PROFESSOR Hugh Possingham's idea is simple - it is called endangered species lottery.
First, the government creams off $20 million from taxes on gambling revenues as a prize. The names of Australian endangered species are written on balls and put in a barrel. On Melbourne Cup day the environment minister draws a ball from the barrel live on television just before the big race.
Landholders who have populations of the winning species on their property are given a slice of the $20 million pie, with more money apportioned for larger populations.
Possingham, a world renowned ecologist and mathematician at the University of Queensland, says the lottery would encourage landowners to look after and even increase these populations of endangered species in the hope of winning money.
It is the most compelling idea Possingham can think of to engage the public with efforts to protect Australia's fast disappearing flora and fauna.
A majority of scientists say on the best available evidence the world is facing two environmental catastrophes. The first is global warming. The second is the rapid loss of biodiversity - the mass extinction of plant and animal species at up to 1000 times the natural rate. But over the last year the public appears to have lost interest in the message.
The 2010 Lowy Institute poll found just 53 per cent of people think climate change is important, crashing from 75 per cent in 2007. A January Essential Media poll found protecting the environment is ranked by just 4 per cent of people as the most important issue facing Australia, with 16 per cent ranking it as a top three issue.
Climate scientists are also looking for ways to engage the public. The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies held a private meeting this week drawing together representatives of organisations like the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO to discuss ways to better communicate climate science to the public. It is planning to draw up a climate science ''national communications charter'' for scientific bodies and universities.
After the government shelved its trading scheme until 2013 in April, the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, is also looking to rebuild a ''small p'' political consensus on climate change. The government has now committed $30 million for an advertising campaign to ''educate the community on climate change, including climate change science''.
Critics, like the executive director of the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, say the government has only itself to blame because it neglected simpler programs, like voluntary action from households to reduce their emissions, that better engages the public.
But Wong told the Herald a nascent community consensus still exists on action on climate change, despite the souring of the political mood. ''What Barack Obama said, much more eloquently than I have, is that you are asking people to do something today for their children's generation and that is the hard part of the debate,'' she says.
''In many ways there is a more sensible approach to climate change in the community than there is in Parliament, but I think we can strengthen that understanding within the community which is necessary for the kinds of decisions Australia will need to take in the next couple of years.''
Stuart Black, the managing director of advertising agency Ward6, agrees those with an environmental cause need to offer a personal connection with their message.
''Whether it is governments, businesses or lobby groups, the communication in support of environmental action needs to be much simpler than it has been in the last couple of years and needs to focus on the tangible consequences of the desired consumer response.''
In his recent book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan depicts Roosevelt as a political leader who was able to successfully sell an environmental populist cause. Roosevelt's environmental legacy is grand. He set aside more land - 93 million hectares - for national parks than all the other US presidents after him combined.
One hundred years later Possingham says the debates about protecting the environment have become utilitarian. Concepts like ecosystem functions, renewable energy credits and cap-and-trade emissions trading schemes are a cold shower for a confused public.
Like Roosevelt, Possingham says there is an imperative to leave the environment better than we found it for no reason that some of the billions of people yet to be born might like to see a hairy-nosed wombat or a Gouldian finch one day.
''If we lose that then there will be a large group of people who will lose something that makes them happy. That seems like a pretty simple message to sell.''