If human beings follow a business-as-usual course, continuing to exploit fossil fuel resources without reducing carbon emissions or capturing and sequestering them before they warm the atmosphere, the eventual effects on climate and life may be comparable to those at the time of mass extinctions. Life will survive, but it will do so on a transformed planet. For all foreseeable human generations, it will be a far more desolate world than the one in which civilization developed and flourished during the past several thousand years.
- Professor James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Earth Institute, Columbia University
Until a few years ago Tim Flannery was best known for his book The Future Eaters, an ecological history of Australia. The Future Eaters is, in part, about the subtle interaction that makes an ecosystem work. It also presents an argument for sustainability, and climate change in a sustainability context has been the focus of Flannery’s work ever since. He was the Australian of the Year in 2007.
In September 2008 Flannery appeared on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, and Denton said to him:
‘Australian of the Year is not supposed to be political in his or her comments. Was it perhaps a useful place to put you, where you couldn’t be political?’
‘it might have been, but I sort of made it clear on the day that I got the Award that I wasn’t going to shut up. And it was funny, you know, because there we were in front of this crowd who were just, they were enjoying a beer and enjoying the sun and enjoying the music and I gave a little 100 word speech. In it I just said something like, ‘as Australian of the Year I just have to keep on being relentless in, you know, pointing out the faults that I see in the system.’ And all of a sudden the audience erupted. It was kind of scary because there was just this all of a sudden this cheer ... I didn’t think people were really listening [to me]’.
People are listening to Tim Flannery now. His most important book dedicated to climate change, The Weather Makers, was an international bestseller. And now there’s ‘Now or Never: A Sustainable Future for Australia,’ a 2008 Quarterly Essay which has generated correspondence and debate in Australia and around the world.
The climate problem - ‘We will need to learn very fast: learn, indeed, on the job’
Flannery’s essay draws on a lot of previous material – he’s talked before, of course, about the climate change problem, sustainability, agricultural policy, and coal – but there is much here that is new. And he’s much more pessimistic. In a review of Flannery’s essay and some other recent climate change books, Clive Hamilton in ‘Six Degrees of Apocalypse’ says that at times in the essay Flannery seems to accept the possibility that civilisation and perhaps the human species will be wiped out – a theme borrowed from James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia(a horror story if ever there was one), and a theme of which Flannery makes much. While Flannery (and others) ‘ seem[s] to believe that it is politically possible’ to ‘cut emissions within two decades sharply enough to avoid the worst effects’ of climate change, Hamilton ‘get[s] the sense that [Flannery has] ... to work hard to remain convinced.’
In the essay Flannery writes that, through the latter part of 2007 and into 2008, he
found it increasingly hard to read the scientific findings on climate change without despairing. Perhaps the most dispiriting developments are occurring at the North Pole.
He is clearly affected by the World Wildlife Fund’s decision to no longer try and protect the Arctic because ‘it’s too late.’ The WWF believes that the Arctic’s first summer completely free of ice may arrive before 2013, and the director of its International Arctic Programme ‘admits to having no idea what the Arctic might look like in 2050.’
Flannery begins the essay with sustainability, recognises difficulties with definitions, and views earth – referencing Lovelock’s Gaia – as a self-regulating, evolving system with humans as a part. His enquiry into sustainability is:
as much a philosophical and moral discussion as a scientific one; for sustainability pertains to us – our innate needs and desires – as much as it does to the workings and capacities of our planet. A real search for sustainability involves a broad vision...
The section of his essay entitled ‘The Climate Problem’ and what he refers to as ‘a new Dark Age’ is the most confronting – although I actually wonder for how long one can continue to be confronted by this kind of information. He puts the matter this way:
There is one problem facing humanity that is now so urgent that, unless it is resolved in the next two decades, it will destroy our global civilisation: the climate crisis. It seems almost superfluous to say it, but the warming trend is real and accelerating, and it’s our pollution that is responsible. All but the most ignorant and biased of sceptics now admit this truth, and it’s underlined by the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [the IPCC].
The IPCC is, as Flannery notes, ‘painfully conservative,’ and its standard projections, it seems from scientific studies over the last few months, confirm this. Indeed, the worst projections of the IPCC should, it appears,
be regarded as the most likely outcomes, and that tipping points which would cause sea-level rise of several metres, rather than the IPCC’s centimetres, are no longer statistical outliers but likely events.
Further, a study published in April 2008 found that the IPCC projections of 2007 underestimated by two-thirds the extent to which emissions need to be reduced.
