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Fictional Depictions of Climate Change
Danielle Clode, Flinders University, Australia
Monika Stasiak, Flinders University, Australia
Abstract: Critical commentary of climate change fiction is often framed around its aesthetic function (is it good
literature?) and/or its didactic function (does it change behaviour or attitudes?). We argue that an alternative approach
instead might ask what fiction can tell us about the psychology of public knowledge, fear and imagination about a
climate-changed future. In a review of the fictional literature we found that as climate change has moved from a
primarily scientific concern to being a broader political and cultural issue, fictional representations have also moved
from science fiction out into a broader array of fictional sub-genres. In addition to loosely reflecting contemporary
science, fictional accounts are increasingly characterised by a sense of hopelessness and a lack of faith in authorities.
These fictional trends suggest that while readers and writers are willing to explore and appraise the risk and severity of
climate change, there is little evidence of the coping appraisal which is, psychologically, a necessary step in taking action
to reduce risk.
Keywords: Climate Change Fiction, Novels, Ecocatastrophe, Dystopia, Protection Motivation Theory, Cli-Fi
Fiction as an agent of change
he greatest challenge facing climate change science today is not understanding the causes
and consequences of climate change, nor even knowing how to moderate those causes and
mitigate the consequences. The greatest challenge is one of communication (Spoel et al.
2009): convincing the general public, and their political representatives, of the urgency of action
and the need to change our behaviour now in order to mitigate the enormous risks facing us in
But changing behaviour in response to future risk is incredibly difficult. Governments spend
millions of dollars annually, with limited success, trying to persuade people to wear condoms,
lose weight and quit smoking in order to avoid a premature and painful death. Convincing people
to make short-term sacrifices for a future risk, which may occur over generations and the details
of which we cannot even define, is even more difficult, especially given the great variation,
regionally, individually and predictively, of possible outcomes.
According to protection motivation theory (Floyd et al. 2000), people assess risk on the basis
of the probability of an event occurring and the likely severity of the outcome through a process
of ‘threat appraisal’. They then engage in ‘coping appraisal’ by considering the effectiveness of
possible coping strategies, before they can be considered psychologically prepared to undertake
behaviours that might protect them from future risk (see Figure 1).
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Figure 1: A model of protection motivation theory
Appreciating the possible, even probable, severity of climate change requires a form of
communication that connects with people intellectually, emotionally and imaginatively (De Witt
2006). This is not a task for which scientists are traditionally well-equipped. Engaging with the
emotional possibilities of alternative realities is more typically the task of the novelist and the
fiction writer (Miller and Bennett 2008; Grenville 2009). Indeed, den Heyer and Fidyk (2007)
argue that we create stories in order to come to terms with the unbearable, unspeakable and
unimaginable. Fiction almost uniquely offers the opportunity for readers to immerse themselves
in a hypothetical simulation of a possible future, whilst simultaneously engaging them in the
mutual creation of that future scenario with the writer through the act of reading (Middleton
Behaviour change is not necessarily foremost in the minds of most writers when they
construct their texts. Nathaniel Rich, author of Odds against Tomorrow (2013) argued that ‘I
don’t think that the novelist has the responsibility to write about global warming… but I do feel
novelists should write about what these things do to the human heart’ (quoted in Evancie 2013).
In some forms, fiction may be singularly unsuited to the task. For example, Australian novelist
James Bradley considers that the interior, character-driven narratives of social realist fiction are
‘hopelessly inadequate’ for dealing with climate change (Bradley 2010), despite the expectations
Nor is it well-established that artistic pursuits are effective in consciousness-raising or
motivating public action. Ian McEwan’s protagonist in Solar puzzles over the belief ‘that it was
art in its highest forms…that would lift climate change as a subject, gild it, palpate it, reveal all
the horror and lost beauty and awesome threat and inspire the public to take thought, take action,
or demand it of others’ (McEwan 2010, 78).1 Climate change is certainly a major theme for a
wide range of contemporary art practices (Giannachi 2012; Yusoff and Gabrys 2011) but few
studies investigate the impact these practices have on public attitudes or behaviour (Mulkern
2011). Lowe (2006) somewhat dispiritedly reports that although watching a climate change film
raises concerns in viewers, it did not appear to result in changed behaviour. Protection
motivation theory would suggest that while threat appraisal is being undertaken (what is the risk
1 Fictional texts (indicated by author, title and date of first publication) are only referenced where cited as a secondary,
rather than primary, resource.
