Tim Flannery: True Blue Ecowarrior

Green Lifestyle

The highs and lows of this tireless Professor's life to date, what he thinks about current Australian politics, & what keeps him going.

Tim Flannery

Professor Tim Flannery.

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Professor Tim Flannery is quite possibly one of the most outspoken climate advocates in Australia.

It's been a road of highs and lows for Flannery. He was named Australian of the Year in 2007, and was previously the chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group. He was also the Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission, a federal government organisation for climate change information – but in September last year, Flannery announced that he would join other sacked commissioners to form an independent Climate Council, crowdfunded by the community.

Now, Flannery heads up Australia's independent Climate Council. And just last month he was awarded the Lifetime of Conservation Award with the Australian Geographic Society.

It's no secret that Flannery wants Australia to move away coal fired power stations; in the media he regularly offers up some of the most persuasive arguments for closing them, and moving to renewables. We were lucky enough to pick his brains about his views, and his life to date – full of all it's highs and lows.

Q: The crowdfunding campaign to keep the Climate Council alive and independent was very successful. But how confident were you that it would work?

I admit when I stood up there announcing that we want to continue our work of providing information to the public, and we were going to seek donations to do it, my heart was in my mouth. I thought my goodness, if this doesn’t work out then it’s not going to say good things about the commitment of Australians to climate change. So I was so grateful when those first donations started rolling in, and when we got up past the $100,000 mark that’s when I thought, wow we’ve actually done it! It just felt like a big risk, and it was a big risk, but we did it.

Q: Yet we still do have this complete denialism in society today, why is it there, what do you think is the root cause of the problem, and how can we fix it?

In Australia we live in a society where coal is obviously very, very influential. Australia controlled more of the international trade in coal than Saudi Arabia did oil, until recently. And people in the industry obviously want to keep making money year after year, and so they influence politicians to the greatest extent they can, and they influence the media and so unfortunately the misinformation they put out there tends to get traction.

Q: Why is the coal lobby is so influential?

Until just recently we’ve seen the Queensland government say that they’re going to sell state-owned assets, or assets owned by the people, in order to help Adani coal miners build their railway lines so they can export the coal to the Galilee Basin. You know – that’s taxpayers money used directly to help the coal industry, and that tells us a little bit about how powerful they are.

Until recently the coal lobbyists were writing energy policies for the government – they may still be. And they go from the coal industry to the lobby industry to the government sector and they write the policy. So it’s a really long-standing thing. Australia has had the coal industry now almost since the foundation of the nation, so it’s been a very powerful industry.

Q: So how can every day Australians help to combat that, especially if it is so influential and lobbyists are writing the energy regulations?

Well we have to use – as a public that wants to see change – every tool that’s available to us.

The disinvestment campaign is very important, and because the coal mining companies around the world have lost half their value in four years, there’s already a very strong case to say we don’t want to invest in coal. So let’s invest in an industry that’s making money in the renewable energy sector so we can have cleaner energy sources. That’s something people can do.

Also, Australians have been great in installing solar on their roofs – we have nearly 1.4 million solar households now in this country, and that compares to only half a million in the United States. So individual Australians are putting their money where their mouth is in saying we want clean energy, so we’re putting in solar panels. Which is great, but of course the government isn’t doing the same thing – they’re doing the opposite.

Q: So what’s up next for the Climate Council? What’s next on the agenda?

We have to really now focus on what needs to be done in order to save the world from more than two degrees of warming – which would be a disaster. We need to focus on what the rest of the world is doing, what can be done in Australia, who is leading in Australia. For example, South Australia is doing very well developing a whole new clean energy industry in that state – and we need to try to work out what the impediments are elsewhere.

Q: And do you see some real solutions coming into place, a movement towards these greener initiatives?

Yes I think so, there really is. We’re seeing the cost of solar and wind dropping all the time, we’re seeing public acceptance growing. The trouble is we’re in a race against time. We need to really get on top of this quickly, and that’s the real difficulty.

Q: What about the recent G20 conference? Were disappointed or happy with some of the outcomes? What do you believe has changed now?

I think it’s been a game changer.

Now, everything has changed with the announcement with the US and China. The economics of clean energy will change, leadership has now been assumed by those countries, and it’s set the current in a new direction now, and that’s going to be very hard for anyone to resist I think.

I think that certainly the treaty between China and the US will be effective but the rest of the world needs to act as well.

Q: What would you say to the people who are saying that’s its not going to work, and its just not going to do anything?

I’d just say that look at what the countries have done already. People have been saying for years that China could never cap coal use, that China wouldn’t meet reduction targets of 45% and intensity targets; they’ve done all of that plus more. They’ve closed down 70 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants. They’re really determined and there’s no reason that they won’t make these next targets.

The US, they’re well on the way to achieving their 17% reduction target, they’ve now said 26–28%. There’s no reason that they shouldn’t given that nothing much has changed in the US; there’s always been Republicans in opposition, but over the years they’ve shown they can achieve the targets that they’ve set their minds to. So unless someone can point out what’s changed, why anything is different, you’d have to say that they will most likely continue the success that they’ve laid foundations for.

Q: On a more personal note, in terms of future direction of the planet, do you hold out much hope for the human race? There is so much negativity, but do you also see positivity?

I’m really excited for the future of the human race. I wish I was going to live long enough to see some of the changes I imagine might happen.

It’s such an interesting time in human history, it's amazing. But I just don’t think we can let this pollution problem destroy us, people are more sensible than that.

Q: Do you feel that your focus has been used in the right way to help us towards that ideal future?

Yeah, I hope so. I think I’ve tended to look at problems pretty carefully and dispassionately, and then once I’ve made up my mind that something’s an important problem, I stick with it. And the climate problem is exactly like that, I knew it was going to be several decades of work but that’s what I’ve taken on and you stick with it.

Q: And you’ve achieved so much so far too. What would you say are some of your greatest achievements to date?

I think the discovery of the Victorian dinosaur faunas when I was in my early twenties was a pretty big thing, and then in New Guinea, the discovery of 30 mammal species including four new tree kangaroos was pretty big. And being Australian of the Year, then creating and heading up the Copenhagen Climate Council and then being Climate Commissioner. I think they’re pretty important roles, I’ve been happy.

Q: How does winning the Lifetime of Conservation Award with Australian Geographic make you feel? Do you think it changes anything that you've been doing?

I really feel very deeply honoured – that’s one of the biggest honours I’ve been offered. So I’m very touched. I guess it makes you realise that you’re carrying that much extra responsibility as well. You know, when people think to honour you in this way, you really have to live up to their expectations; it just makes you double your efforts.

Q: What advice would you give to others who are a little bit daunted by what still needs to be done to help the climate, and thinking gosh it’s all too much, it’s decades of work?

Throw yourself into it. It’s an amazing journey.

Q: Do you feel like you’ve really made a difference as well, done everything that you could?

You never can say that until you’re in the grave can you?