Literary Orphans

An Interview With Tim Flannery by Amy Wright

In his sixties, Tim Flannery still embodies the spirit of adventure that characterized his first research expedition to the Pacific Islands in the 1980s. Author or co-author of nineteen nonfiction books, including the international bestseller The Weathermakers, and well as over one hundred scientific articles, Flannery has won the Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction and the Leidy Award for excellence in natural science publications. He is currently Chief Councilor of the Climate Council, an organization devoted to informing the public about renewable energy.


Wright: How is it possible that, as you say, “By 2050, there will be no more climatic ‘acts of God,’ only humanmade climate disasters”?

Flannery: We understand Earth’s system reasonably well now in terms of weather patterns, so people can enter data into computer programs that take into account all of the natural and synthetic factors that prevail in a certain area. These computer analyses have already shown us that extreme weather events are occurring as a result of human pollutants in the atmosphere. By 2050, they will be the principle driver behind every dramatic swing in the system.


Wright: “Acts of God” is a secular term used even by insurance agencies, but does the desire to protect a divine realm explain why “belief” has entered conversations about climate science?

Flannery: Well, first I should say that I don’t think people should believe anything. They should remain skeptical insofar as they can while they work out what truth of the matter. Climate science is complicated, but non-specialists can still evaluate whether the information available is making sense. They can and should ask questions and seek answers from individuals and websites that have scientific credibility.


Wright: The Climate Council you head serves as one such source, right?

Flannery: Yes, we often take quite complex scientific studies and present them in a way that non-specialists can readily access. We produce reports on climate change and have regular media spots called forums where we answer the public’s questions.


Wright: You refer to the management of the atmosphere as a “global commons.”

Flannery: The way I’ve seen humanity handle commons best is at the small-scale, village level as in New Guinea, where I have spent much of my life working. It takes a lot of time and energy to engage, but politics do. Politics isn’t something we should be delegating to special representatives or misrepresentatives. We need to develop a system where ordinary citizens play a more active role. I really think we need to take turns in governing ourselves, somehow, by creating a system in which we all get to engage at a deeper level, a system in which ordinary citizens play a more active role and are rewarded for self-governance. Governance is the one thing we should never give over to others. It’s the one thing that as human beings we need to always be deeply involved in.

One way of doing this might be to have citizen juries deciding on budget items—after all, we’re the taxpayers. That kind of involvement is clearly not the case in our current democracy; lots of hands intervene in the will of the people. But, that sort of democracy is much more meaningful and robust in terms of fending off dictators. It’s partial democracies where dictators are strong, and you can see today through global alliances such as Russia and the U.S., which are clearly getting closer—one a democracy and the other a dictatorship. At one level you can see that they are not as far apart as many of us imagine. We need new forms of democracy that can protect us against those who would be dictators or who are dictators.


Wright: The banning of chlorinated fluorocarbons (CFCs) after it was discovered that they depleted the ozone layer was swift and global thanks to the Montreal Protocol. Why are carbon emissions not being similarly addressed?

Flannery: Carbon emissions are much harder to address than CFCs because it was really a single company—DuPont—that was responsible for the production of CFCs. Once DuPont understood the impact of the chemical on the ozone layer, substitutions were found, and the treaty was enforced. We owe much to the quality of our lives now thanks to that Protocol signed on September 16, 1987, which was perhaps the first day we came together globally to make a decision for all humanity.

But when we’re talking about fossil fuel companies, we’re talking about many more companies. Some are the largest companies and wealthiest people on the planet, and they don’t want to give up their privilege, so year after year they fight back. It goes in waves, though. We’ve had some great victories; then things get robbed back a bit, as we’ve seen in the U.S. with the election of Donald Trump. The big problem is that we’re running out of time. We need to push forward and reduce emissions as soon as possible to give us a chance to stabilize our climate.

We’ve been tracking the worst-case scenario for emissions growth that was imaginable ten years ago and are now committed to a world that’s one and a half degrees Celsius warmer than the preindustrial world. We know in that world that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef simply cannot survive. It’s going to go extinct. It will die, so we know that while it’s important—vitally important to cut emissions—that alone is no longer enough. Nor will we be able to cut emissions instantly. We will go through that two-degree barrier in the next few decades. We’re committed to going through it, so we need another tool, which is why I argue that we need what I call “third-way technologies,” which are technologies that draw CO2 out of the atmosphere and make something useful of it or sequester it. But that needs to happen on a very large scale, so we need to work together and use the power of the market.

Wright: How can the average person participate in these “third-way technologies”?