At the moment the proportion of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is about 385 parts per million (ppm) by volume. Professor James Hansen (who Flannery and others recognise as the world’s leading climate scientist) has been arguing that 385 ppm is already too high. Hansen says:
Humanity today, collectively, must face the uncomfortable fact that industrial civilization itself has become the principal driver of global climate. If we stay our present course, using fossil fuels to feed a growing appetite for energy-intensive life styles, we will soon leave the climate of the Holocene, the world of prior human history. The eventual response to doubling preindustrial atmospheric CO2 likely would be a nearly ice-free planet, preceded by a period of chaotic change with continually changing shorelines.
Humanity’s task of moderating human-caused global climate change is urgent. Ocean and ice sheet inertias provide a buffer delaying full response by centuries, but there is a danger that human-made forcings could drive the climate system beyond tipping points such that change proceeds out of our control...
Paleoclimate evidence and ongoing global changes imply that today’s CO2 levels, about 385 ppm, are already too high to maintain the climate to which humanity, wildlife, and the rest of the biosphere are adapted... 
The problem is that with more than 1 degree of warming (relative to the year 2000, or 1.7 degrees relative to pre-industrial times), I understand it’s hard to avoid irreversible ice sheet and species loss. 1 degree of warming implies CO2 levels of 450ppm. Flannery believes that ‘[h]umanity can probably cope with a warming of less than 2 degrees.’
Professor Garnaut had stated that it is in Australia’s interest to see major reductions in global emissions towards a level of 450 ppm. Subsequently, however, he concluded that the 450ppm target was not possible at this time, and recommended a target of just a 10% reduction in emissions on 2000 levels by 2020 – that is, a level of 550ppm, with later global negotiations aiming at 450ppm. Yet, as the Climate Institute makes clear, referencing a study of pollution trajectories conducted in 2007 by the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency and Potsdam Institute, ‘there are no pathways that initially follow 550 ppm… and [that] can turn into a 450 ppm pathway later on.’
‘By 2020, no Australian polluter will live in poverty’
It’s said that a practical global strategy requires a rising global price on CO2 emissions (or, put another way, a market) and the phase-out of coal. For the Rudd Labor government, that means an ETS – the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) – to begin on 1 July 2010. It’s a cap-and-trade scheme, like that (more or less) which operates in the European Union, and like that which will operate in the United States. The abatement target is just 5%. Forget the 5% to 15% target ‘range’ – it’s 15% only in the event of a global agreement between major economies (including developing countries) to reduce emissions. As detailed in the CPRS White Paper, it means up to 90% free permits for large emitters, for emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries, and assistance to strongly affected industries like coal-fired electricity generators (based on a carbon price of between AUD 23 and 25 a tonne) – and, with little incentive to reduce emissions, it fails to achieve its main objective. Indeed, it rewards heavy emitters – the more such emitters grow, the more free permits they receive, based on a unit of production allocation – and punishes low emitters.
It represents a blueprint for a 650ppm ‘nightmare world.’
A market – an ETS – is often described as the best way to reduce emissions. But time is limited, and the science tells us that we need to stabilise emissions ‘too soon for carbon prices to rise enough to drive the R&D [research and development] necessary to enable cleaner alternatives to compete with fossil fuels.’ It may be that the most ‘plausible way to curb emissions ... is to accelerate the development and adoption of low-carbon energy sources.’ Instead of setting emissions targets – and no one, no government anywhere, knows how to achieve those targets – set goals for technology (something the CPRS certainly does not do). It’s been argued that the size of the technology challenge has been seriously underestimated by the IPCC, ‘diverting attention from policies that could directly stimulate technological innovation. I discuss, briefly, clean energy and clean technology below.
But back to Flannery. He says that, by last year,
scientists had five to six years’ worth of real-world data under their belts, allowing them to revisit the projections to determine their accuracy ... What they discovered should have made the front page of every newspaper on the planet. Astonishingly, in every instance the real-world changes were right at the upper limit, or lay outside even the worst case scenario presented by the IPCC. The full implications of these new studies have yet to sink in among those negotiating the global treaty that is supposed to protect humanity from dangerous climate change.
And we’re not short of worst-case scenarios: Gwynne Dyer’s book, Climate Wars – which Clive Hamilton calls ‘brilliant’ and ‘almost too fearsome to absorb’ – describes a nightmare world in 2050 of hundreds of millions of climate change ‘refugees,’ vast migrations prompting fortress defences by countries, global wars driven by climate change and the collapse of populations following droughts and crop failures. Mark Lynas in Six Degrees looks at what will happen as the world warms bit by bit; each chapter is devoted to one degree. The IPCC – the cautious, conservative IPCC – argues that up to 6 degrees of global warming is possible over the next 100 years – but for Lynas, at 6 degrees, it’s not pleasant. He says that, ‘[a]s we enter a world six degrees warmer than today’s, there are few clues to what really lies in store.’
