Australian Scientist, Tim Flannery, on Global Warming Future
Posted by lahar9jhadav on February 8, 2007
Tim Flannery was named Australian of the Year for his contributions to the environment and sustainability practices in a ceremony at Parliament House on 25 January 2007. After his acceptance he spoke about the Howard government’s decision not to sign the Kyoto Protocol “We’ve not been part of Kyoto, we’ve cost the global enterprise time, and time is critical”, “we have wasted at least a decade in dealing with this problem.” see wiki
This is an interview from the ABC program LateLine, 7/02/07. Tony Jones is the presenter.
TONY JONES: Joining us now is Professor Tim Flannery, arguably Australia’s best known popular scientist. He’s also the author of The Weather Makers and he was recently named Australian of the Year.
Thanks for being here.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY, SCIENTIST & AUTHOR: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.
TONY JONES: We’ve just heard Malcolm Turnbull set out, as he said, the scale of the problem, but that’s just China. There is India as well and between them, they have some 600 coal-fired power stations on the drawing-board. What happens to the atmosphere if they are all commissioned and they are not clean?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: I think the battle for climate stability will be lost and we’ll have very serious consequences within the next two, three or four decades.
TONY JONES: We’ll be lost if India and China specifically aren’t reigned in?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: If we have an increase on that scale – and just to put that in perspective, over the last 10 years, when we’ve been arguing whether we should have carbon trading or not, the volume of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere – human-caused greenhouse gas – has increased by 20 per cent in a decade. Over the next five years, it is likely to increase by another 10 or 15 per cent and so on. So the problem is growing so large that we’ll reach a point where it simply won’t be feasible to turn the situation around.
TONY JONES: That’s what we call a tipping point. Is there a way of assessing how close we are to a tipping point where you can’t reverse or fix the situation?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: Look, it is not possible to say when that point is going to come, but a useful analogy is the development of cancer in the human body. In a sense, the IPCC report we had last week was the experts saying, “We’ve got a very serious problem. The Earth has got a serious disease. We don’t know yet whether it’s got to that point where it’s metastasised and run away but we need to start treating it soon and effectively”.
The sooner you start treating it and the more effectively you start treating it, the better chance you will stop it before it gets to that tipping point.
TONY JONES: It’s interesting you should quote the IPCC report, because you are very critical of it, aren’t you? You think it’s rather a conservative outlook and doesn’t reflect what in fact is happening or the speed with which it is happening.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: Look, I’m not critical of it in a sense. It’s a consensus document and it is conservative particularly from the perspective that it cuts off the science in early 2005 and a lot has happened since then. Of course, being a consensus document, a lot of the material that I think is reasonably well-supported also gets weeded out through that process. If the IPCC says it you better believe it and then leave room to think it is actually a lot worse than they have said.
TONY JONES: What do you believe that goes beyond what they think and what’s the evidence for that?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: Look, what we’ve seen in the Arctic over the last two years has been such breathtaking change that you have to worry about stability for sea levels and for the entire Northern Hemisphere climate system. The rate of ice melt in 2005 increased by about five times over what it was previously and it’s been very, very large again in 2006. Now if you take those two years as the new trajectory for ice melt in the Arctic – we’ve only two years of data there – but if we do that, there will be no Arctic to melt in five to 15 years and that is an astonishingly short period of time for an ice cap that’s existed for three million years.
And when you think that – the climate system of the Northern Hemisphere is structured by the temperature gradings between the Pole and the equator, you know, so it’s as you start changing the temperature of the Pole you start reorganising the climate system of the Northern Hemisphere. So I’m very fearful that not in 50 or a hundred years time but within 10 or 20 years time we’ll start seeing very large scale changes in the bio sphere and people will realise, perhaps belatedly, the nature of this emergency.
TONY JONES: One of the things that you point out – and I think it is interesting to note because people don’t realise – for example, that the atmosphere is not as big as many assume it is, for example, it is much smaller than the ocean.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, it’s about one 500th the size of the ocean, and that explains why we’ve had three atmospheric emergencies, if you want, through my lifetime, you know. We had acid rain, then we had the hole in the ozone layer and now we’ve got greenhouse gases and climate change. We haven’t yet precipitated a global oceanic pollution crisis. It is not that we don’t throw rubbish into the oceans, it’s just that the oceans are so much bigger. Incidentally, the day we do that – the day we pollute the oceans globally – is the day we can say goodbye to any sort of planetary stability, because the oceans are the great drivers of the system.