Flannery: If you’re a farmer, or even a gardener, you can use biochar on your land. Biochar is a product of modern wood chemistry that is created by a process similar to traditional charcoal making, in that it separates carbon from other compounds. If it is mixed into soil or used to fill in old mines, it can sequester or re-store carbon for one hundred years or more. In The Netherlands now they have a carbon-negative roof paint that you can use to paint the roof of your house, and it will capture CO2 straight out of the atmosphere. There are a few ways, but at the moment these technologies are very nascent. They’re just at the beginning, so we need a big Research and Development effort on the part of governments and industry to start bringing some of these opportunities to scale.

I can imagine that in thirty years’ time you might be able to have the foundation of your house made of carbon-negative concrete which will sequester CO2. You may be able to buy soil-amendment products that have rocks in them that absorb carbon or to buy seaweed products that are part of the solution. You may be able to crowd-fund a CO2 -sequestration effort in Antarctica, but we can’t do any of that now.  We haven’t even opened the book yet, much less read the first page. We know the book is there, finally, but that’s all for a lot of these technologies.


Wright: Will addressing climate change require a cultural evolution?

Flannery: Cultural evolution is happening anyway. When I was growing up, information traveled slowly; people were poorly connected compared with how they are today. Ideas traveled slowly. Wealth traveled slowly. Countries meant a lot more than they do now, as separate units around the Earth, but today we live in a truly global society. You can see this evolution in so many aspects of our lives. As an example, when I was younger, powerful countries could influence poorer countries’ elections. We’ve seen in the last U.S. election that in fact Russian was able to interfere in the American electoral system, and arguably any country can if they put in the effort since information travels instantly around the globe. Whether we like it or not, we are becoming a globalized society, and there are many implications of that from the free flow of goods or people to issues of global governance that are becoming increasingly imperative and unavoidable.


Wright: You’ve said that interconnectivity between people has established a new form of credit through their rankings. Is social credit shifting the status quo?

Flannery: Well, it’s so interesting. In Papua New Guinea and Pacific Island Nations, the entire economy is based on social credit. A person might work for years to hold a really big feast, which will then establish his reputation and name and social position as someone of some esteem. It sets him up for life basically. That happens in those societies because they can’t store capital really, because capital is in the form of pigs and sweet potatoes that go to waste if you don’t use them, so you give them away to create this network of social obligation.

So, I’m quite used to the idea of social credit being used in a capital market, if you will, and I’m confident that it’s going to change the way we operate. It’s not going to be as easy to make money at the expense of other people because social credit will restrict those channels. We’re in for a big shift. I see it with younger people now. They know money is, yes, one thing you need, but we also need that social capital. Otherwise you’ll never be able to use Uber or buy anything on Ebay. If you’re a cheat, you’ll never be able to use Airbnb…


Wright: Your interest in science often takes you far afield. How is it that you’ve come to integrate your research across so many disciplines?

Flannery: There are two ways of studying the world it seems to me. The one most dominant today is atomization, meaning that you take the world apart and bit by bit and look closely at a particular part or parts, and that’s the way a lot of major scientific advances are made. But there’s also a need for synthesis. To synthesize ideas yields an understanding of what the whole looks like. For some reason my mind has always gravitated toward the latter. I’ve always been interested in why things work at the larger level.


Wright: Does your tendency toward the long view stem from your background in paleontology?

Flannery: Yes, I think it probably does. The long view has always captivated me. I grew up in a frontier city in some ways at that point, since it was only about one hundred and twenty years old. When I was a boy, near my home I found a fossil deposit in our local bay that was about ten million years old. The deposit was in the waters along with coral and fish, but it had the remains of sharks and whales in it and that gave me a picture of the ancient bay. So very early on I developed this passion for time traveling. I would snorkel over those remnant creatures and daydream about what life must have been like back then.


Wright: How did your years of research lead to environmental activism?

Flannery: It started for me when I was climbing the higher mountains in the Pacific. Wherever I went on those high mountains I noticed everywhere that the alpine zone was shrinking—that’s the zone at the very top where it’s too cold for trees to grow and there’s a very distinctive border of flora. The tree line was rising. And I knew after seeing it half a dozen times that a real change was occurring and could only be accounted for by something like a universal shift in climate. So that was my first insight into it, and I became very worried because we know that in the Ice Age Earth was about five degrees cooler than it is now. Under those conditions, the tree line in New Guinea was at 2,100 meters.  Today, in a five-degree-warmer world, the tree line is at 3,900 meters. That’s nearly 4,000 meters, yet the highest mountains in New Guinea aren’t even 5,000 meters high, so if we’re talking about two, three, or four degrees of warming, you lose that entire alpine habitat.

Wright: Some would say human’s right to work or to job security takes precedence over alpine or marine or rainforest habitats. Is environmental conservation a luxury not everyone can afford?

