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“We Are Now in the Danger Zone”: Leading Australian Scientist Tim Flannery on Climate Change and How to Save the Planet

StoryNovember 23, 2007
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We spend the hour with one of the world’s leading scientists studying climate change, Tim Flannery. An Australian mammologist, palaeontologist and field zoologist, he has discovered and named more than thirty new species of mammals. He has been described as being in the league of all-time great explorers such as David Livingstone. Flannery might be best known as the author of the bestselling book “The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change.” Earlier this year he was named 2007 Australian of the Year. Tim Flannery recently spoke before a packed crowd at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe New Mexico as part of “Readings and Conversations,” a series sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. Today, Tim Flannery’s speech on the environment, how human activity is altering the earth’s climate and what we can do to save it. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Leading Australian scientist Tim Flannery recently spoke before a packed crowd at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as part of “Readings and Conversations,” a series sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. Today, Tim Flannery’s speech on the environment, how human activity is altering the earth’s climate and what we can do to save it. Before he took to the stage, I introduced Tim Flannery.

    AMY GOODMAN: He is a palaeontologist, a mammologist, has discovered seventy species of marsupials, rodents, bats. His work is remarkable. He calls himself an environmental historian. In 1980, he discovered dinosaur fossils.

    Just this year, he was awarded one of the highest honors in Australia: he became Australian of the Year, given that honor by the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, which I think there’s some poetic justice in. Here is Tim Flannery taking on the fossil fuel industry, condemning the use of, well, coal burning, and here is the Prime Minister, who represents really everything Tim Flannery is speaking against, giving him the award and saying, “Tim Flannery has introduced us to new ways of thinking.”

    The history of Tim Flannery’s books, I think, explains very much who he is, beginning in 1994 with The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, and then in 1998, Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds – On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea. Then there’s The Explorers: Stories of Discovery and Adventure from the Australian Frontier

    , The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples, Chasing Kangaroos: A Continent, a Scientist, and a Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Creature, and finally, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, an urgent warning and a call to arms, a book that documents Tim Flannery going from global warming skeptic to one of the most important global warming scientists, explaining not just in lay terms, but what is so powerful about Tim Flannery is his magnificent writing, as he really documents where we have come from, the dire state we are in, but ultimately how hopeful he is, is what is so instructive. Tim Flannery believes we can come out of this mess.

    I’ll end with David Suzuki, the award-winning scientist, who says about this book, The Weather Makers, “This is one of the most important books of this young century. Flannery leads us through the remarkable scientific elucidation of the factors shaping climate—the sun, atmosphere, oceans and life itself. The scientific evidence of humanity’s impact is indisputable and this book convincingly pierces the phoney economic, political and pseudo-scientific naysaying. It is an urgent call-to-action that we cannot afford to ignore.”

    It is wonderful to see all of you coming out tonight. I only wish in the front row that the Bush administration, the Cabinet members, that they were occupying these seats. Tim Flannery has something to teach them, all of us, tonight.

    TIM FLANNERY: I’ve been in the US now about ten days, and when I arrived, Al Gore had just received his Nobel Peace Prize, which I think is the greatest tribute that any human being can receive. To me, it is the great award, and I’m not an American, but I was so proud of him just as a fellow human being to be honored in that way. And yet, a few days — well, within a few days of my arriving, I saw the newspapers were full of this sort of sniping at this great man and wondered about it and thought it’s not — it doesn’t do the skeptics any great justice, and I think it’s just disturbing that someone who has done so much for the world could be treated in that way.

    But in any case, one of the people who was having a bit of a shot at Al Gore was a man called Dr. William Gray, and he spoke at the University of North Carolina within just a couple of days of me speaking. And one of the things that he said to his audience was that he said the human impact on the atmosphere is just too small to have a major effect on global temperatures. And those sort of assertions really need to be tackled and explained, because so many people just accept that from a professor as a given and accept it as a credible sort of statement. So, tonight, I’d really like to just have you reflect upon that statement a little bit as I talk and try to explain to you the way the atmosphere works, the nature of this problem, and what is actually happening to our world right now.

    A really useful starting point in trying to think about the whole climate problem is just to conceptualize it as a pollution problem. After all, these greenhouse gases are pollutants in our atmosphere. Even the US Supreme Court earlier in this year ruled that the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, should be considered as a pollutant. It’s a very, very important step, in terms of our dealing with this issue, incidentally.

    But I like to think about the climate problem as a pollution problem for a particular reason, and that is that us humans, I reckon, have become really, really good at dealing with pollution problems. I worked for many, many years in remote parts of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands and stayed in villages that were well outside government control, and those villages might only have had half a dozen grass huts, and the people who lived in them may still have been living a Stone Age type of existence. But those villages were kept immaculately clean, because people just know that if you let rubbish build up around your village, your health will be compromised, and eventually it will be to your great detriment.

