writing a Safe Climate Bill for Victoria (before Victoria had a Climate Change Act).
Phil was a tenacious visionary.
His untimely death really fucking sucks.
I would like to have told him what an influence he had been on me, and how courageous I thought he was in pushing a climate emergency message when no-one wanted to hear it, and how (in my mind) he invented the concept of the climate emergency and now thousands of jurisdictions have declared one, which wouldn’t have happened if someone hadn’t created the concept in their minds, or the practical action of a declaration.
I’d like to say how proud and grateful his boys will be for giving every last ounce of himself to try and secure a safe climate future for them, even if for Philip it was as much about biodiversity as it was about people.
He was about an influential as another person can be on my career, even though we disagreed on many things. We are all in his debt for his courage, and his commitment, and his tenacity, which was pretty epic.
~ Fiona Armstrong
. . .
Save the Planet wrote:
“Philip was a deep and brilliant thinker – the founder of climate emergency thinking. Implementing Philip’s plan is the ONLY way we save ourselves.
Tellingly, no major E-NGO has yet campaigned Philip’s thinking though they have adopted terminology – only once it became mainstreamed by grassroots campaigning.
Philip was also a co-founder of Save the Planet – the first political party calling for climate emergency mobilisation.
Philip leaves a gaping hole.”
~ Save the Planet
. . .
Senator Janet Rice wrote:
“Philip was absolutely one of a kind. He was an intellectual giant who was a huge influence on me and so many others.
I first worked with Philip in my first job in 1983 with Environment Victoria, ( then the Conservation Council of Victoria) We spent hours talking over chocolate mousse after CCV executive meetings about big picture blue sky strategies for how to create a better greener fairer world.
~ Janet Rice
. . .
In his 70+ years, he bought a rare combination of intellectual courage,, moral clarity, scientific rigour (ie His seminal co-authored book publications Seeds of Change (1978) & Climate Code Red were literally a decade ahead of the IPCC in their analysis), patient community consensus building and online community mobilisation that made him a must read public intellectual, for all scientists globally researching climate change science, mitigation and adaptation like myself.
He was recognised for this in Australia being named by The Age Newspaper as one of the most influential people on climate change in Victoria not long ago with his long time collaborator David Spratt.
He was so respected globally, that when The Natural Edge Project with toured Time Magazine ‘Hero of the Planet’ Hunter Lovins around Australia in 2004 and 2005, Philip Sutton was one of the locals Hunter Lovins insisted on having a long sit down meeting with. I remember when he published a key paper on sustainability strategy for organisations right away Paul Hawken was in touch with Phillip Sutton saying he loved it, and could he use Phillip’s framework?
His contributions are many and are outlined here. http://www.green-innovations.asn.au/ps-bio.htm.
I will write soon about how his work, advice & collaborative spirit influenced many projects I was lucky to be involved in. It is important to also acknowledge that, in his passing we also lose his remarkable knowledge on almost every aspect of sustainability, having been there since the start.
For instance he:
– Worked for Australia’s first Federal Environment Minister – Moss Cass’s Office – 1972-1975.
– Co-authored Seeds of Change (1978) book, with Alan Pears and others. The first comprehensive book on how to decarbonise the Australian economy.
– He got major legislation developed and past – including Vic Govt 1988 Flora and Fauna ACT. He also worked on the Victorian Government Energy Strategy (1982-3) and the Victorian State Conservation Strategy (1983-4). He worked for a year in 1991 in the Victorian Office of the Environment to develop strategies for achieving a successful green economy (ie the first time this work had been done systematically by any major Govt in Australia).
– His support, wisdom, collaborative spirit and encouragement enabled in recent times multiple think tanks (eg The Natural Edge Project, Beyond Zero Emissions & all the climate emergency related NGOs) and other initiatives to be catalysed over the last two decades.
