Tim Flannery didn't become one of the world's most influential climate thinkers by sugar-coating the truth. "If humans pursue a business-as-usual course for the first half of this century," he warned in his seminal 2006 book The Weather Makers, "I believe the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable." But Flannery has always been clear-eyed about the opportunities we have to change our course. "The transition to a carbon-free economy is eminently achievable," he wrote. The only things standing in our way are ignorance and pessimism and confusion.
Flannery has written about those obstacles in outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian. He's convened business leaders at the Copenhagen Climate Council. He's advised energy giants like India's Tata Power. For such efforts he was recently given the Jack P. Blaney Award from Simon Fraser University's Centre for Dialogue. When I reached him recently over Skype at his home in Australia, he was unflinchingly candid about all the hard work still ahead of us. "No matter what we do to reduce emissions the problem is going to get worse over the next decade," he explained.
But it won't be insurmountable. Flannery will describe the ways that our human species can solve it at a must-see discussion he's leading in Vancouver on Oct. 14 (click here for tickets). Right now I'm writing my own book about climate change, which explores how Millennials such as myself are responding to a crisis that is defining our generation. So I appreciated Flannery's brutal honesty when I put to him variations of the question that also happens to be the working title of my book: Are We Screwed? Our conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.
In your writing you often mention the scientist and thinker Alfred Russel Wallace. Can you explain the influence of him on your own thinking?
"Sure, well, Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-founder of the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin. They published a joint paper on it in 1858. Darwin spent his whole life perfecting that theory, going into the details and showing how it explains more and more of the world, whereas for Wallace the theory was a jumping off point. His big question in some ways was: how does this intensely competitive and ruthless process end up creating a world of co-operation such as the one we live in?"
It's interesting the way you've framed it because Darwin's theories have been almost distorted in a way. You have "survival of the fittest" turning into neoliberal economics. And yet we have this other thinker who potentially gives us a way of thinking about climate change that opens up a lot more avenues of exploration. This idea that we're all competing for resources but we all depend on each other at the same time.
"Yeah totally, and that's exactly why I find Wallace so fascinating. He was well ahead of his time in many ways. Sadly he's an outcast. Have you had a look at my book Here on Earth by the way, where I explore this whole issue of Darwin and Wallace? They frame the book, and they frame the great debate that we're in at the moment. Which is that we've had a century of rabid Darwinism in a way and Wallace's thinking has been largely forgotten. The book is an attempt to address that imbalance."
I want to ask you about a concept that comes from Australia called "Solastalgia." It refers to the process of mourning for a place that you haven't left. It was observed among rural Australians who were seeing their landscape change dramatically because of coal extraction, to the point where they no longer recognized it.
"Yes, it resonates very strongly with me because I see it all around. I've lived long enough that I recognize it. The only glacier in the Australian-Papuan region, which I've visited up in Puncak Jaya, is a tropical glacier. I've sheltered in an ice cave in its snout and wandered around the alpine valleys below it. That glacier will be entirely melted away in the next two to three years. That's a hugely impactful thing for me. In a rapidly changing world, solastalgia is probably going to affect everyone."
The rate of change we're experiencing these days is amazing. When I started reporting on climate change six years ago the tone was pessimistic, renewables were seen as expensive luxuries, China wasn't taken seriously. Things have moved really fast.
"It's astonishing. But the reality is we're nearly at one degree of warming now. We have got another half a degree built into the system. So we're heading to one and a half degrees even if we cut emissions to zero today. We are going to breach the two-degree barrier. The inertia that we have after a decade of worst-case scenario global emissions is so great it's going to push us over the edge without some other help."
The upcoming Paris climate talks are coming at quite an interesting moment then. We seem to be living in a society that's become pretty distrustful of large institutions, and any sort of top-down approach to problems. We've seen those approaches fail over and over. Do you think Paris has potential to offer something different, more hopeful?
"Yeah, Paris is the first bottom-up climate meeting. The work that Obama and others did in Copenhagen developing the Copenhagen accord is finally bearing fruit. We're going to have a whole agreement based on a bottom-up approach where countries submit their own plans. It's a new way of approaching the climate problem. One of the immediate problems that arises though is that the pledges coming from countries aren't anywhere near ambitious enough. We're still probably going to be heading toward a world of three-degree warming rather than a safer two degrees or less."
Yet people are talking about Paris as one of those rare moments in climate change you can point to and say, "Here's where our thinking changed, here's where people made promises and built on them." In climate change, it's hard to find those moments.
"I suspect though there will be an undercurrent of people who say it's been a failure because it hasn't gotten us to two degrees of warming. We did have one of those moments of real change earlier in the year. That was when the International Energy Agency announced that we decoupled global economic growth from emissions. It was an amazing moment that didn't get the media it should have. That came on the back of billions of people's individual actions. Some of it was wind and solar energy. But a lot of it is energy efficiency. Those little things like riding your bike to work or changing your light bulbs. It's all finally adding up to something really significant."
You've talked about climate change as a war of attrition that will be won one solar panel and one wind turbine at a time. Do you think that's a dynamic that will continue to play out regardless of what kind of an agreement we reach in Paris?
"Yes, I think so. It will continue to be that war of attrition. But our new challenge isn't necessarily about reducing emissions. It's not about geoengineering either. It's about actually drawing emissions out of the atmosphere. There is this third wave of technology which no one is really discussing yet at scale nor realizing the potential. But I think it will lead to a technology boom that will make wind and solar look small in comparison. It will be the stuff that drives your generation into the future."
Could you give some examples?
"There are two strains of third-wave technologies. One is the biological strain. The actions or technology or processes that use the power of the sun to capture CO2 out of the atmosphere and then store it somewhere or use it for something useful. Those sorts of technologies are older stuff like reforestation and biochar technology and seaweed farming and bioalgae stuff. Then there are the chemical approaches. They involve everything from the direct air capture of CO2 to make plastics, to the manufacturing of carbon-negative concrete. A whole lot of this stuff is happening, literally thousands of approaches. I see them because I sit on the judging panel of the Virgin Earth Challenge with 11,000 applications for these sorts of things. Those technologies are there, we could be drawing about 40 per cent of carbon emissions out of the air by 2050 using them. And that's quite a conservative estimate."
To a certain extent it will fall on members of my Millennial generation to make the changes necessary to deal with climate change. What we do in the next few decades could be crucial to the fate of human civilization. Do you have any advice?
"We need absolute determination to reduce fossil fuels to the maximum extent we can starting now. That's the single biggest thing. The next thing is getting space to think about the third-wave technologies and starting to develop them. But in my view the most important thing is dogged determination to stick with the program and not despair, because the next decade is going to be really tough. We'll be living with a Paris agreement that won't kick in until 2020, which is manifestly inadequate. By 2025 we may be able to see some light from some new technologies and we'll really be clamping down on fossil fuel use, so we could be in a much more optimistic space. And hopefully by 2050, we'll be lowering atmospheric carbon by one part per million per year, which would be great. That's the good news. It's all doable."
This article is part of a Tyee Presents initiative. Tyee Presents is the special sponsored content section within The Tyee where we highlight contests, events and other initiatives that are either put on by us or by our select partners. The Tyee does not and cannot vouch for or endorse products advertised on The Tyee. We choose our partners carefully and consciously, to fit with The Tyee’s reputation as B.C.’s Home for News, Culture and Solutions. Learn more about Tyee Presents here.