    You know, the first villages, the first human settlements that remained in one place, were established around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. And I think that we can look at the role of natural selection acting on our species for the last 10,000 years as being a real waiting out of the grubby humanus, you know, because presumably when we settled down in those first villages, there was quite a few grubby people who didn’t care about throwing their pollution around and a few who did, and evolution favored those who did. Now, those of you who have teenage kids may not believe me in this, but I really do think that evolution has done a great job of making us a neat and tidy species, by and large, that has a really gut feeling, has an important and strong gut feeling about pollution. We just know in our hearts it’s wrong to allow our environment to become full of filth.

    There’s been times in our history when it’s looked as if maybe filth would overwhelm us, because population has grown and industrialization process has changed. One of the times that I can think of that really makes that point was Europe, and particularly London, in the early nineteenth century. And that was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It was a time when London was the largest city on our planet. And that city of a million or so people was entirely unsewered. I can’t imagine what a city of a million people would be like without a sewage system, but, you know, there are written accounts of what it was like, and some people record walking down the street and looking in cellars and finding that cellars of the houses were ceiling-high in you-know-what. I won’t ruin your dinners, but it was pretty gruesome.

    And as a result of the buildup of that waste, human health was compromised in London. Cholera, for example, was just an endemic disease; it was around all the time. At that stage of medical development, people believed that cholera was spread through the air, and it was a great surprise when a doctor did a proper epidemiological study in London and revealed the astonishing news that cholera in fact was spread through dirty water, specifically through sewage getting into water that people drink. And this was an enormous challenge to the people of the day. The doctors, of course, didn’t like it, because they didn’t like being proved to be wrong, and neither did the wealthy citizens of London, because that knowledge carried with it an important implication. Of course, it was the poor people of London who were getting cholera. They were the ones forced to drink the filthy water. The rich, the wealthy, could bring their water in from elsewhere.

    But who was going to pay for the sewering of London, cleaning up the city? It wasn’t the poor. It was those relatively few wealthy citizens. And the issue was debated back and forth for a couple of decades, really, as to what should be done. Finally the decision was made to embark upon that gargantuan project of sewering that city. No one had done anything like that before, except maybe the Romans well, well before, but certainly no one within living memory. And when you read the accounts of what it was like to embark upon that project, it was rather like us, I think, thinking about sending a man to the moon in the middle of the last century. It was a great enterprise. It was going to cost a lot.

    And it’s really interested me to try to understand why people decided to do it. After all, it was going to be to their financial detriment, it was a massive project with uncertain long-term outcomes, but people did it. And the reason, I think, after reading extensively around that subject, the reason I think it was done was just that people felt it was the right thing to do. There’s a certain sense in our hearts about what is right and wrong, and people at that stage felt it was the right thing to do, and so the project was begun. Mind you, I can’t imagine what London would be like today if they’d decided that it wasn’t all that important, if New York would have been the global center of capital, and anyway, it’s an aside. But it does give me hope to think about this pollution problem we face as a pollution problem.

    Of course, climate change is a very special kind of pollution problem. It’s an air pollution problem. And in order to understand why that’s so important, we need to know something about this atmosphere of ours. The atmosphere, I think, has to be the most taken-for-granted element of our planet. Just the very name, “the atmosphere” — you know, my old aunt used to come and visit us occasionally, and one of her favorite sayings was, “Oh, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife,” you know? She’s talking about the atmosphere between two people, or we’d talk about the atmosphere in a room, you know, or the atmosphere of the planet. Just the use of that word for anything, from the smallest amount of air through to the whole planet’s worth, reveals something about our disregard for this organ of our planet.

    And yet, what a wonderful and wondrous and necessary thing it is! I mean, from the moment that some anonymous doctor picked us up by the heels and whacked us on the bum to get us to take our first gulp from this great aerial ocean of ours to the moment we breathe our last, we are plugged into it and connected with it in a way that we’re not connected to any other part of our planet. It is the great interconnector of all living things. It connects us with the oceans. It connects us with the rocks beneath our feet. It is the great moderator, the great interconnector, the great enabler of life on this planet. In the nineteenth century, you know, when people were discovering the wonders of the atmosphere, one of my great heroes came up with a better name, I think, for it, and I’ve already used the name. The man was Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin, and he described this atmosphere of ours as the “great aerial ocean,” and I love that phrase, because when I think of the atmosphere as an aerial ocean, I can imagine the currency in it that bring us our weather, and I can think of myself as a sort of an insignificant creature crawling around on the bottom of the great aerial ocean, as totally dependent upon it as any fish is on the sea.

    It’s also important to me because it really invites a very important comparison. When we look into the heavens, we think that — or we can imagine the atmosphere just goes on forever, and it doesn’t really matter what we throw into it, a bit as Dr. William Gray said, human impact’s just too small. In order to understand why that’s wrong, we’ve got to carry out a bit of a thought experiment and imagine, if we could, compressing all of the gases in this great aerial ocean a thousand times until they become a liquid. We’d need to do that, because air is about a thousand times less dense than water. If you could carry out that thought experiment and then imagine comparing the oceans with the great aerial ocean, what you’d discover is that this atmosphere of ours is only one-five-hundredth the size of the oceans — one-five-hundredth.