– His work and collaboration with Adrian Whitehead empowered the first local Government in the world to adopt a climate change emergency declaration. And his ongoing collaboration with Adrian and his partner Bryony has helped grow that global network of local governments who have declared a climate emergency. Coupled with Greta’s call for this, now over 800 million people live in jurisdictions globally that have declared a climate emergency. Philip was literally the first intellectual to argue for the need to get governments to declare a climate emergency almost a decade before Greta took up that baton, having being the first intellectual to argue for a drawdown approach to achieve a safe climate under 350 ppm CO2, intellectually influencing the subsequent formation of groups like 350.org. (NB I wish Greta had got to meet Philip – they have so much in common.)
– The fact he made almost all his publications freely open source and founded, built and managed the influential greenleap email network ensured his work was widely used by decision makers.
– He also served and helped multiple organisations including the Sustainable Living Foundation that is now an institution in Melbourne.
I will post again soon to acknowledge just how much Philip Sutton and his two other flatmates from the 1970s, Alan Pears and Karen Alexander have helped me over the years – and let everyone know when the public memorial funeral will be. Philip has made a unique contribution, and it is important for Kathy and his boys, to know just how grateful so many of us are for Philip’s contribution, caring nature and generosity in sharing his wisdom with us.
Vale Philiip – you will be missed alot.
~ Michael Smith
. . .
~ David Anthony Hood
. . .
“In Geelong Environment Council we fondly remember Philip Sutton for his work and vision in having the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act established. Many threatened species have been saved as a result. He has left a fantastic example and a legacy of environmental and climate commitment and actions for the future of life on earth.”
~ Joan Lindros, Geelong Environment Council
. . .
“Vale Phillip – such a courageous inspirational climate activist, such gratitude for all you have done to bring the climate emergency to the public reality.”
~ Annie Nolan
. . .
“I was shocked to open my email and read of Philip Sutton’s death last night (I am on holiday).
Climate strategist, visionary and pioneer
The book ‘Climate Code Red, a case for emergency action’ which Philip Sutton co-wrote together with David Spratt in 2008, represented a turning point in many people’s thinking about the climate emergency.
Philip co-founded the Climate Emergency Declaration movement in 2016, which was first launched as a federal petition in Australia. He played a key role in transforming the campaign into one which was instead focused on Councils’ declarations, and also helped spreading the idea to the United States.
Philip’s work ranges across science and technology-based policy, law, industry policy, economics and social change strategy.
Philip Sutton was the architect of the Flora and Fauna Guarantee legislation passed in 1988, which became the model for the revision of wildlife legislation around Australia.
Philip has been involved in Victorian Government strategy development in the areas of energy, environmental conservation, and the wood products industry.
In 2011, Philip founded RSTI (Research and Strategy for Transition Initiation) to work on the emergency speed transition to a safe climate and sustainability-promoting economy.
In 2015, Philip published ‘Striking Targets: matching climate goals with climate reality’, a strategy paper in the Breakthrough series, that maps a new approach to climate action in the post-Paris (COP 21) era.
Philip Sutton died at the age of 71.
An excerpt of Philip Sutton’s articles and speeches
→ Climatesafety.info – 18 May 2016:
What we can do with the reefs’ death spiral? Start with the ethics!
Philip Sutton: “The state of the reefs presents the climate action movement with a some very difficult issues that I think we will need to face up to urgently.”
→ Climatesafety.info – 30 May 2016:
Our approach to climate and reef campaigning is a dead parrot
Philip Sutton: “Our shared reef campaign – sorting out what needs to be done to be effective.”
→ Climate Emergency Declaration – 20 July 2016:
Philip Sutton: What a Climate Emergency Act could look like
“A model Act to provide for the declaration of a climate emergency, the restructuring of the Australian economy, the mobilisation of resources, and for related purposes.”
→ Climate Emergency Declaration – 11 December 2016:
Philip Sutton: What can we learn from history about the declaration of an emergency
From a climate emergency campaigning workshop on 11 September 2016
→ Climatesafety.info – 11 October 2016:
No more bad investments
Philip Sutton calls for a campaign to end all further climate damaging investments.
→ February 2017: At the seminar ‘How councils can reverse global warming’ Philip Sutton talks about why local governments are critical in accelerating a climate emergency response at federal and state levels.
