A Night With Tim Flannery

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Professor Tim Flannery never planned to become a scientist. Discovering ‘more new species than Charles Darwin,’ was never a major life goal, nor was becoming one of Australia’s most important proponents of climate change action. Instead he was to become an English teacher, while spending his weekends searching for fossils at Black Rock beach in Melbourne.

However, this was not to be. Tim Flannery has become one of Australia’s most successful and influential scientists, while also communicating his love of natural history through both novels and television. As such, Flannery has the ability to demand quite the audience at any speaking engagement. Monday night’s conversation with renowned journalist, Anne Summers, was no different.

However, it’s Flannery’s latest, and perhaps most significant achievement that brought such a crowd to the Melbourne Town Hall. For many years now, Professor Flannery has been a strong advocate of climate change action, as both a scientist and head of the Climate Commission. Now, after the Abbott Government brought down the Climate Commission in one fell swoop, Flannery has gone on to bigger and better things in heading up the Climate Council.

Professor Tim Flannery launches the Climate Council

Noticeably, the pride swells in his voice as he begins describing the Climate Council’s early success; ‘It’s true. I was terrified the morning we launched the Council because if we didn’t get the public support, it would have sent a terrible message.’ Instead, the reverse occurred, with the Council raising well over one million dollars to date and Flannery couldn’t be happier. With sincere gratitude, he then said directly to the audience; ‘Thank you so much, you’ve done a great thing for your country.’

However, Tim Flannery’s initial exposure to the issue of climate change was surprisingly humbling. After being asked to report on the issue to the South Australian government, it was only then when he realised just how big a problem it was. ‘My colleagues in South Australia in the climate area were pulling their hair out at the lack of public interest. If I as a trained scientist can have overlooked the importance of climate change, what are the chances that the average person on the street has done the same, and that’s when I decided to make the switch.’

The importance of Flannery’s burgeoning interest in climate science cannot be understated, as it instigated somewhat of a watershed moment in Australia. He has since written an outstanding book on the subject (The Weather Makers) and raised considerable awareness both at home and abroad, despite some strong opposition. Remarkably, Flannery has even faced death threats for communicating the clear, factual science of climate change. When asked if he was scared of the perceived threats, he said ‘No, I don’t usually get scared by that sort of thing, but I get dismayed.’ This proved a poignant moment in the night, with Flannery clearly still saddened by the strong rejection of the science he is trying to communicate.

Naturally, Summers pushed the conversation in the direction of addressing climate sceptics, including the absurd politicisation of the issue. While being somewhat diplomatic with regard to climate change sceptics, it’s something Flannery has little time for; ‘Once you engage with this sort of information, you give people credibility that they otherwise wont have.’ Flannery then commented on the methods some journalists use to mislead the public on climate science; ‘If you’re thinking about buying influence, you go to the least informed because they’re the cheapest. Throw in some misinformation, don’t make it too complex, and you can buy influence cheaply.’

The conversation then quickly turned back to the science, with Flannery emphasising the importance of the next few years. ‘I don’t think we have crossed a tipping point yet, but I think we’re getting close. This decade is the one that really counts. If we can get our emissions trajectory on a strong downward slope, we’ve got a chance of avoiding that tipping point.’

Summers then asked about the potential effectiveness of the current government’s plan of direct action, with Flannery’s answer managing to draw a few laughs; ‘Well Anne, what is direct action? I don’t think anyone knows, we’re waiting to hear?’ Unsurprisingly, it’s an economic approach that Flannery suggests will achieve the greatest effect, suggesting ‘if you ask economists what the best way of dealing with carbon pollution is, they’ll say put a price on it… because it works.’

The angry summer of 2012 / 2013. Professor Flannery and the Climate Council predict things will be worse if no action is take. Photo: Climate Council. 

The angry summer of 2012 / 2013. Professor Flannery and the Climate Council predict things will be worse if no action is take. Photo: Climate Council. 

Flannery then extends his commentary to the management of the Australian environment as a whole; ‘Ecosystems are important; they’re what sustains us. What we don’t do, so often in environmental issues, is ask where are the key issues and then cost effectively address them.’ Its here where the normally softly spoken Flannery raised his voice somewhat, the passion obvious as he reflected on Australia’s current environmental policies, ‘we don’t seem to prioritise; we don’t seem to hold people accountable. If we fail and species go extinct, who is accountable?’

Despite the apparent dire situation, Flannery remains hopeful; ‘I do have a deep faith in human nature, I do have a deep faith that we’ll deal with this issue when we understand what’s at stake.’ Throughout the 90 minutes for which Flannery was on stage, this was the point to which he kept returning to and reinforcing – the need for education and understanding of the issue. It’s a notion that’s unfortunately lacking across a number of issues in which ignorance breeds resistance.

Arguably the best part of the night came as Anne Summers finished her interview and allowed the audience to question Flannery. The questions were far reaching from in depth climate science to Flannery urging the general public to stand up and take action. In particular, his suggestion for younger people, ‘If I was a student now... I’d get involved with organisations that are dealing with clean energy. Certainly get involved with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Or I would get involved with politics.’

His answer for dealing with climate sceptics is brilliantly simple, suggesting that the basic question of ‘What would it take to change your mind?’ is enough to encourage people to stop and think. Flannery then reinforced this by suggesting that ‘a lot of their problem is they’ve stopped listening. So I think that question is really important as it re-engages them.’

Importantly, an event such as this highlights how vital scientists like Tim Flannery truly are. Not only are they fantastic researchers, but also they’re wonderful and engaging communicators prepared to speak out on important issues. Mention must also be made also of Anne Summers, who proved to be an excellent interviewer, never rushing Flannery through his anecdotes or answers to her questions. Those in attendance have been given one powerful thing tonight – hope. The fact that Flannery remains confident that climate change can be curtailed serves as sound advice for us all to not give up just yet.