    And that explains so much to me of recent environmental history. You know, us humans, we’ve always believed there’s an away that we can throw stuff to, and so, you know, until recently — I want to say recently, last few decades — the City of New York used to just barge its rubbish out into the Atlantic Ocean and dump it overboard. So many cities around the world still just drain their sewage straight into the oceans. And the Russians — God bless their cotton socks — you know, they’ve been busy secretly throwing whole nuclear reactors into the ocean, not telling anyone about it. I mean, you know, so — but for all of that abuse that the oceans have received in our hands, we haven’t suffered a global oceanic pollution crisis. Why is that? Just because the oceans are so big. The difference between polluting the oceans and the atmosphere is a bit like having a house with a leaky septic tank, you know, in one case running into a tiny creek and the other case into a mighty river. It doesn’t matter if it’s running into the mighty river. If it’s running into a little creek, it can have a huge impact.

    Over my lifetime — I’m fifty-one years old — the history of atmospheric air pollution has been dismal. I’ve lived through three — as have many people in this audience — three separate and distinct global or near-global air pollution problems. The first of those problems, which will probably be familiar to people here, became known as the acid rain problem. I don’t know whether you remember it here, but in the 1970s, you know, people were disturbed to find great tracts of forests and lakes and soils across the northern hemisphere dying, and the reason wasn’t immediately evident. It turned out that the cause was the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, with a high sulfur content. And that sulfur would go up into the atmosphere with the flue gas when you burned the coal, combine with moisture in the atmosphere, and fall to the earth as sulfuric acid, where it would scald the life out of anything that it contacted.

    If I could just take a little sidetrack here, so I don’t want to bore you, but why was sulfur in the coal? Well, there’s a lot of complex reasons for that, but one point I want to make is that coal is a sponge. Anything that’s mobile that flows through the earth’s crust tends to accumulate in coal, so cadmium, mercury, uranium, you’ll find lots of it in coal. You know, one of the reasons — people here maybe, or I’m not sure whether this is an Australian problem or not, but women are generally recommended not to eat too much fish while they’re pregnant, because it’s full of mercury. That mercury comes from the burning of coal, the great majority of it. How it gets into the fish is a long story I haven’t got time to go through here, but it comes from the coal. In my country of Australia, where there’s lots of uranium in the coal, the biggest point sources of emissions for radiation are coal-fired power plants. They’re not the world’s biggest uranium mines, which we have in our country; it’s coal-fired power plants. And lung cancer rates around those power plants are a third higher generally than elsewhere in the country.

    Just to get back to the acid rain problem, once people realized what was going on, they brought in regulations to make those coal-fired power plants put scrubbers on the smokestacks of the plants. And a very ingenious man, a man called Richard Sandor, who established the Chicago Climate Exchange, came up with the idea of trading in pollutants. And that might sound counterintuitive to a lot of people in the audience, but we can’t change things overnight, so the idea of licensing someone to pollute, but charging them, is a very powerful incentive to change. And it’s also great in terms of making sure you get the best bang for your buck, if you want, when you’re dealing with these pollutants, because the person who can most cost-effectively afford to reduce their pollutants can sell their credits to other people.

    As a result of those sort of moves, within a couple of years, really, the acid rain problem was a receding threat. You know, sulfur only lasts a couple of hours or, if the air is very dry, a couple of days in the atmosphere, and so once this sulfur stopped being emitted, earth could heal itself. I should just say that that factor, short time span of sulfur in the atmosphere, prevented the problem from being a truly global one. That’s why I call it a near-global pollution problem. But the wondrous thing is, you know, once we stopped putting that sulfur into the atmosphere, earth started to heal itself, and I just think we just don’t give enough credit for the astonishing capacity of this home of ours to heal itself when it’s severely damaged. We just seem to accept it as normal. I think it’s a miracle, quite frankly, and a wondrous miracle that allows us to maintain ourselves on this planet, and it’s something we need to know so much more about as we move into this century of ours where we’re going to be putting ever more pressure on this environment of ours.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, speaking in Santa Fe. He has discovered more than sixty species, has been named 2007 Australian of the Year, the author of a number of books, his latest, The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change. We’ll be back with Tim Flannery in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to the Australian scientist, Tim Flannery, one of the world’s leading explorers, highly acclaimed zoologist, bestselling author, speaking recently in Santa Fe, New Mexico, talking about the history of atmospheric air pollution.

    TIM FLANNERY: Within a few years of that acid rain problem being addressed, scientists told the world of a very disturbing finding. British and American teams in the Antarctic had started to measure ozone, the level of ozone in the atmosphere over the Antarctic, and had independently measured or recorded great drops in ozone concentrations over the Antarctic. The drops were so great that the individual teams initially thought that their instruments must have been in error. And it was only after a couple of years of recordings that they compared their data and realized that this was actually a real trend.