→ November 2018: Philip Sutton’s presentation at the Climate Emergency Conference in Darebin. In this presentation Philip Sutton explores what it will take to deliver maximum protection of the climate vulnerable and the restoration of a safe climate. He sketches an action framework to cool the planet fast, via zero emissions and carbon dioxide drawdown, through emergency mode action by government, businesses and the community, and building on key historical case studies of large-scale, rapid restructuring of economies.
→ Climate Conversations podcast – 28 November 2021:
Interview: Philip Sutton – a passionate man pushing for a ‘Climate Rescue’
Philip’s last letter to the VCAN mailinglist
From: Philip Sutton
Date: Sat, 4 June 2022 at 00:53
Subject: [VCAN Discussion] With massive national Liberal Party loss, after 9 wasted years maybe it’s time to reassess where we set our climate goal posts
With the formation of a new Australian government, the country is at last moving on on climate. Now we can start to make up for the 9 lost years at the national level. Fortunately within those 9 years the economics of renewable energy has transformed fundamentally – to become cheaper than fossil fuel energy.
But how should we best make up for the lost time? Should we just to pick up from where we were 9 years ago and stride on as if nothing else had changed in the meantime?
We often say “we know what to do, we have all the needed solutions, we just need to get on with it, get on with reducing emissions”.
This would have been close to being true in say 1970, two decades before the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was activated, but now, 3 decades after the UNFCCC came into operation, this is not true if we want to successfully protect the climate vulnerable.
Because excess greenhouse gas emissions have been going on for so long at such a large scale, these excess emissions have created a series of additional problems that now have to be dealt with in their own right if we are to protect the climate vulnerable:
• the level of green house gases in the air is way too high
• the global temperature is way too high (even at the current level of +1.2°C)
• the heat content of the oceans is too high
• the acidification of the oceans is too high
• the loss of ice from the ice sheets and the Arctic Ocean is too high
• the melting of the permafrost is too high.
After we create a zero emissions economy these additional problems will be unwound by natural processes – but only over thousands of years. In the meantime the impact on the climate vulnerable will be devastating. With action made up of only emissions elimination, the global temperature will keep rising for the next 20 years passing through +1.5°C in about 2030.
The poor do not have enough money to protect themselves by adaptation. The rich will spend more on adaptation for themselves as climate impacts increase but they are unlikely to devote enough money to protect the poor around the world and adaptation cannot provide adequate protection to non-human living things in almost any part of the world.
If we want to protect the climate vulnerable we will have to do more than:
• put a zero emissions economy in place, and
• adapt to the impacts of climate.
We will need to take immediate action on the six additional problems listed above, at sufficient scale and speed.
But the bulk of the climate movement around the world is not developing or advocating for strategies to protect the climate vulnerable from the additional 6 problems identified above.
If we do care about delivering timely and adequate protection for the climate vulnerable then maybe it’s time to reset our goals?
How can this happen? The first step is clearly to begin a discussion about what the protection needs of the climate vulnerable are and therefore what our action goals should be given where earth system conditions have got to by 2022 and where conditions will go, by when, under effective and ineffective action scenarios.
Would you or your group be interested in engaging in such an action-focussed discussion?
Philip Sutton (Climate Rescue, RSTI)
In November 2021, Philip Sutton gave an introduction to a new campaign he was developing – Climate Rescue.
The campaign was designed to:
“(a) build on the climate emergency declaration campaign that has resulted in about 2000 governments globally recognising the climate emergency threat,
(b) anchor on doing what’s needed to protect the climate vulnerable locally and globally – given how catastrophic climate impacts are already,
(c) respond to the climate science assessments by Breakthrough ( eg www.climaterealitycheck.net and see the new 3 minute video summary))”
Philip Sutton wrote in an email to the Victorian Climate Action Network:
“The climate declaration campaign has been wildly successful in some ways, going viral globally, and creating a widespread recognition that the climate problem has reached emergency proportions and creating a mandate for governments to boost their climate actions.
But, to my knowledge, none of the 2000 climate emergency declarations by government resulted in that government going into full-on emergency action mode. And most declarations linked action to the Paris +1.5°C goal which is hotter than we are now and won’t protect the climate vulnerable.