Flannery’s task in the second part of his book is to look at some paths forward which, for him, involve
a drastic change in energy use. It also means making full use of the tools we have at our disposal – and inventing new tools – to draw the pollution out of the air and save us from Lovelock’s new Dark Age.
I briefly review these paths below.
In terms of coal, Hansen and others recommend the rapid phase-out of coal use over the next 20-25 years, except where carbon is captured and stored (CCS); they label this task, though, as ‘Herculean,’ one confirmed by Flannery. He notes that, in 2010, coal-fired energy generation in China will have doubled. As Pielke et al note,
[t]he world is on a development and energy path that will bring with it a surge in carbon- dioxide emissions – a surge that will only end with a transformation of global energy systems. We believe such technological transformation will take many decades to complete...
Coal is central to Flannery’s climate problem; I think the solution is unclear, and CCS is a long way away. Flannery’s point is that
the world, and China in particular, has gone so far down the road of using coal as an energy source that we have little choice but to pursue a solution that involves it.
Geothermia, rainforests and a ‘revolution in the feedlot’
Flannery also proposes ‘Geothermia’ – constructing a new Australian city in the Cooper Basin (northern South Australia/south-west Queensland) – utilising geothermal energy reserves. It would be a fully sustainable city where hundreds of thousands live. It seems unlikely, perhaps – a ‘million potential objections,’ as he says. But, as he also says,
at the beginning of any transformational scheme there is nothing but risk and opportunity. The question for us is whether the opportunity is real, and whether the risk of doing nothing is greater than that of making the investment.
Correspondence in relation to Flannery’s essay in the subsequent Quarterly Essay is generally critical of the Geothermia proposal. Flannery is ‘surprised at the extent of the uneasiness among respondents’ with his vision; ‘[e]veryone seems to admire the sustainable-city development at Masdar in the UAE,’ he writes, ‘but few, it seems, want a similar sustainable city in their own country.’
In addition to reducing emissions, Flannery is also concerned with carbon capture – or absorption – essentially through sinks. Forests sequester carbon. Flannery outlines a scheme whereby rainforests could be saved or restored through a market – a tropical forest carbon-trading scheme – in which we (eager to purchase our climate security) would be linked with tropical subsistence farmers willing to sell us that security (online) by preserving their forests. He says the key is including forestry in carbon trading through Kyoto. At the moment it is included in Kyoto, but simply as a means – through afforestation or reforestation – by which developed countries can meet their targets.
Finally, Flannery discusses land, farm and livestock management, as well as sustainable meat production, so as to achieve significant enhancement in retention of soil carbon – what he terms ‘holistic management’ – which also involves ‘mixed farming.’ What we really need, says Flannery,
is a different approach to food. We should be eating what is good for the planet, as well as what is good for ourselves: a sustainabilitarian diet. Such a diet could, of course, also be vegetarian, vegan or any kind of ‘-arian’ you wished, so long as the food eaten was sustainably produced.
A 'verdant' new deal
I mentioned earlier clean technology and renewable energy. In terms of business, it’s been argued of late that what is needed is a green economic recovery program - a ‘verdant’ new deal, as the Economist calls it – whereby, as Al Gore says,
we can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.
In other words, the steps that are needed to solve the climate crisis are exactly the same steps that ought to be taken in order to solve the present global financial crisis – clean energy, clean technology and green investment as a means both to address global warming and stimulate flagging economies.
It’s a neat solution, and an inherently appealing one; it’s a solution which Flannery would probably admire (although he shows no particular interest in global, integrated solutions). Yet its very scope and generality reveal the difficulty in coming to grips with a detailed answer to this core question: How to balance economic growth with sustainability? For James Gustave Speth, the Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, one measure of the problem is as follows:
All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate ... and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates ... and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But, of course, human activities are not holding at current levels - they are accelerating, dramatically ... At current rates of growth, the world economy will double in size in a mere fourteen years.