    Why were they so disturbed and so surprised? Ozone is a very rare element in our atmosphere. It’s only present at about six parts per million, and it’s — most of it’s fifty miles above our head. But it does a very important job for us, because ozone is earth’s sunscreen. You know, if you brought the whole of earth’s sunscreen down to sea level and — you know, you could see it. It would form a layer about that thick, about three millimeters thick. There’s just not a lot of it. But without it, we would be in serious problems. In Australia, where I come from, if I go out in the summer without a hat and without sunscreen, I’ll generally get a fairly bad case of sunburn in around twenty minutes. I don’t know what it’s like here, but I imagine similar sort of figures. Without ozone, I’d get that same level of sunburn in about fifteen seconds. So you can imagine how important that is. I mean, ultraviolet radiation that causes sunburn is a very powerful short wavelength of energy, and it penetrates our bodies, it tears apart our DNA, it disturbs metabolic processes within a cell, and therefore it leads to cancer, and it can also lead to blindness. It’s just — high levels of ultraviolet radiation are incompatible with life. That’s why, you know, you see in barber shops those blue lights where people try to sterilize their combs. That’s kind of like ultraviolet radiation, sort of, you know, not very good for small living things. So as scientists started to see this ozone depletion, they became quite concerned.

    At that stage, no one really knew what was causing the problem, and it took a couple of Nobel laureates, a couple of brilliant Americans who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, to track down the cause. And what they discovered was that a chemical that was only manufactured by people, that didn’t occur in nature, was causing this depletion. They discovered that what are called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were at the root cause. Now, these CFCs were used for things like blowing up Styrofoam cups and for propellants in spray cans and for refrigerants and so forth, and they were, you know, initially the last thing you’d suspect of causing any problems, because they’re totally stable at sea level. They just don’t seem to interact with anything, so how could they be causing a problem? What scientists had failed to understand was that as these CFCs rise up through the atmosphere, after about five years from being released from your little spray can, they’ll get up to an elevation of fifty miles above our head, and there they break down, and those chlorine molecules — the chlorine atoms in those molecules can destroy many, many thousands of ozone molecules. A single chlorine atom can destroy many thousands of ozone molecules. The reason that, of course, the ozone was depleting over the Antarctic was that that chemical reaction is most effective at very low temperatures.

    That discovery had such a profound impact on people that it galvanized the world to get together and agree to ban those chemicals, and the protocol under which they were banned was known as the Montreal Protocol, an agreement reached in Montreal, Canada in 1987. And that moment is a moment in our human history that I think we fail to celebrate significantly. I know we’ve had some great things happen, like a Martin Luther King Day in this country. I think we need a Montreal Protocol Day to celebrate our escape from a dreadful peril, quite frankly, because we know what would — we now know what could have happened. If we had failed to agree as a species on banning those chemicals in 1987, we know what the trajectory of chemical production was, we can work out what the burden of the greenhouse gases — the CFCs would have been as of 2007, and we know what that would have meant for our earth. And what it would have meant was that today we would have had a permanent ozone hole over the Antarctic, rather than just a seasonal one, a second permanent hole over the Arctic and very severe ozone depletion down to middle latitudes, and that would have added up to a greatly enhanced rate of cancers in human beings, a greatly enhanced rate of blindness and very severe crop failures, because seeds are small little things, small rapidly growing things whose DNA is vulnerable. For every 1% decline in ozone, 1% increase in radiation, we get a 1% increase in failure for seeds to germinate. The same thing happens at the surface of the ocean, where these tiny creatures are the basis of the food chain. So if we hadn’t agreed in ’87 to ban those chemicals, I think we would have been facing a full-blown crisis of life on earth.

    And just one more aside, sorry, because I find this so wonderful. If chemists in 1928 had decided to make bromofluorocarbons instead of chlorofluorocarbons, I don’t think we’d be here today. The reason they didn’t use bromine instead of chlorine was that bromine was a little bit expensive back then, just a tiny bit more than chlorine, and it was — it had a couple of characteristics that made it a little bit less favorable for the particular applications that they had imagined for these chemicals. But the big thing about bromine is that it’s forty-six times more effective at destroying ozone than chlorine. So we would have just had no ozone layer and wouldn’t have known what had gone wrong. It would have happened before we had really even come to grips with the problem.

    So ’87 we had the Montreal Protocol. The following year, there was a series of heat waves in this country, and Congress asked — called on for testimony from a number of scientists to explain to them why these heat waves were occurring. One of the men who testified that year was James Hansen, the director of the Goddard Institute at NASA, and he was a man who really woke the world, I think, to the perils of yet a third global atmospheric pollution crisis. What he said was that a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was trapping heats close to the surface of our planet and was consistent with the sort of phenomenon that we were seeing in those heat waves in ’88.

    I need to explain just briefly to you what greenhouse gases are. There’s about thirty of them. They let sunlight reach the surface of our earth, but when that sunlight turns to heat energy, they tend to trap that heat energy close to the surface of our planet, and so the planet starts to warm up. If there were no greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, of course, there’d be no life on earth. They’re a natural part of our planetary system. Without greenhouse gases, the surface of earth would be at a temperature of about minus-fifteen degrees. It would be a snowball. We couldn’t live here. But if greenhouse gases ever reach 1% concentration in our atmosphere, the surface of our earth would boil. So it’s one of the miracles of our planet that greenhouse gas concentrations have been kept within a range compatible with life. Look at Mars and Venus, and you’ll see atmospheres with greenhouse concentrations of 90%-plus. Dead planets have lots of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; living planets keep them within strict bounds.

