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Talking Climate and Health: Software CEO Michael Cannon-Brookes

“We need to start seeing the sun and the wind as resources we can export in lots of different ways.”


Mike Cannon-Brookes is co-founder and co-CEO of Australian software giant Atlassian, and in recent years, he’s put the fame that comes with being a young, social media-savvy tech entrepreneur to great use, advocating for a number of causes, from employment to education.

But he’s perhaps best known for betting big on renewable energy with another very famous tech CEO – leading to the installation of the world’s largest energy storage facility in New South Wales. (We won’t spoil it for you – learn all about Cannon-Brookes’ major wager for yourself in the first of two videos below.)

>> Talking Climate and Health: IPCC Report Lead Author Dr. Kristie Ebi <<

As part of our global broadcast event exploring the climate-health crisis, 24 Hours of Reality: Protect Our Planet, Protect Ourselves, we invited Cannon-Brookes to join former Vice President and Climate Reality Founder and Chairman Al Gore to discuss his big, green bet as well as how technological innovation can drive a clean energy economy – in his native Australia and beyond.

The interview has been condensed and edited for brevity below.

Al Gore: I loved watching that video (below), and how you and Elon Musk were going back and forth on Twitter. I wish more of the world worked that way, where two guys with a lot of moxie and technical chops just start challenging each other.

Michael Cannon-Brookes: Well, it took the politicians to come to the party. It took people power as well – a lot of people really made a big noise about it, and I was glad we could get it all to come together.

AG: Now, that was a great achievement and it's the biggest battery in the entire world. Double what the previous record was…

MCB: Three times.

AG: Yeah, three times. So this may sound a little technical, and I know part of the answer, but batteries are really solar power extenders and wind power extenders. You can use that when the sun's not shining [and] the wind’s not blowing, right?

MCB: Yeah. I mean, I would think about storage in general – be it pumped hydro, so putting water uphill into a dam or down, or a battery like lithium-ion like in your telephone – it lets you time-shift the energy. The sun is shining during the day, you can store some of that and then use that at nighttime when you come home and turn your lights on. So we'll end up with lots of different forms of storage around the grid. But this was a pretty big lighthouse project.

AG: And it's a project that fits into a larger vision that you have of Australia going 100 percent renewable energy and being an exporter of renewable energy, right? How’d you come up with this idea?

MCB: Australia is, per square meter, the sunniest country in the world – and we are spoiled for resources, if you count the sun, the wind, and the water as resources, which I think we should.

We have enough solar resources to power the world's electricity grids – all of them – five times over just in Australia alone. But we need to have a vision to be exporting that energy, more than just 100 percent for ourselves, which I think we should get to. It should be an export industry. We have a long, proud history as a resource exporter, and we need to start seeing the sun and the wind as resources we can export in lots of different ways.

>> Learn more: How Is Climate Change Affecting Australia? <<

AG: Now, I know you're not in politics, not formally. I don't hear you described as a politician. But you got fired up a little bit and in exchange with your current prime minister, something about “fair dinkum.” You know, we Americans hear these words like “gobsmacked” and “good on ya,” and “fair dinkum” means basically fair and just, right?

MCB: Yeah. Fair, just, honest, truthful. If you say he's “fair dinkum,” it means he's a good bloke. He's very honest and trustworthy.

AG: But your prime minister used that phrase in a way that seemed like he was talking about burning coal for electricity. That kind of got under your skin a little bit.

MCB: It did. It did. He used it in the sense with a quote that you need “fair dinkum” reliable power when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. And we have a huge problem with fossil fuels and the government in Australia, combining in various nefarious ways.

So what we set out to do is create a movement to reclaim the term “fair dinkum” to what most Australians would think is “fair dinkum,” which is clean energy. It’s cheap energy and it is an economic opportunity for the country. So we're trying to tell a really positive story about renewables – that we can build a huge industry in our country exporting renewables to the world and we should be leaning into that for job creation and for the economic growth.

AG: And you think it really can be done?

MCB: Absolutely. We have a number of lighthouse projects going on at the moment to either send it, for example, across an ultra-high voltage DC wire from the northwest of Australia to Indonesia. So we can capture the sun and send it across on a wire. We have other projects that are taking very cheap energy from sun and wind and separating water into hydrogen and oxygen. Or letting the oxygen go into the atmosphere, which is good, capturing the hydrogen, and then we can put that on a tanker and ship that in various forms. So there's a lot of ways we can use that energy to export it.

Watch the full interview:

AG: So how'd you end up with the prime minister? You best buddies now?

MCB: [Laughs] I don't think I'm on his Christmas card this year. [He’d] probably send me a lump of coal, so we'll see how that goes.

AG: Well, you’ve got some elections coming up next May or something like that?

MCB: March in New South Wales, which doesn't have a renewable energy target and should – it’s one of the last states to hold out. So we've got to get that done in March, and then in probably in May for the for the federal election.

AG: To see who's going to be prime minister next time?

MCB: That's right, and climate’s one of the big two issues for that and I hope to continue to keep it on the agenda and get some real change.

AG: What about the news media in Australia? How's that going? Like with the Great Barrier Reef, for example. It’s one of the greatest treasures of the entire world and it's under severe threat from the climate crisis. Is that covered in the news media?

MCB: Not enough, not enough. We have certain parts of the news media that are very one-sided when it comes to the debate, so we need to do everything we can to get the story out there about what's going on.

It's ironic that in Queensland, especially, you have such a massive natural resource, which is a source of tourism, a source of you know huge dollars for the state, and it’s being destroyed by climate change on a constant basis. And it is not reported on anywhere nearly enough.

AG: You do have some great news media outlets in Australia. I know that. But I know that some of the media has been kind of…

MCB: That's what I mean. You talked earlier about the 15,000 kids last Friday literally parading down the streets and trying to really retake that. That catalyzed, I think, just the anger of the next generation about how little is being done politically on this issue. We've been big supporters of them and they're not going to stop. They're going to keep going, so they're pretty determined.

AG: The rising generation is demanding a better world.

MCB: It is.

AG: You referred to Queensland. We had an interview earlier with one of the ministers from Queensland. You're from Sydney, though?

MCB: Yep.

AG: What a beautiful city.

MCB: It is a beautiful city.

AG: Well, in Queensland in June, we're going to have a Climate Reality Leadership Corps training for three days in Brisbane, and we're inviting people from the Pacific island nations to also come and attend, and I look forward to seeing you back in Australia. In closing, let me just say, I like your style. I love your passion. I really appreciate your commitment. I love the way you get things done. Thank you for joining us on 24 Hours.

MCB: Thank you for having me.