CLODE AND STASIAK: FICTIONAL DEPICTIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
and severity?), there is a need to better support coping appraisal strategies (what can be
done/what can I do?).
Despite the fact that novels rarely seem to be written with the explicit intention of changing
behaviour, climate change novels are often judged on the basis of their message, very often to
their detriment (Dobson 2010; MacFarlane 2005; Kramb 2012). When they deliver the climate
change message in detail they are often criticised for being too polemic, of lacking a story and
for being poorly written. When they focus on story to the detriment of the climate change
message, they are criticised for lacking specificity or accuracy. The tensions between the
aesthetic requirements of the novel as art and the didactic requirements of the climate change
theme (Goodbody 2013) are all too apparent in these commentaries.
Scholars have sought to approach the role of climate change fiction through a diversity of
methodologies, including ecocriticism (e.g. Potter 2009; Gabriel and Garrard 2012) and post-
colonial theory (e.g. Maxwell 2009; Chakrabarty 2012). In this paper we seek to broaden the
cognitive and psychological approach implied by the usual question about how fiction might
galvanise public action and change public behaviour. Given that fiction reflects, as much as it
activates, community opinion we instead ask what a historical overview of the fictional literature
can tell us about public perceptions of climate change over time. What does fiction reveal about
our hopes and fears for the future?
Pre- and early-scientific views on climate change
Dobson (2010) argues that ‘true’ climate change fiction only appears in the 1960s, once global
warming became a social phenomenon, rather than a scientific issue. Certainly climate change
fiction diversifies and expands dramatically from the 1960s, but it also has a long and variable
literary lineage across a wide range of genres (Trexler and Johns-Putra 2011). To ignore earlier
environmental change literature is to miss a crucial and influential phase on our changing
relationship with climate change, one which may shed insights into our current and future
Climate change fiction can be seen as a continuation of stories addressing human response to
unpredictable environmental change (Trexler and Johns-Putra 2011). Many mythologies feature
cyclic destruction in which the world undergoes a series of cataclysmic events, such as fire,
flood, or storm, followed by rebirth. The powerful sway of these ancient mythologies of
punishment and redemption, apocalypse and end-of-days, remains an important factor in our
imaginative and emotional responses to climate change literature today (Mouhot 2012). Such
stories often seem to provide religious or mythic explanations for environmental upheaval (Willis
2000, 26-7), particularly great floods (e.g. the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis), earthquakes (e.g.
the Native American Thunderbirds) volcanic eruptions (e.g. Pele from Hawaii) and storms (e.g.
Indo-European and South American storm gods). Many of these mythologies are likely to have
stemmed from inherited cultural memories of relatively recent catastrophes, such as floods in the
Sumer Valley or the St Helena volcanic eruptions. Others may reflect experiences of longer term
environmental change (such as rises in sea levels). Australian Aboriginal mythology, for
example, frequently addresses known geological and climatic environmental changes from the
late Pleistocene onward (Dixon 1996).
In eighteenth century Europe, intense debates around short-term climate change and regional
variation in climate focused on perceptions that the European climate had warmed since Roman
times, that colonial (and particularly American) climates had a detrimental impact on plant and
animal health, and that such climates might be improved by agriculture and cultivation (see
Fleming 1998 for further details). Such debates might be characterised as focusing on small-
scale, short-term climate ‘improvement’ rather the more modern conception of global-scale,
long-term climate change. Nonetheless, these early scientific debates did permeate into the
broader literature of the times, particularly in the Romantic period, with climate change (or
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improvement) generally being used as a metaphor for social progression and human
advancement in a utopian setting (Gidal 2008; Carroll 2013).