    And could I just say in that regard, it really is important to understand that this atmosphere of ours, not only is it small, it’s out of balance with the geosphere, it’s out of balance with the rocks of earth. You know, dead planets have atmospheres which are totally concordant with their geology; they reflect their geology. Our atmosphere reflects the presence of life. And you can think of the atmosphere as a — not as a living thing, really, but as a manifestation of life. It’s a manifestation of life every bit as much as a cat’s whisker is or a bird’s feather. It’s created by life, sculpted by life, kept in this particular balance of gases by life itself.

    The most important of the greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide, and it’s measured in the atmosphere in parts per ten thousand, so it’s not as rare as ozone, which is parts per million, but parts per ten thousand.

    I think we should all reflect on what those few facts I’ve given you mean. The very idea that humans can influence the gassiest composition of our atmosphere at a level of parts per ten thousand is profoundly disturbing to me. I mean, what it tells me is that humans have become such a powerful influence, or a powerful element, really, of life on earth, that we’re now able to do things that most other species, single species, can’t do. There’s 6.6 billion of us human beings on earth, and more and more of us are getting access to the sort of lifestyles that you and I enjoy. I heard an economist recently talking about China, who said that forty years from now those 1.3 — there will be probably 1.6 billion Chinese by then — will all be enjoying a quality of life similar to that that you and I enjoy today. That is a huge imposition on our planet and one that simply can’t happen without us going through a new industrial revolution that develops a cleaner base, a cleaner, more efficient base to support the affluence that we all enjoy.

    If you doubt that humans could be powerful enough to interfere with the atmosphere at that sort of fundamental level, as Dr. Gray suggests, I just say to you, to get a gut feeling of it, go online and try to Google an image of our earth at night. If you do that, you’ll see that earth is just lit up like a Christmas tree. There’s electric lighting everywhere on our planet now, except in North Korea, little dark spot there. You know, it’s amazing to me that, you know, all that light is by and large supported by the burning of fossil fuels. And yet, in my grandmother’s time, this planet of ours was a beautiful dark orb at night. It wasn’t lit up like that. It just gives you a gut sense of how influential we now are in terms of this planetary system of ours.

    At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1800, the greenhouse gas concentration in our atmosphere was at about 300 parts per million of what’s called carbon dioxide equivalent. And I need to just explain to you what carbon dioxide equivalent is. There’s thirty greenhouse gases. They all have different — they all affect the atmosphere or the heat balance of our planet in different ways. And in order to get a sort of a handle or to express their cumulative impact, scientists have invented this thing of carbon dioxide equivalent. Basically what they do is convert the power of those greenhouse gases to warm into a single gas, the power of a single gas. It’s a bit like taking a basket of currencies and converting it into a single currency. So that currency is carbon dioxide. We call it carbon dioxide equivalent. So three parts per ten thousand in 1800.

    Next month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a very important report that establishes what the current concentration of greenhouse gases is in our atmosphere. That report will be — is known as the Synthesis Report, and it’s of the fourth assessment report, and these bureaucrats love these long and redundant titles, anyway. It’s worth having a look at, because that report will, I think, deliver some of the most disturbing news that our species as a whole has ever received. What it will say is that as of mid-2005, the CO2 equivalent, the concentration of CO2 equivalent in our atmosphere is at about 4.5-5.0 parts per ten thousand. Now, that’s 50% greater than the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

    But why is that an important figure? Ever since scientists analyzed the ice cores that they drew from the Antarctic ice cap and the Greenland ice cap, they have realized that earth’s climate can change abruptly and at a very large scale. So, and that’s what — that really is the definition of dangerous climate change. Any big fast-moving things are dangerous to us. We know that inherently when we try to cross a road, you know? We know it when we try to pay our bills; if we get a big one that’s got to be paid tomorrow, it generally gets us to [inaudible], as we say in Australia, a bit more quickly than we would if it’s a small bill that needs to be paid in a month’s time. So big fast-moving things dominate the environmental agenda, as well. This issue of dangerous climate change is particularly pertinent today, because scientists have been trying to understand when the next big climate shift will occur, how much pollution the atmosphere can sustain before we see another great shift.

    I should just spend a minute or two talking about these ice cores, because you need to understand really, I think, how powerful they are in terms of telling us about past climate. These ice cores are —- in the Antarctic they go down about two miles. They record 640,000 years of earth history. In Greenland they go down about, I think, a similar distance, but they cover about 130,000 years of earth history. Earlier in the year, I visited the University of Copenhagen ice core store and saw some of these ice cores. They’re about that round, and they’re kept in meter— or yard-long lengths , roughly. And you can see these bands in them. They’re about an inch wide in the section that I saw, or sections I saw. And the guy who was showing me this, the Dane who was showing me these ice cores, said, “You see that band in the middle of the ice, this section here,” and I got a look at it. It was about an inch thick, you know. He said, “That fell, a snow, over the Greenland ice cap in the year that Jesus was born.” Wow, that’s pretty amazing, because these bands, you know, they record annual change, annual ice — sorry, annual snowfalls. I mean, he said, “See those little speckles in the ice core.” He said, “Those speckles are little bubbles of air that were trapped by the snow as it fell and have really remained as samples of that ancient atmosphere of the year A.D. 1.” Then he said, “The atmosphere is incredibly dynamic. You know, the gases in it shift around the whole planet over weeks and months.” And he said, “They give us a really good record of life as it was back then.” He said, “You know, in fact, the atmosphere’s so dynamic, I reckon that in those bubbles there there’s probably a few molecules breathed out by the holy family in that first year.” It’s pretty amazing. Just don’t tell the Pope. We won’t have another relic on our hands, anyway.

