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Interview with Tim Flannery

The Australian scientist and leading writer on climate change talks about his new book, 'Atmosphere of Hope,' and the 2015 United Nations climate talks

By Mardi Tindal

Q You take a long time to get to hope in your new book Atmosphere of Hope. Eventually you say we have the tools we need to limit global warming to 2°C. What will prompt us to use these tools in time?

A It took so long to write that book because hope was slow in coming. But over the last decade, we’ve seen a growing, broad-based recognition that we face a severe problem. People now know climate change from lived experience, and we’ve got leaders who are taking strong action and making strong statements. U.S. President Barack Obama, the Pope, even the conservative David Cameron government in the United Kingdom.

Q And occasionally Canadian church leaders.

A Yes, indeed. So all of that gives me faith that we will take action. Maybe it’s human nature to avoid things as long as you can and then act.

The tools are there, particularly for the clean energy revolution. Wind and solar now are sweeping aside coal and other things, and I hope that electric vehicles will do the same. There’s a revolution in process.

Q You also speak about third-way technologies.

A That really is the big basis of hope. The only way we can avoid unacceptable warming is by using technologies that take CO2 [carbon dioxide] out of the atmosphere and store it safely. What gives me hope that we will use them? First, the recognition that we will need to use them. Second, so many of these technologies exist in nascent form.

Q How is this different from geo-engineering?

A Geo-engineering is an extremely dangerous idea. Third-way technologies are different because they stimulate the Earth to strengthen its own self-regulatory mechanisms. We’ve kicked the Earth’s systems out of balance by too much heating, and if we take away the heating element, we’re strengthening the Earth’s systems. It’s a very practical pathway forward.

Q You give seaweed farming as an example. How would that help?

A Seaweed grows 30 to 60 times faster than land-based plants, so it captures lots of carbon. Every living plant is congealed carbon.

Some desktop studies suggest that if we covered nine percent of the Earth’s ocean with seaweed, we could draw down all of our current annual emissions. Now of course, there are questions. Where do we put all that seaweed? How do we use it? But the side benefits are also considerable. Those farms would produce 200 kilograms per person a year of high-quality protein, including fish and seafood. We might never cover nine percent of the world’s oceans, but we might cover one percent to sequester carbon and use that protein. We may be developing an indispensable tool for humanity’s future.

Q I’ll be attending COP21, as the Paris talks are known, as part of The United Church of Canada delegation. What’s your best hope for an acceptable outcome at the conference?

A First I hope there’s no COP22, because this is the end of negotiations and we come to an agreement. There are already pledges that will get us on a path of below 3°C of warming. That’s a good start, but I hope there’s hunger for more.

Q What can Canadians do to encourage our political leaders to move in the right direction in Paris?

A We have to acknowledge that time is short for the Canadian government to produce a new target, but we need to make sure it acts in goodwill. The more Canadians [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau can take to that meeting, including premiers, mayors and faith leaders, the better. Because they will then be able to say, “Mr. Trudeau, we were with you in Paris. How are things going?”

Q You’ve described your darkest hour as the day in 2013 when your government shut down Australia’s Climate Commission — for which you were chief commissioner. Yet within days, a crowdsourcing campaign made it possible to create the Australian Climate Council.

A It’s a testament to the strength of the Australian people. They want access to information, and they got behind us. Our budget now is $3 million a year and we have 17 staff, compared to six staff when in government.

Q So should we be looking more to individuals than to government?

A Canadians are a lot like Australians, and for us it’s been a mixture. Sometimes our government has led, and sometimes it’s lagged. But as long as the people want change, it will happen. Ordinary Australians had to put hands in pocket and support something we all wanted.

Q What does Canada need to do in Paris as evidence of real change?

A Contributing substantial financing to the $100 billion climate fund for developing countries is really important. And if you can help get a three-year review period [to regularly assess countries’ carbon-cutting pledges], it will revolutionize things. We’ll be able to revisit progress more often, and it will deepen change. It really will.

Q What role do you see for religious communities?

A Religious communities and organizations are a hugely important part of society. Even more than representing a big hunk of voices, they add a dimension of moral leadership, and that carries a lot of weight. We listen to church leaders because we hope and expect that they are wise people who have the long-term interest of their people and their society at heart. When churches address this issue seriously, it has a disproportionately important influence on the dialogue.

Q What’s the relationship between what you bring as a scientist and what I bring as a religious person?

A As a scientist, I’m trained to look at the facts and not blink when they get nasty, to tell it as it is. But there’s another part of me — a moral part and a family part — that cringes when I think about the world we’re creating for our children, my children. There is a moral outrage in me. So I am very, very grateful when church leaders stand up and say something, because as a scientist I can’t make moral or value judgments. Or if I do comment, it’s just me as a person. I can speak about the facts, but the moral case is very important.

Q I’ve sometimes been discouraged by attacks from those who don’t see climate change as a moral or religious issue.

A It is strange. Although I’m not a practising Catholic anymore, I’m still interested in the Gospel message. What Jesus is all about — as far as I can tell — is “love your God and love your neighbours.” If you get that, you can’t be complacent in the face of climate change.

Q You say, “Just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean you’re failing.” What would you say to someone who’s struggling in this movement?

A You’ve just got to keep at it. It would be unforgivable for me to give up. I don’t know how I’d face my children if I couldn’t say I kept at it. When I was climate change commissioner, we had threats of all sorts and were police protected. We couldn’t go down the street without being abused. It would have been easy to give up, but you can’t do it. At least I can’t.

So if you ever think about giving in to despair, think about the consequences.

Q One of those consequences would be your kids seeing you give up.

A Exactly. They might have been embarrassed by people shouting rude things to me in the street, but it would have been far worse if I’d given up. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
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