Early climate change developments (1800-1930)
Scientific recognition of long-term and global changes in the Earth’s climate consolidated in the
early 1800s with geological evidence of past glaciation, or ice ages (Agassiz 1840). Climate
change, as a concept, was relatively rapidly accepted, but the causes of that climatic change took
longer to establish. Early theories included changes in volcanic activity, ocean and wind currents
or solar radiation, with important milestones including Fourier’s (1824) pioneering research into
atmospheric influences on global warmth, Tyndall’s (1862) work on radiation absorption by
atmospheric gases and Croll’s (1875) less widely known proposals on the impact of oscillations
in the Earth’s axis on global climate. Over the same time, evidence of human impacts on the
atmosphere was beginning to accumulate, particularly through the role of CO2 from industrial
pollution in global warming, consolidated by Arrhenius (1896). Human-induced ecological
influences on climate continued to be widely debated, particularly the impact of deforestation
and agriculture on regional climates (Fleming 1998).
The first fictional representations of global and long term climate change only appeared by
the turn of the century and clearly reflected the contemporary scientific debates and issues. The
potential role of solar variation in climate change is illustrated in Gabriel De Tarde's
Underground Man (1896). Tarde describes a society responding to a cyclical weakening of the
sun’s warmth and being forced to the Sahara and Middle East, before retreating underground.
Theories of geological instability impacting on climate are reflected in S. Fowler Wright's
Deluge: A Romance (1927). The role of oscillations in the earth’s axis lead William Wallace
Cook to propose a massive industrial solution to climatic instability by straightening the Earth’s
axis in the series Tales of Twenty Hundred (1911-1912). These earlier fictional representations
of climate change are not necessarily scientifically accurate, nor entirely plausible, but
nonetheless clearly emerge from and expand upon contemporary scientific debates.
Far from being the saviour in all fictional scenarios however, technology was often a source
of anxiety. The construction of the Panama Canal prompted fears that changing ocean currents
would result in irreversible climate change, as depicted in Henry Crocker Marriot-Watson's The
Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1890) and Louis Pope Gratacap's The Evacuation of
England: The Twist in the Gulf Stream (1908).
But it may have been nature, rather than science, that provided the real impetus for climate
change fiction in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 19th century was characterised by a
series of dramatic close encounters with comets, beginning with the ‘beautiful comet’ of 1811,
followed by Donati’s comet of 1851 and then the dramatic events of Earth plunging through a
comet’s tail in 1861, dimming the sun and flinging cometary material across the skies. The
potential for such singular events to disrupt earth’s climate was illustrated all too well by a series
of volcanic eruptions in Indonesia in 1815. By 1816, ‘the year without a summer’ (made famous
by Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein and Byron’s 1816 poem Darkness), with darkened skies
and reduced average temperatures, caused widespread crop failures, food riots and famine in the
Northern Hemisphere. Similarly, the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, ejected millions of tonnes of
debris into the atmosphere, creating dramatic sunsets worldwide and dropping the earth’s average
temperature by 1.2 degrees and creating chaotic weather patterns for several years.
The role of such extraterrestrial and atmospheric influences on the Earth’s climate is
illustrated by Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885) in which a ‘dark planet’ disrupts the Earth’s
climate sending society back into the dark ages. Bruno Hans Bürgel's (1921) serialisation ‘The
Cosmic Cloud’ describes the impact of cosmic dust on the Earth’s atmosphere. Most influential,
though, was French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion’s Omega: The Last Days of the
World (1893-4) in which life on Earth is gradually extinguished by an ‘eternal winter’ brought on
CLODE AND STASIAK: FICTIONAL DEPICTIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
by a comet strike. Flammarion’s authority as an astronomer, and his effectiveness as a
communicator through his science writing and science fiction, gave him great public influence.
His declaration that cyanogen gas from the tail of Halley’s comet could wipe out life on Earth
(Anon, 1910) caused considerable concern. The rise of these dystopian visions for the future
marks the beginning of fears characteristic of the twentieth century: uncontrolled technological
and scientific development, as well as political corruption and manipulation (Frankova 2013).