    But they’re also an incredible archive of our planet’s past, you know, because there’s so many things we can look at in those air bubbles that tell us about conditions of life on earth. You know, we can look at the isotopes of oxygen to tell us about temperature and the isotopes of carbon to tell us about the condition of the oceans. We can look at methasulfonic acid to tell us about algal activity at the surface of the ocean and planktonic activity. We can look at dust, dust particles in those air bubbles, to tell us about wind direction and wind speed and vegetation cover on the land. And they’re just a few examples of the hundreds of things that are measured by scientists. Basically, what those ice cores give us are a wonderful archive of year-by-year change of our planet, the yearbook of our planet, you know? And what we see in those ice cores and we didn’t appreciate before we had them is that within just a matter of a few years earth’s climate can shift abruptly from one stable state that it’s been in for a very long time into another. So that was really the great revelation that had scientists talking about dangerous climate change, trying to establish how much greenhouse gas the atmosphere could support before the climate shifts again.

    The best computer modeling we have, which is by no means perfect, but it gives us a general indication, suggests that at about the level of greenhouse gas that we have in the atmosphere today, we stand a 20% chance of suffering from dangerous climate change. And that is just a truly unacceptable risk. And, you know, in 1994 the governments of the earth got together and pledged to keep citizens safe from dangerous climate change. We now know that they failed to keep that pledge. We are now in the danger zone. We really are. And it’s an urgent issue now for us to start pulling some of that gas out of the air and reducing the emissions that we put into the atmosphere.

    It’s important to understand that, by the good grace of some other pollutants, some of that warming has been masked. So China is putting — still burning a lot of sulfur-rich coal, and that sulfur is acting to cool our planet. Jet contrails cool our planet. And particulate matter can cool our planet. So the warming we’re suffering today is consistent with the sort of warming you’d expect from about 3.75 parts per ten thousand of CO2 equivalent, so about 0.75 parts are being masked by those cooling factors. But those cooling agents are so short-lived in the atmosphere. We learned earlier that sulfur only lasts a matter of hours in the atmosphere. Particulates are the same. Jet contrails are the same. But the greenhouse gases last a century. So I see that gas burden, the greenhouse gas burden, as a sort of sword of Damocles hanging over our head and the thread that’s holding it back are these other pollutants that we could —- if we clean—-– as China cleans up its act, could really release the greenhouse gases to do their worst.

    In the light of that, what do we need to do to deal with this problem? We need to do, I think, three things, or we have three principal tools in our toolkit to deal with this. The first of them is just reduce our emissions. We’ve been talking about it for decades now, and we’ve done nothing. But the sort of work that’s now being done, for example, in California really leads the way. Governor Schwarzenegger has pledged to reduce our emissions by 80% — or California’s emissions by 80% in the next forty years. What that really means is that Californians are going to living in an effectively decarbonized economy four decades from now. Now, you know, a lot of you might remember Elvis and the Beatles. They’re sort of four decades and more back in the past, you know? Four decades is not a long time to achieve true independence from fossil fuel burning, but we can do it, and we will do it. It’s the sort of target that absolutely needs to happen. And it will happen through good regulation.

    And I just want to talk very briefly about the effectiveness of Californian regulation so far. You know, if you compare the motor industry, the vehicle industry, with the outboard motor industry, you see some very salutary things. California has moved to regulate outboard motors — so the things you put on your boats — very effectively. They were able to do it, because the outboard industry is just not all that big, and California is pretty big, and they were able to just get their way. The motor industry, which they had been trying to regulate, has been just too big to be kind of bullied into submission, made to toe the line. They keep on suing California in the Supreme Court and delaying things and drawing it out as long as they can.

    What’s the end result? The end result is — I hate to be rude, but I’ve got to be blunt — no one buys American cars overseas today, you know? Next year, the rules in China for motor vehicle sales are going to be such that you won’t be able to sell American cars in China. They just don’t meet the emissions standards. And you see what’s happening. The Japanese, who have had good regulation, have taken over the world. What’s happened with the outboard motor industry? Evinrude, who were one of the big producers of outboard motors, as a result of that good regulation, have produced the world’s most revolutionary nonpolluting, quiet and efficient outboard motor, I think, that’s ever been developed. It’s called the Evinrude E-Tec. I have one. I know about these things. But, you know, it’s the only outboard motor in the world that’s accredited to be sold in — or that meets emissions standards for Europe and California. And it’s going to do for the outboard motor industry what Toyota’s hybrids have done for the car industry. So it just shows that it’s not as if America is short of genius or great engineers or anything else. You know, if the regulation is right, you guys can take over the world. You’ve done it in the past. You do it again in various industry sectors. It’s the lack of good regulation that’s holding back American industry, in my view, and nothing shows it more clearly than that comparison that I just laid out.