Flannery: Once upon a time environmental conservation was a luxury that not everyone could afford, but the world has never been wealthier than it is now. If we distributed the wealth more equally and truly valued human dignity and the right to work or the right to a meaningful life as the most important thing, then we could structure society very differently. The fact is we’re not doing that in our most developed societies. We’re continuing to propagate inequality where the right to work in fact isn’t respected at all. What is respected is the right to make a profit, particularly for large corporations. We can easily have both environmental conservation and the right to work if we reexamine the structures we work within.

Just to take that one step further, if you consider the situation in least developed countries, meaningful work and conservation go hand in hand because those societies cannot disregard the consequences of local environmental destruction.

I’m running two conservation programs at the moment in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands where the communities understand that inherently. They definitely want employment but not at the cost of environmental devastation. I’m working with them to create meaningful employment around biodiversity conservation.


Wright: Climate change is a very personal issue for you.

Flannery: I think many people consider this issue personal. In Australia, at least, we have a star-rating system for white goods that lets consumers see how much energy a particular product will use over a year. And people make choices like putting solar panels on their roofs or the kind of car they buy. Of course, they don’t always make those decisions based only on carbon factors; it’s one of many considerations, but it is significant that people take it into account when making consumer purchases. Even if we don’t all agree on many things we can all do something.


Wright: Do you also see industrial carbon emissions as equally personal?

Flannery: Yes, and the consequences for environmental destruction need to be borne at the board and shareholder level for those industries that are contributing the highest emissions. There are movements, like the divestment movement, in which some are working in that direction, but clearly if we want a sustainable planet then everyone has to be held accountable.


Wright: You’ve expressed admiration for Charles Darwin’s contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently came up with a theory of evolution that includes the “miracle of cooperation.”

Flannery: Wallace and Darwin both authored theories of evolution by natural selection in 1858. What Wallace noticed was that although competition is the driving force of evolution through natural selection, what it does in effect is build levels of cooperation so that guilds form, even within individual cells, to work together to gain an evolutionary advantage. That was a profound insight. And cooperation in fact is by far the more overwhelming aspect we see in the world today, although competition may get our attention when we see it on a wildlife show depicting a wolf and a coyote or something.


Wright: Perhaps it justifies certain behaviors as natural, the way people seized on the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

Flannery: Yes, “survival of the fittest” was a term coined by T.H. Huxley some years after Darwin published his book on the origins of natural selection in 1859. The phrase was taken up by Victorian society to justify many social trends. People would talk about survival of the fittest to explain things like why factory workers would all be dying from various toxins they were inhaling, while the factory boss just seemed fitter. They assumed he was the better human being. After all, he was the one who got his hands on the money! Of course, he may have been a worse human being in many ways, but “survival of the fittest” gave him an argument that it wasn’t his greed and ruthless practices that got him there but that he had some inherent value that others didn’t. That argument was also used to justify the British Empire as the fittest race who could take over the world while others died away. This social term was used through the Nazi Era as well to justify favoring the interest of one individual above another.


Wright: You write that ultimately “it’s not so much our technology, but what we believe, that will determine our fate” as a species. What do you believe?

Flannery: I believe that we’re in the midst of a great transition, and that it is probably the moment of greatest peril in the human journey so far simply because we are in the same boat now. The whole world is coalescing into one single unit, and the way we handle this transition will determine whether we as a species adapt and survive into the future.

Wright: How might the average person support this transition?

Flannery: I recommend joining a community group. There are so many groups mobilizing for climate action or helping to break the link between prosperity and pollution. There’s, which is a global grassroots network active in over one hundred countries. There’s also a global Youth Climate Coalition for younger people to have their voice heard. In Australia, there’s a group called Solar Citizens for people who own solar panels. They’re incredibly varied, these special interest groups who are gathering around everything from electric vehicles to bicycles or bi-planes. There are wind associations for those who support the wind industry. There are Greenpeace and student movements, so the key is finding a group that suits your interests and getting in there and being part of the solution.


Wright: What justifies your optimism?

Flannery: I have a really profound faith in human nature. It took three generations of stars, which are very slow to age, to create the elements—iron, calcium, carbon, etc.—necessary for living things to exist. Creating a global intelligence on this planet has taken all of evolutionary time, and we know how unlikely that creation has been. The Toba eruption alone could have put an end to our species 75,000 years ago, so my life has always been about education and giving ordinary people the opportunity to be extraordinary, which is when we as a species are at our best. Wallace, in the closing paragraphs of his book Man’s Place in the Universe, speculates that maybe it is the destiny of humans to perfect the human spirit in the vastness of the universe. For me that is a promising endeavor.


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Amy Wright is the author of two poetry books, one collaboration, and five chapbooks, including the prose collection Wherever the Land Is.  Her nonfiction has been awarded with a Writers at Work fellowship, two Peter Taylor Fellowships to the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop, an Individual Artist Grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a fellowship to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work is published or forthcoming in Brevity, Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and Waveform: Anthology of Women Essayists, and elsewhere.

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–Art by Jaime Ryan