TONY JONES: What we know for sure is that Australia contributes, although it does contribute to greenhouse gas only a tiny proportion. We talked about China, we talked about India as Malcolm Turnbull did. Now the Government are banking very heavily on Australian made clean coal technology being used to clean up all of those coal-fired power stations in China and India that you say could tip us over the edge. How likely is it that that technology could be ready in time and effective enough to actually do that?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: I don’t think it will be ready in time. I think we need to take a much more holistic approach than this. Look, from a scientific perspective, looking at the data, I feel as if it is 1939 and there’s an enormous threat on the horizon and we need to act in a way that isn’t the way that we act normally. Under normal circumstances, our economic wellbeing and whatever is what we put first and foremost. When you are faced with a dire crisis, that’s not the first thing that we address. For example, just going back to that analogy of going to the doctor and finding you’ve got a serious disease, you don’t ask, “How much is it going to cost me to get cured?” You ask, “What are my chances of a cure and what do I do to make sure the cure happens?” That’s the situation I feel we’re in. We’ve got to address this issue, even if it means a sacrifice at this time for a better future.
TONY JONES: Let’s talk in specifics though, about the Australian technology that the Government is banking on. Why do you think it won’t be ready?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: First of all, it’s dependent on the nature of the ground under those power stations. Some parts of the Earth’s crust are suitable for sequestrian carbon, other parts aren’t. We haven’t yet done a survey to see how widely applicable this technology will be. We know from the Australian situation though, that the Hunter Valley is not a good place to put the CO2, whereas perhaps West Gippsland and the Yachtway Basin is a little bit better. How widely applicable it will be no one knows.
Secondly, the costing is not yet clear. We know the electricity generated by this technology is going to be more expensive than standard coal-fired power plants but how much more expensive is as yet unclear. In the Australian situation, the best figures I can see suggest that it may be 6 to 10 cents a kilowatt hour, as opposed to the three or so that we pay now.
TONY JONES: Let’s take it to a broad level, because we are talking about the global problem and as we said earlier, we are talking about China and India being these two emerging giants with hundreds and hundreds of coal-fired power stations on the drawing board. It’s Malcolm Turnbull’s expressed hope that in years to come the greatest contribution Australia could make to the reduction of greenhouse gases globally is to export this technology to those countries.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: That will be part of the solution, but there’s going to be other aspects to that solution too and part of that is going to be nuclear power because some parts of the world simply don’t have the wealth of options that we have here in Australia. But there are many other alternatives as well. Geothermal energy, for example, is something that is barely spoken about, yet whose potential is every bit as great.
TONY JONES: I’ll come to that in some detail in a moment because I mentioned it at the beginning of the program and your quite sort of radical solution to our power needs. We will come to that but here is a question I put to the Prime Minister on Monday night. Now given that Australia sends to China and India huge volumes of the coal that they are burning, could there come a time, without drastic change to the way it is burnt, where it’s no longer in our national interests to export coal?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: That time has already come. The social licence of coal to operate is rapidly being withdrawn globally, and no government can protect an industry from that sort of thing occurring. We’ve seen it with asbestos. We’ll see it with coal. The reason is that, when you look at the proportion of the damage being done by coal now, it is significant, but that grows greatly in future. We have to deal with that issue if we want a stable climate.
TONY JONES: But it is clearly not going to happen is it? I mean, both sides of politics – because of the incredible employment opportunities offered by the mining industry and the prosperity this country gets from selling coal to China and India – are not going to touch that.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: We’ll have to make a choice. Do we want our minerals processing sector to prosper into the future or do we want coal to prosper? That will be the sort of choice we’ll have to make. If we want minerals processing and minerals extraction to be a big part of our future, we need to start investing now in technologies that are going to deliver low cost electricity that don’t create the pollution, and that’s where things like geothermal, I think become very, very important.
TONY JONES: What are you going to say – I mean, you are Australian of the Year and you get a chance to talk to these politicians. What are you going to say to them about the fact that we’re exporting the coal that is being burnt that creates the CO2 that you believe could destroy the world?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: The first thing to say is we should have ratified Kyoto because Kyoto is an international mechanism that deals with the unwanted consequences of the coal trade and other fossil fuel trades. If we had done that 10 years ago, we may have lessened the damage that was being done and we may have been on a trajectory towards healing the planet. We didn’t do that, so now the medicine we have to take has to be more radical, because the problem has grown by 20 per cent in the meantime. We are now getting close, many people believe, to that tipping point where matters will be taken out of our hands.
TONY JONES: By whom?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: By the planet, by the nature of the climate system, these positive feedback loops in the climate system. Once you heat the planet up enough, you get to the point where, no matter what humanity does, it is then too late to act.
TONY JONES: Mr Howard was quit emphatic on this issue when I interviewed him. He defines Australia’s national interest obviously, as being our economic interests and there are huge economic interests at stake and of course, the Government is saying, “We have the technology, it’s coming down the track, we’ll send it to India and China. They’ll be able to fix the problem”.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: The technology is going to be too small and come too late to fix the problem. We actually – 10 years ago – it is possible had we had those technologies then and had we had carbon trading then that we may have been able to use them as tools to fix the problem. The problem has grown too big now to be fixed. We need real investment by government, real sacrifice. At the moment for a better future.