    The world is moving on this, and as we move to 80% emissions reductions, there’s going to be more and more pressure on the polluting industries, who are going to have to deal with that problem. In order to get those sort of emission reductions, we’re going to get — have to get the polluters to pay a significant price, probably in the order of $70 a ton for their pollution. At that sort of level, most of the renewables, including clean coal technology and so forth, becomes very cost-effective to get to market, and some wonderful things happen in terms of carbon sequestration in our soils, which I’ll spend a minute explaining. If $70 a ton sounds like a lot, just consider what has happened with the recent fuel price rises in this country. I know you used to pay around $2.00 a gallon; you’re now paying $3.00. If you try to calculate what that means in terms of a carbon price — in other words, you ask how much of a tax would we have needed to put on the oil industry to raise prices that high, what you find is that the cost would be between US $200 and $300 a ton to do that. So we’re talking about $70 a ton, which is what? It’s somewhere between a third and a fourth of that cost. People have adjusted to the high fuel prices in this country. It hasn’t sent the country broke. We’re not talking about major imposts here; we’re talking about reasonable imposts that will bring, I think, increased prosperity to this country in the medium term.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, one of the world’s leading explorers, he was named 2007 Australian of the Year. When we come back, the conclusion of Tim Flannery’s address.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with this special. We return to the conclusion of Tim Flannery’s recent address in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tim Flannery is the author of the book The Weather Makers. That’s his latest book. He spoke about what steps need to be taken to tackle climate change.

    TIM FLANNERY: Unfortunately, it’s not going to be enough just to reduce our emissions in the future. We’re also going to have to draw some of the gas out of the air. And this atmosphere of ours is now burdened with about 200 gigatons of carbon that wasn’t there in the past. That’s built up since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And I see that gas as being — it’s the historic debt that we owe the world, you know, because we’re the people who benefited from the Industrial Revolution. So we took the benefits of the process, and we burdened the world with the pollution that resulted from that process. And I’ve been searching for ways to sort of — I think we all should be searching for ways, as well, to repay that debt.

    One important way of doing it is the conservation of tropical forests. Half of the world’s tropical forests have already been cleared. They’re incredibly important in regulating earth’s climate, not just from this carbon they sequester, but because of the transpiration through their leaves that cools our planet. Studies suggest that we could repay about half of that debt, at least, that historic debt, so 100 gigatons of carbon, which, as us Aussies would say, is a [inaudible] of carbon — I won’t explain how much a gigaton is, but it’s a bloody lot — by regrowing some of those tropical forests.

    How would we ever achieve that? You know, I’ve worked in the tropics. I know how hard it is to deal fairly with people in that part of the world. I think you guys invented the answer, you Americans. If we could get a computer with an internet connection in every primary school in the tropics, you and I could go online using Google Earth or eBay and, you know, Google up 500 villagers in Panama — you know, they want to sell their carbon — read about the villagers, look at where they want to plant their carbon, and decide you’re going to buy some of your [inaudible] climate security by paying online, paying those people online. The money could be held in escrow by an NGO and be paid once the carbon is sequestered, and we’d know it was sequestered, because we could use satellite surveillance, which is already available to be able to see that. What a wonderful tool to deal just directly — you know, a wealth transfer between the wealthiest people on the planet and some of the poorest. You know, they, improving their lot on the planet; us, purchasing our climate security. Very, very real possibilities using these tools, these new tools to save ourselves and do something great in terms of social issues.

    There’s a whole lot of other technologies that are going to come to the fore within the next couple of decades. The most important of them in the agricultural sector are the char-based technologies. These are technologies that allow farmers to take crop waste and turn it into charcoal. I just need to explain how this works. If you grow a crop of corn, today the farmer sells the corn off to the market, and then he probably just forgets about the stalks or perhaps plows it back into the field or lets some cows eat it or something. The end result is that those corn stalks rot away, and the CO2 they hold goes back into the atmosphere within a year or so. If the farmer instead had taken those corn stalks and put them into what’s called a pyrolysis machine, which is a simple charcoal-making machine — what happens in that machine is you burn that crop waste in the partial absence oxygen. If he had done that, he’d generate a synthetic gas at one end that could be burned to generate electricity or perhaps develop a biofuel, which could be used for transport, and at the other end you’d get charcoal. And what that means is the farmer then gets a fourfold dividend. He gets to sell his crop. He gets to sell either electricity or a biofuel. He gets paid under Kyoto, like they can use him to sequester charcoal in the soil. And that charcoal improves soil quality, so you get a better crop next year. It’s a fantastic system. We need a carbon price of about $40 a ton to realize that dream. But once we get that, fifteen years from now we could be pulling ten gigatons of carbon per year out of the atmosphere using that technology. That is 5% of the historic debt, 5% of the burden. Enormously powerful.