How, then, to reconcile – in Australia and the world - expectations of economic growth with a desire for a sustainable future? Or, as Bill McKibben wrote, in posing a question for Barack Obama, how to gain agreement to ‘raising the cost of continuing to live as we do right now?’ These are questions which Flannery does not deal with, and yet they go to the core of the matter of any sustainable future for Australia and the world. Flannery eloquently provides a number of prospective ‘tools’ for ‘draw[ing] the pollution out of the air’ and, for him, saving us ‘from Lovelock’s new Dark Age,’ although the tools are randomly linked. Flannery – through his proposal for Geothermia, for example – can inspire the imagination, and can make us see what could, perhaps, be possible (strangely, at times, since his vision for the future is not optimistic). Dyer notes that Flannery proposes ‘techniques that may be crucial to our chances of getting through this without a calamity of global proportions, and they need to be researched and tested aggressively now.’ But, again, in terms of the global problem we face, how to accommodate very real economic growth expectations with a desire – with the need – for a sustainable future?
In finding that ‘there is now a better than even chance that, despite our best efforts, in the coming two or three decades Earth’s climate system will pass the point of no return,’ and that ‘[t]his twenty-first century of ours will be faced with appalling social injustices, with conflict and pestilence,’ Flannery’s essay is hardly suffused with optimism, and he’s prepared as a result to consider desperate measures, ‘immediate fixes.’ One such measure is Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen’s idea of administering (via aircraft) sulphur to the stratosphere to cause ‘global dimming,’ reflecting sunlight into space and cooling the Earth; the dose of sulphur ‘would have to be sufficiently large to offset the greenhouse gases, and sustained over a long enough period to avert the melting.’
The outcomes of the Fourteenth Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP14) and the Fourth Meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (MOP4) in Poznan, Poland from 1-12 December 2008 were also no cause for optimism for Flannery. There were no significant achievements regarding targets or how to reach them, and negotiators ‘face a hectic 12 months of talks leading up to the critical deadline of December 2009 in Copenhagen.’ Indeed,
[w]hile many agreed that the Poznan meeting resulted in some progress and positive steps forward, the general feeling was that negotiators had not achieved any major breakthroughs. Those who had hoped for decisive action blamed a lack of political leadership and determination they think would have signalled success in the coming year. Instead, many predict that agreement on the most critical issues, including mid- and long-term emission goals and finance, will not be reached before Copenhagen [in December, 2009] ... Understandably, some participants left Poznan somewhat worried ...
Flannery was ‘dismayed by the slow progress of the UN talks’ and said that ‘[t]hese negotiations are not going as smoothly as we would hope. I’d like to see Australia be a bit more ambitious, quite frankly’ – comments, no doubt, Flannery would also make regarding emission reduction targets announced just after the Poznan conference by the Australian Government in its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme White Paper.
The last palm tree
Jared Diamond, an author Flannery has often cited with approval, has some interesting observations on sustainability, and in his book Collapse his question is how societies choose to fail or succeed. One of his case studies is Easter Island – perhaps the great case of collapse following complete deforestation. He asks, ‘What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?’ Did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’ or ‘Technology will solve our problems ...?’ For Diamond, however, no sudden change on Easter Island was likely. Rather, more likely, was an almost undetectable year by year change in forest cover. Gradually, the trees became fewer, smaller, and less important and, thus, ‘[n]o one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.’ Diamond says that perhaps
the commonest circumstance under which societies fail to perceive a problem is when it takes the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. The prime example in modern times is global warming.
Put another way, as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a couple of years ago,
[a]s the effects of global warming become more and more difficult to ignore, will we react by finally fashioning a global response? Or will we retreat into ever narrower and more destructive forms of self-interest? It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to [slowly] destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.
These are pretty bleak notes on which to end, so I offer this, from James Garvey’s The Ethics of Climate Change, published just recently:
I am hopeful. I’m not at all sure that our governments or our corporations will do the right thing, but I sometimes surprise myself with the thought that maybe the rest of us will, the worldwide majority now in favour of action on climate change ... Human beings eventually do the right thing ... But it would be very good, wouldn’t it, if we could get a move on this time?
And, finally, this from Gwynne Dyer (he of the nightmare climate visions) who I cited earlier:
The whole environment that our civilisation depends on [is] at stake. It’s not just about knowledge and technical ability; it is also about self-restraint and the ability to cooperate. Grown-up values, if you like. How fortunate [then] that we should be set such a test at a point in our history where we have at least some chance of passing it. And how interesting the long future that stretches out beyond it will be if we do pass.
There is no time to lose.
David Hodgkinson is a member of The Hodgkinson Group, Aviation and Climate Change Advisors; Special Counsel with Clayton Utz; and Executive Director of EcoCarbon, Inc. He is also a Visiting Fellow in the Law School at the University of Western Australia. He is the co-author of Global Climate Change: Australian Law and Policy (LexisNexis/Butterworths, Sydney, 2008) and the general editor of the forthcoming Climate Change Law and Policy in Australia.