TONY JONES: You know what the Prime Minister said, he said that if we stop sending Australian coal the Chinese will burn Chinese coal, which is in fact dirtier and it will be even worse.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: I think that’s a false – what do you call it – a false equation. The Europeans are already talking about tariffs, carbon-based tariffs. As the situation unfolds and the matters get more critical, the world is not going to allow people to pollute our common atmosphere as occurs at the moment. The social licence to operate those old polluting technologies will be withdrawn.
TONY JONES: You’ve mentioned Kyoto a moment ago. Of course, the reason – the stated reason – the Government won’t sign them or won’t ratify, I should say, the Kyoto Protocol is precisely because India and China and the United States, for that matter, are not part of it.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: You know what China said two days ago? They’re not going to rein in their emissions because the big polluters like the USA and Australia haven’t ratified Kyoto, and why should they take up the challenge when we haven’t addressed it. It’s a great blame game by us all and that sort of thinking gets us nowhere. We actually need to move forward.
TONY JONES: Do you think carbon trading alone, even on a global scale, will be enough to rein in the problem you see coming down the track?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: It’s a critically important tool. We must get into Australia but it alone will not do the job now. The problem has grown too great.
TONY JONES: So you think more radical mandated solutions might be necessary?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: We need real government leadership. We need to set a target within the next 10 or 20 years which will allow us to start exploiting some of these renewable and non polluting sources of energy and use them as the backbone of our minerals processing economy. These seem like radical ideas now but the sort of things five years ago what we are talking about today seemed unbelievably radical.
Just to come back to coal, the Australia I grew up in rode on the sheep’s back. Where is the sheep today? The economy has changed and it will change again in future. I’m convinced if we plot the right trajectory Australia’s prosperity will agree as we move away from coal.
TONY JONES: Let’s go to the radical solution. You’ve actually advocated for Australia closing down all coal-fired power stations and going to power rationing, creating a joint national scheme, like the Snowy Mountain scheme, to exploit geothermal power from the South Australia Cooper Basin. How would it work?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: I haven’t talked about power rationing. I think that we do need to ultimately close down those coal-fired power plants but first we need to build the bridge to the new energy future. There are hot rocks in South Australia that potentially have enough embedded energy in them to run Australia’s economy for the best part of a century. They are not being fully exploited yet but the technology to extract that energy and turn it into electricity is relatively straightforward.
TONY JONES: Is it there? I mean, is it there at the time? I know there are pilot plants in the Cooper Basin. How much of an effort, a national effort, would it take to take that further as you pointed out, and make a grid starting from there, spreading out to the rest of the country?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: If we started off on a raw footing, so this is the big investment in our future, the big Snowy Mountain scheme, to secure our future as the world’s mineral processor and mineral extraction area, I think we could probably do a very large amount of that within a decade. We’ve got the north-south railway now. We simply need to build on that, we need to reorient our grid, but first and foremost, we need to prove up these technologies. So we need a large investment in both solar-thermal and geothermal technologies, because both have huge potential in this area to produce abundant cheap electricity and they don’t have the sort of problem we have with nuclear. Part of the issue with nuclear is it is so politically contentious and perhaps that’s why it’s on the agenda, but it also makes it more difficult to use in Australia to move forward, and frankly, I think there are better options.
TONY JONES: I’ve got to ask the obvious question: in your position, you’re going to get the chance to put the chance to put these sorts of arguments to those directly in power and those who want to be in power. I presume you’ve done that to some degree already. Is anyone in the political scene thinking carefully about this proposal?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: I suspect that some people are. The big challenge for those people will be bringing their party with them.
TONY JONES: Do you think – I mean, I’ve got to ask this question. Are you talking about in Government or in Opposition?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: I think for both.
TONY JONES: There are people on both sides who listening to these ideas?
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: Yes.
TONY JONES: Why haven’t they entered the national debate? You are basically saying, “Here is something that would solve our power problems a hundred years into the future”.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: People are thinking about late 20th century solutions that might have been appropriate 10 years ago, and people – we haven’t caught on to the extent to which the problem has grown and the urgent need now for much more widespread solutions. It is not just securing our energy future, it’s getting the gas out of the air and Australia can play a leading role there too.
TONY JONES: Tim Flannery, you’ll have a unique opportunity as Australian of the Year to put these arguments. I’m glad you’ve had the chance to do it on this program tonight. We’ll see how you go. It was obviously a provocative choice by the committee, putting you in this job. It’s an interesting time for you to be there. Thank you for joining us.
PROFESSOR TIM FLANNERY: Thank you. I don’t know if I’ll thank them in a year’s time, but thank you.
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