    So these are the things we need to do. We need to get on with emissions reductions with as steep as we can over the next forty years. We need to use the tropical forests and harness those to be drawing ten gigatons of carbon out of the air. We need to use the char-based technologies to draw another ten out of the atmosphere per year. And at that rate, when we’re pulling down the standing stock at 10%, we’re reducing the emissions into the atmosphere very substantially, we are well on the way to beating this problem. It’s not an insolvable problem. It’s a simply soluble problem that common sense, economics and a commonsense approach that we can all take can have a huge impact.

    I just want to emphasize that the ball truly is in our court in this issue today. You know, the world got together in 1997 to try to broker another protocol, the Kyoto Protocol. And we failed at that because two countries failed to join: Australia and the United States. As a result of that, we’ve had a decade of confusion and loss. No one’s known quite what to do. But recently, things have started to change. The Chinese, for one, know that they face a very serious problem in terms of climate change now. And within the last month or two, they’ve said that if the developed world agrees on a protocol and agrees on reductions, emission reductions, they will join with us. And what that statement does is put the ball firmly back in our court.

    In December 2009 in Copenhagen, at a time when you’ll have a new president — we hopefully will have a new prime minister, where we have an election on the 24th of November — we will all meet, the nations of the world will meet to try to broker a new protocol to replace Kyoto. It’s going to be the most important meeting of our times, I think, because if we succeed at that meeting we’ll be on a trajectory towards healing. If we fail, the level of risk that we face every year from this problem will simply continue to grow.

    I do think that this issue and the whole issue of sustainability is the focal issue for our times. You know, each century, I think, has its own challenges and its own issues. You know, if you go back to the nineteenth century, the great challenges then were all about social justice. It’s hard for us to conceive, but at the start of the nineteenth century it was perfectly legal and acceptable almost anywhere in the world to own another human being. It sort of seems bizarre today, but that was the case. People worked in the most appalling conditions, and child labor was universal. Women didn’t have the vote. In fact, relatively few men had the vote. You know, the great and the good among us, the people who really cared and saw what the issues were, worked hard through that century to produce a better world, and against all the odds, they won. You know, at the end of the nineteenth century, universal suffrage was thinkable, slavery had been abolished, people had much better working conditions.

    The twentieth century, which I suppose was my century, really — I straddle both, but for many people in the room that was their century — the challenges were different. Then, it was an issue really of war and peace. You know, people lived through two horrendous world wars and realized a third could destroy humanity. And again, the best of us set our minds to creating the institutions that would keep us safe from that peril. And so the United Nations came into being, and the European Union and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaties, and so forth. You know, I think that — and, of course, we benefit — we benefited from all of that work. We wouldn’t be here today without those pioneers who pushed that forward.

    And we’re going to continue to have social issues in the twenty-first century, and we’re going to continue to have issues of war and peace. But that’s not what’s going to define this century. You know, with a projected nine billion people on our planet in the middle of this century and the already self-evident risk constraints that we face in terms of resources such as water, food security, and so forth, it is absolutely clear to me that the great enterprise of this century is going to be living sustainably and regulating the global commons, the global atmosphere. You know, they’ll be the great treaties, the things that will lay the foundation for a better future for humanity. That’s where the big effort is going to be for us. This is a little bit different, I suppose, from the nineteenth century, though, because if we fail at this, then I think we’ll fail to hold our global civilization together.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, one of the world’s leading scientists studying climate change. He’s the author of The Weather Makers. He was speaking before a packed audience at the historic Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After his speech, we sat down on the stage together, and I had a chance to interview him.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you think are the most important things that people here tonight, what hundreds of people at the Lensic Theater can do?

    TIM FLANNERY: Well, there’s a lot you can do. Look, like my country, your country suffered a catastrophic failure of leadership in this area. And, sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. And that’s good and bad news, you know? It’s tough, but it also opens the door for leadership at lower levels. And what Governor Schwarzenegger has done has exhibited extraordinary leadership at lower levels. But what we desperately need now is champions everywhere in society, you know, people that care about this that are willing to make a statement, even if it’s a simple one, like just changing the light bulbs in their home, you know, or maybe buying a more energy-efficient car. Or if they belong to a church group or a sporting group or any other organization, just say, “Well, let’s have a look at the power bill. We’re all part of this. Let’s see how we can save some energy in this.” And for their businesses, get an energy audit done, you know? Try to address the issue of going carbon-neutral in your business. But at every level, you have to try to lead.

    And when it comes to the election, that’s when you’ve got your great opportunity in this society. And don’t just be a passive recipient of democracy. I would get out there and try to make a difference. And, you know, I always view elections as a bit like job interviews, you know, because these people are going to be representing us and doing important jobs for us for the next four years. So, you know, if someone came into a job interview to a company you ran and said, “I’ll show you my CV after you give me the job,” you know, like “I’ll make a promise and give you the details later,” what would you say? You’d say, “Well, come back next week, whenever. Thank you. On your horse,” sort of thing. So, you know, I would just treat them as if they’re coming for a job interview and say, “Well, you want to represent me for the next four years. What is your policy on this? Tell me exactly what you’re going to do. How are you going to be held accountable for this?” You know? So just treat democracy as the most important and precious gift we have, which it is, and try to make a difference.


Tim Flannery — among his books, The Weather Makers — he’s the 2007 Australian of the Year.

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