In a world of celebrity chefs and sportsmen, he’s the celebrity scientist with the trademark akubra and big messages on climate change. Caitlin Ganter spoke to Professor Tim Flannery, a recent ACU honorary doctorate recipient, about staying optimistic.
The legendary Sir David Attenborough said he was in the league of the all-time great explorers, but Professor Tim Flannery is just happy if you’re listening.
One of Australia’s best-known scientists and biggest-selling authors, he’s also one of our most prominent climate change communicators.
“Climate change is the most important environmental issue facing us and we’re right in the middle of some very large-scale changes,” he said.
“The Arctic ice cap is melting at a high speed, and the destabilisation of ice shelves in the West Antarctic is likewise going much too fast for comfort.
“We’ve seen the extinction of species and many more being added to the endangered list, and we’re witnessing widespread changes in rainfall and an increase in severe weather.
“Not all of this can be pinned as yet to our carbon pollution, but many of the changes are in line with what the climate models predict if climate change is not addressed.”
In 2007 Professor Flannery co-founded and was appointed Chair of The Copenhagen Climate Council, and earlier this year he was appointed head of the Climate Change Commission established by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. While some have labelled the 55-year-old an alarmist, Professor Flannery is adamant that unless we learn to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, no further human progress is possible on Earth.
“We are sliding into a crisis and we need to mobilise the social and political will to address this problem before it’s too late,” he said.
“We still have a chance to leave our children a better future. If we don’t act we will be condemning them to live in a world where there are rapidly rising oceans, greater damage from extreme weather events, different disease patterns and different rainfall patterns. This is the critical decade.“
Australia has an enormous role to play, and is richer in alternative energy than many other countries.
“We’ve got some of the world’s best geothermal and wind provinces, huge amounts of sunlight – and fantastic technology in that area. We also have over 40 per cent of the world’s uranium and lots of natural gas, so for low emissions sources of energy we’re incredibly well off.”
Long before Professor Flannery became our most famous climate change warrior, he was packing a great deal into an extremely varied life. A mammalogist and palaeontologist, his pioneering work in both fields gave him a towering reputation in the scientific community and he single-handedly discovered 29 new species of mammals – including the dingiso tree kangaroo in the wet, inhospitable jungles of Irian Jaya.
“Discovering the dingiso was incredible. The local people knew about it of course, but I was astonished that such a large and distinctive mammal – which looks a bit like a small panda – could remain undiscovered by science until then,” Professor Flannery said.
“I’ve discovered other species but I consider that the high point of my biological career.”
The former Director of the South Australian Museum, and current Professor at Sydney’s Macquarie University, Professor Flannery was named Australian of the Year in 2007. This year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by ACU in recognition of his contributions to environmental science.
A prolific author, Professor Flannery is best known for The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australian Lands and People (1994) and The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change (2006) – which has sold more than a million copies and been translated into 20 languages.
His latest book Here on Earth: An Argument For Hope charts the history of life on our planet, and explores evolution and sustainability.
In the book, he quotes American ecologist Aldo Leopold: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.” However Professor Flannery said he still has hope, and expects to spend the rest of his career trying to tackle the climate change challenge.
“We have come such a very long way in our history. Sure there are a huge number of challenges in front of us, but I think that if we look at the history of our planet and the history of our species we’ll see that where those two intersect is where the problems of sustainability lie, and for most of them, if not all of them, we have solutions at hand,” he said.
“There’s a lot of pessimism about these days around whether we’re going to face an absolute environmental crisis in the near future. “But I’m optimistic. If we have a true understanding of the nature of our problems and ourselves, there is hope that we can solve them together.”