Climate Rescue has three sub-campaigns;
Protect the Climate Vulnerable – this is a culture change campaign to reorientate climate action around identifying the climate vulnerable (people, other living things), finding out what climate conditions they need by when to be protected and then what needs to be done to deliver that protection in time.
Fast Climate Cooling – this is a campaign based on learning from effective covid19 action. The health professionals knew that we needed effective vaccines and therapies with extreme urgency – but they also knew that only safe and effective candidate solutions should be allowed to be used. so the system simultaneously encouraged the rapid development of potential solutions and the regulatory system was maintained to weed out poor quality candidate solutions. We need system like this for fast cooling methods.
Delivering Climate Rescue – this is a campaign to get governments and communities to go into climate emergency mode to deliver what needs to be done to protect the climate vulnerable. We need to find a government somewhere in the world that is able to get into climate emergency mode to show it can be done. With 2000 governments having done a climate emergency declaration that should give us some candidate governments to work with.
The first step will be to identify the action programs that a government needs to include in an effective climate emergency response package to deliver maximum protection. Some parts of the package are reasonably familiar (eg. working to achieve zero emissions within a decade (but many elements are not at all familiar – eg. full scale CO2 draw down, tackling fast climate cooling, mobilising local communities to maximise their global contribution to climate action, campaigning to get the next level up government to go into climate emergency mode, managing the full climate emergency action package).
It might be possible to find governments to take on one or more of these program elements on an experimental basis.
Once we have experience somewhere/anywhere in the world with each of the necessary program elements it should be less difficult to get the first government to take on a full package. And once one government has gone into full climate emergency mode it should be easier to get others to follow suit.
The idea is to start the campaign in Victoria – because we can – and then go national and global at… …emergency speed.
The campaign has been give a welcome boost from a start up grant from the Climate Emergency Fund.
And the Climate Rescue campaign has started to reach out to other climate groups to form collaborations.
I’ve attached the current version of the Climate Rescue Planning and Strategy doc – or you can download it from google drive here.
I’m keen to have a chat with anyone who is curious about the campaign (via phone, zoom, skype, or two tins and some string).
Philip Sutton’s Climate Emergency legacy
→ Vote Planet – 7 February 2022:
Lest we forget Philip Sutton’s Climate Emergency legacy
“Philip Sutton died unexpectedly on 12 July 2022. Philip was a co-founder of Save the Planet (now a branch of Fusion party) and the author of much of Save the Planet’s climate policy. This newsletter is dedicated to Philip and fundamental climate emergency work.”
By Adrian Whitehead and Bryony Edwards – capturing the fundamentals of Philip’s thinking, what did and didn’t get traction.
Media coverage after Philip Sutton’s death
→ Climate Conversations via Apple Podcasts – 19 June 2026:
Vale Phillip Sutton: I’ll miss the comforting voice and the world will miss his sweeping knowledge
“Phillip Sutton was one of Australia’s busiest climate activists, but sadly he died in mid-June, robbing Australia, and the World, of one of its clearest and most far-reaching thinkers.”
→ The Guardian – 21 June 2022:
Philip Sutton, inspiring Australian activist who sounded climate emergency alarm
“Obituary: Sutton’s 2008 book Climate Code Red was a prescient warning of the need for more urgent and immediate action on global heating.”
→ RenewEconomy – 21 June 2022:
Vale Philip Sutton: Big picture strategist, courageous thinker, climate activist
“The term “climate emergency” has become ubiquitous. The catch-cry has captured the imaginations of both policymakers and the public, but its origins began with a 2008 book by committed environmentalist and climate pioneer Philip Sutton, who passed away last week aged 71.”
→ The Sustainable Hour – 22 June 2022:
Podcast no. 417: Costs we don’t cover and the prices we pay
“Philip devoted his life to creating a better world by taking greater care of our environment. We are going to miss his visionary, big-picture thinking and willingness to tackle “taboo” subjects to get where we need to be. We will miss you Philip. Now it’s up to us all to see that your climate dreams are realised.”