Dystopias displaced earlier utopian visions in which scientific and technological advances
resolved intransigent political and social problems.
A mid twentieth century hiatus?
Disparities between geological and atmospheric evidence of climate change dominated scientific
research in the early 20th century. Orbital changes were identified as a cause of ice ages by
Milankovitch in the 1930s, while Callendar raised concerns over the role of CO2 emissions in
greenhouse warming as early as 1938. Despite the continuing slow accumulation of evidence
about climate change, public awareness of the issue appears to decline from 1930 until 1960.
World War II and the Cold War certainly influenced the direction of scientific research in this
period, but the lack of climate-related fiction may reflect more pressing anxieties about the
Global nuclear destruction certainly dominates eco-catastrophic literature of this period. It
might be argued that the inherent drama of nuclear explosions is the reason why this fiction was
so dominant, compared with the slow inevitability of climate change. This seems unlikely,
however, given that some of the most powerful post-apocalyptic fiction written (such as Neville
Shute’s On the Beach or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) focusses, not on the drama of the event
itself, but the slow deterioration of the aftermath. A more probable explanation for the
dominance of nuclear fiction over climate change fiction in this period is that fiction reflects the
fears that beset society at the time.
Modern climate change developments (1960-present)
It was not until the late 1960s that refined analysis allowed the occurrences of geologically
identified ice ages to be correlated with smaller orbital shifts of the Milankovitch cycles.
Increased computer power enabled models of the greenhouse effect to take into account some
complexities of feedback loops in the system. By the late 1950s the importance, and dangers, of
increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as modelled in the Keeling curve was
increasingly being recognised, although it was unclear the extent to which warming would be
countered by the cooling effects of other environmental pollutants, or the onset of a new ice age.
By the late 1960s the first studies appeared that suggested the potential collapse of the Antarctic
ice sheets, which would cause catastrophic sea level rises. Concerns over environmental
degradation and the risks of pollution and overpopulation rose. Popular non-fiction publications
like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Paul Erhlich’s The Population Bomb (1968)
evidenced a growing environmental activism.
By the 1960s, climate change fiction re-emerges and reflects concerns about global warming
and sea level rises. The general concept of an atmospheric ‘greenhouse’ is clearly evident in
Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962), although this greenhouse effect is not caused by atmospheric
gases, but by an alteration to the earth’s rotation. J. G. Ballard’s work reveals closer links with
the scientific developments of the time. The Drowned World (1962) references solar radiation
melting the polar icecaps and increasing global temperatures. Similarly, The Burning World
(1964, later expanded and republished as The Drought), explores the consequences of water
shortages brought on by contamination of the earth’s oceans by saturated long-chain polymers
that disrupt evaporation and the water cycle. As noted earlier, while fictional representations of
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climate change are not always scientifically accurate, they do seem to reflect the dominant
themes of the scientific literature.
Scientific consensus over global warming began to consolidate in the late 1970s. Most
importantly for this period was the discovery of the role of chlorofluorocarbons on ozone
depletions, as well as global warming (e.g. Lovelock et al. 1973). By the late 1980s, human
emissions were clearly identified as the leading cause of both current and projected global
warming and lead to the establishment of the International Panel on Climate Change in 1988.
This period in history is characterised by increasing scientific consensus over the probability and
dangers of global warming. It was also the period of increasing politicisation of environmental
debates, a backlash against the environmental movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and the start
of efforts to position individual responses to climate change against political and social pressures.
The consequences of rising sea levels and unpredictable weather are the dominant symptoms
of climate change in several early novels from this period, particularly The Road to Corlay by
Richard Cowper (1978) and The Sea and Summer (aka The Drowning Towers) by George Turner
(1987). Both texts use climate change to explore distant dystopian futures. Regional variations in
climate change predictions produce a range of scenarios being explored in the fiction of this
period. For example, Mary Rosenblum’s The Drylands (1993) explores the effects of drought
and water shortages in the US and Mexico, while Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather (1996)
describes the dramatic consequences of tornado activity across Texas.
