Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery, is a special guest of the University of Melbourne’s School of Earth Sciences and GSAVic (the Geological Society of Australia [Victorian Division]) which is hosting the 2007 Selwyn Symposium – Climate Change or Human Impact? Australia’s Megafaunal Extinction – at the University 27 September 2007. Professor Flannery will give the GSAVic Selwyn Lecture following the symposium. University of Melbourne Voice writer Rebecca Scott asks him about Australia’s climate change outlook.
Q German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the clock is “five past midnight” regarding climate change. What time is it on the clock in Australia?
A If you look at what’s happened in the past 20 years we have been gradually increasing the concentration of green house gas emissions in the atmosphere. There’s now about 430 parts per million CO2 equivalent. The science suggests when we get to 450 per million, it stands about 20 per cent chance or less of triggering dangerous climate change. So in that sense we don’t have very long. We are accumulating at the rate of two or three million parts per year. We will hit that threshold within a decade.
Q What do you do personally to avert climate change?
A My house runs only on solar panels. There is no mains power connection. I drive a Prius – a hybrid vehicle. I try to offset air travel with a reputable company called Climatefriendly. I do what I can in those regards. We have our own water tank and recycling plant. It all runs off the sun. We can leave the lights on with no guilt.
Q How can the past inform us of the future?
A The key thing is – what the past is telling us is that climate can change very quickly and to a very large degree. That is the main thing. Also that climate change is not good for life on earth. Serious climate change has serious consequences for living things.
The trouble is we are dealing with different circumstances in the past than what we are dealing with now. Different climate drivers also produce different climatic outcomes. The past is useful but we have to realise it is different circumstances now.
Q Crisis, pandemic, war have required new ways of organising ourselves. To avert a climate change crisis what do we have to do individually, economically and politically?
A Start with politically. What we have to do is organise a global response to the crisis because it involves pollution of a global common in the atmosphere. So we will have to coordinate our efforts to reduce that pollution.
Economically, we have to do it in a way that is not harmful to our economy. We are beginning to see ways of dealing with that. Nicholas Stern gives a broad overview on what economic impacts are likely to be. If we use economic instruments like carbon trading, the economic impacts will be small and manageable. Which is a very good thing to know.
Individually, we all have to fall in line with the new regulations and new ways of thinking. That will be made easier when governments get their act together.
Q Are humans the next megafauna to become extinct?
A I doubt it. I don’t think we will become extinct but I think we will be thinned out a bit particularly if we don’t do anything.
Q What else do we need to be considering about climate change?
A The way geologists have engaged in the debate. Geologists are some of the greatest skeptics on climate change and not for very good reasons. It’s part of their training – it causes them often to underestimate catastrophe in Earth history. We really need a new theory of catastrophes to help us to understand what we are learning about the past.
If you look at the political process – such as in December 2009 there is a critical meeting in Copenhagen – that is where the post Kyoto treaty will be forged. It will be great if Australia had a seat at the table at those meetings. At the moment we haven’t ratified the Kyoto protocol. It is really important to still have a voice there and that we play a constructive role.
Q How has it been this year in your role as Australian of the Year?
A Busy – very busy. I don’t think I have ever worked so hard. I have hardly been home this year. That is the main thing. Even getting to businesses who want briefs on climate change has been challenging. And because this is a global issue, I have been spending a lot of time overseas as well.
Q Do you think the message about climate change is getting through?
A We are living through an amazing social revolution at the moment, where people are coming to grips with a global pollution crisis in a way we have never seen before. That is really interesting and fantastic. It’s just that it would be good to have a few more hours in the day.
Q Are people putting things into place in homes and businesses?
A We’re waiting for the global agreement. That’s what’s holding us back. We need Kyoto to work. People are doing small things – making pledges – some not necessarily small, but they are doing their bit. All of this will become so much easier when we have a global commitment in place.
Q Did climate change cause extinction of megafauna?
A No, humans caused that extinction.
Editor's Note: First published in The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 1, No. 14 (17 September - 1 October 2007). For permission to reproduce this article please contact The University of Melbourne.