By the 1990s we see dramatic diversification among fictional responses to climate change.
The literature of the period reflects the increasing complexity of both climate change science
itself, and the active social and political debates around climate change. Climate change is no
longer a mere catalyst for social and political change as seen in earlier utopian and science fiction
works. As the climate change debate has expanded from a restricted scientific and environmental
focus to a broader social and political dimension, climate change fiction has also expanded from
science fiction to a broader range of literary forms (Trexler and Johns-Putra 2011). Climate
change is no longer an exclusively scientific issue and is therefore no longer the exclusive
domain of the science fiction genre. Nonetheless the sub-genre of speculative fiction, often
regarded as somewhat broader in scope that science fiction, continues to provide a strong
representation of climate change scenarios, such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003)
and The Year of the Flood (2009) as well as Paolo Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and other stories
(2008) and The Windup Girl (2009).
As a political and social issue, climate change is now reflected in diverse sub-genres of
fiction and used in a broad array of plot devices, such as settings and catalysts for action, as well
as being explicitly addressed as a dominant theme. The scene shifts from a future new world (or
the novum characteristic of science fiction, Suvin 2010) to the current existing world. The
expansion from science fiction to literary realist fiction has shifted the focus of climate change
literature from the external factors of ‘causes and consequences’ to the ways in which individuals
and society engage with and respond to climate change.
We see climate change novels in thrillers such as Arctic Drift by Clive Cussler and Dirk
Cussler (2008), Greenwar by Steven Gould and Laura J. Mixon (1997) and Greenhouse Summer
by Norman Spinrad (1999), which explicitly engage with the complex interactions between
corporate, political and environmental interest groups. Climate change is a highly successful
theme in young adult literature as evidenced by The Carbon Diaries series by Saci Lloyd, The
Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman (2008) and Julie Betagna’s Exodus trilogy, perhaps
reflecting a heightened pedagogical intent aimed at this demographic, or heightened concern for
the future emanating from within it.
The sub-genre to attract the most critical attention has been modernist, realist literature, with
early examples from Maggie Gee (Light Years 1985; Where are the Snows 1990; The Flood
2005) and more recent examples from Helen Simpson In Flight Entertainment (2010), Barbara
Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012) and Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010). Here we see the
CLODE AND STASIAK: FICTIONAL DEPICTIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
concerns of the individual, in the here and now, to the possibility of a climate changed future. In
this sense, the concerns of climate change have moved from a scientific focus on the impact of
humans as a globalised species, to a humanistic and literary interest in the individual
(Chakrabarty 2012), although this is not a shift that always satisfies scientists (e.g. Dobson
In contrast to the earlier period of science fiction writing, utopian futures are rarely depicted
in this period, with most distant futures represented as dystopian and suffering from a complex
array of environmental ills. Rising sea levels and increased storm activity feature in David
Brin’s dystopian future, Earth (1990), along with eco-terrorism, overpopulation and species
extinction. Similarly, Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden (1989), features a Europe made tropical
by global warming, but also rife with other emerging social risks, including genetic engineering,
viruses and artificially created black holes. This general trend towards negativity about the future
is pervasive, despite the occasional ‘ecotopian’ narratives (for example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s
edited anthology Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias (1994).
Very commonly, climate change fiction retreats to a trope common to both fantasy and
utopian science fiction: the idealised agrarian past as illustrated by James Howard Kuntsler’s
World Made by Hand (2008) and Clara Hume’s Back to the Garden (2012). This idealised past
frequently comes complete with social inequity: climate change seems to inevitably cause a
regression in women’s rights. In both Jim Laughter's Polar City Red (2012) and Piers Anthony’s
highly popular Climate of Change (2010) such cultural ‘regression’ is also characterised by
dubious sexual politics.
A sense of inevitability and hopelessness pervades much of the modern literature on climate
change, irrespective of sub-genre. Rarely is climate change depicted as being solved by human
agency. For many, the damage of climate change can only be overcome with the assistance of
either supernatural or extraterrestrial powers (The Ragged World trilogy by Judith Moffett 1991-
2008, River of Gods by Ian McDonald 2004, and The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse by
Dale Pendell 2010).
Far from being agents of resolution and improvement, scientists are frequently depicted as
untrustworthy or even responsible for the crisis. Pre-1960s climate change fiction does feature
untrustworthy authority figures, most often individual industrialists, entrepreneurs, or politicians,
although the mad scientist does appear in Murray Leinster's ‘A Thousand Degrees Below Zero’
(1919) and the Preston-Hines series of stories (1929-30) (Bleiler, p435-6). Distrust of science
and scientists is expressed in both Fallen Angels (Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Michael
Flynn, 1991) and Far North (2009) by Marcel Theroux in which efforts to stop global warning
cause an ice age instead. The distrust of the individual scientists or industrialists has expanded in
recent fiction to explore a sense of betrayal by entire networks of authority figures, if not as “bad
guys” then as “fall guys” in tragi-comic renditions of ineptitude and ignorance (Glass House
1989 by Michael F Smith and Greensworld 2009 by Donald J. Bingle).
It seems that environmentalists are even less trustworthy than the scientists; they are
frequently depicted as extremist and violent loonies. In Michael Crichton’s thriller State of Fear
(2004) environmentalists manufacture disasters in order to persuade people of the impending
dangers of climate change. Eco-terrorists also play the bad guys in the thriller Primitive by Mark
Nykanen (2009). Similarly, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake apportions equal responsibility
for the world’s perilous environmental state to the scientists who dabble in the unnatural and the
activists who set these creations free. The risks of politicisation of the climate change debate
apparent in Crichton’s book are also less extremely, although perhaps more accurately, explored
in Kim Stanley Robinson’s collections Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005),
and Sixty Days and Counting (2007) as well as the political thriller Ultimatum by Matthew Glass
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Implications for the future
Climate change fiction has moved from a major focus on natural, or uncontrollable, climate
change with either apocalyptic or utopian consequences towards an increasing recognition of
human responsibility for environmental damage and, most recently, a growing concern over our
inability to correct the potentially catastrophic problems we face (Trexler 2013). In other words,
fictional literature mirrors the scientific and social developments of climate change science and
Our original framework of protection motivation theory suggests that our fictional
representations of climate change have well and truly established the threat – both in terms of
risk and severity. Fictional models of climate change, while not necessarily scientifically
accurate or plausible, provide a broad range of approaches to imagining a climate changed world.
They serve their function as warnings, rather than as prophecies (Kadonaga 2000). The vast
majority of these representations suggest that the outcome is negative.
There is little evidence in the fictional literature, however, for a sense that climate change
can be ameliorated or prevented. Neither science nor government are presented as having the
capacity to solve the problem, indeed they are more likely to have contributed to or caused the
problem. Lack of trust is regarded as a major impediment to the uptake of protective behaviours
in other environmental disaster scenarios (such as flood, volcano or bushfire), signaling a major
concern for climate change scientists and policy makers. In the framework of protection
motivation theory, the fictional literature is deficient in the representation of coping appraisal –
what can be done and how can I do it?
Fiction has imagined the risk we face, but the challenge remains—for scientists, policy
makers and fiction writers alike—to imagine, conceptualise and articulate the solutions.
CLODE AND STASIAK: FICTIONAL DEPICTIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr Danielle Clode: Danielle is a zoologist and science writer who lectures in professional and
creative writing. Her research focuses on the role of fiction and popular non-fiction in the life
sciences. She is the author of several non-fiction books, including, A Future in Flames, which
grew out of her research into community engagement for disaster preparedness and Prehistoric
Giants, a guide to the megafauna of Australia. She is currently researching French scientific
maritime expeditions to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Monika Stasiak: Monika is completing a Ph.D. in creative writing with a focus on contemporary
Australian climate change literature. As senior policy advisor for the South Australian
Government, she managed significant legislative development and amendment projects including
waste management strategies, regulations, research, and environment protection policies.