Australia's Flannery discusses progress on carbon pricing

With Australia moving forward on climate policy and California linking up with the European Union's Emissions Trading System, will the United States be forced to enact some form of carbon policy? During today's OnPoint, Tim Flannery, author of the new book "Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet" and chief of Australia's Commission on Climate Change, discusses Australia's progress on climate policy. He also explains his idea of humans as a superorganism and its impact on the Earth.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Tim Flannery, author of the new book Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, and chief of Australia's commission on climate change. Tim, it's nice to have you on the show.

Tim Flannery: It's a pleasure to be here, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Tim, you have a new post heading up Australia's Climate Commission, what's its role in the national and international climate discussions?

Tim Flannery: Look, the Climate Commission came about as a result of an election promise made last year by the government to set up a commission that will really create a dialogue with the Australian public about the nature of climate science, what's happening, what the scientists are saying, where we are in terms of international negotiations globally on the climate issue and also a discussion of the economic instruments that are available to a country like Australia to do something about climate change. So it's really a public interface role, but a very useful one I think.

Monica Trauzzi: It's interesting, because here in the U.S., with the failure of cap and trade last year, climate is a bit off the radar at this point. How would you compare what's happening in Australia versus what's happening in the U.S.?

Tim Flannery: Well, in Australia, for the last five years, the climate issue has been a key political issue. We have seen two prime ministers fall in large part because of the climate issue, John Howard, a conservative prime minister, and then Kevin Rudd, from the left-leaning Labor Party in Australia, so it is a hot issue. And, at the moment, we are in an enormous political struggle between the government, which is a minority government with green support trying to push through a carbon tax this year and the opposition adamantly opposed to it.

Monica Trauzzi: So, one of the things that the commission is trying to do is dispel misinformation that exists about carbon prices, carbon pricing. What misinformation is there? What do people not get about that?

Tim Flannery: Look, as we go around Australia we find that there's many misconceptions about it. Many people believe, for example, I'll personally be paying a carbon tax, when really it's only the 1000 largest polluters in the country that will be paying that tax. Now, sure, costs will be passed on in many instances to consumers, but it's important to keep it in perspective and understand, you know, where the cost will be paid.

Monica Trauzzi: So looking at what Australia is doing, how can the U.S. continue to have an impact despite the fact that cap and trade failed here?

Tim Flannery: Well, look, over the longer term you're not going to get enduring policy reform without having a public that's willing to accept it and so that's why the Climate Commission in Australia is such an important role. We need to engage with the public so that we can get acceptance of cost-effective programs that will actually do something about the problem. So something like that in the U.S., I imagine, would be a useful thing. Of course, it doesn't solve problems overnight. Our Climate Commission has got a four-year lifetime and may be expanded beyond that, but it's apolitical as well, I hasten to say. So it's a long-term process of really dialogue with the Australian public. And I think that's what's needed in any country that wants those sorts of reform. But here in the U.S., you know, you're doing some interesting things as well. I've been watching with great interest as California moves toward its emissions trading scheme and the EPA's doing some very good work as well. I just saw the other day that the Tennessee Valley Authority is going to retire 16 percent of its coal fleet after a dialogue with the EPA and institute a $5 billion rebuild with cleaner technologies, which is fantastic.

Monica Trauzzi: One of the big questions here in the U.S. right now is what to do with nuclear. Do we continue with it? Do we build more plants? What are your thoughts on nuclear since the Fukushima disaster?

Tim Flannery: Well, look, it's-look, every form of energy has its downside, you know? And nuclear, after Fukushima, has a downside that no one can hide from. The difficulty is, as we move into a clean energy future, no one knows how to build that sort of future at the moment in places like the U.S. without, I think, some nuclear in it. Now, it may be possible to do, but places like Germany and the U.S., if the U.S. decides to back away from nuclear are going to have to learn on the job. And so it's a difficult question. It's an open question and very much a political question, but the choices are going to be hard all around. There's no easy options when you deal with climate change.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk about the new book. It's called Here on Earth and it's basically a biography of the planet in 281 pages. So, how do you do that in under 300 pages?

Tim Flannery: Well, look, the book really grew from questions people were asking me after I wrote The Weather Makers, which was about climate change. And their question was, you know, well, what chance have we got of beating this problem? So I thought the only way to answer that really is to look at sustainability in the broad context and sustainability exists, you know, at the intersection of humans and the planet. So we have to understand the planet, how it works, how it evolved and our own species as well. So it was a sort of tough job getting it down into 280 pages. The original manuscript was closer to 500 and I just kept cutting until I got something that was readable. But I think it does the job. It looks at the evolutionary mechanism and what it has actually created.

Monica Trauzzi: How resilient is the earth and can it bounce back from something like climate change?

Tim Flannery: Look, the earth system itself is very resilient. It would be incredibly difficult to kill off the archaebacteria for example, the ancient bacteria that can live in rocks tens of kilometers underground and survive boiling temperatures and freezing temperatures, but it's a very different thing for our species. We are now forming a global super organism really on this planet. We are becoming intimately interconnected across the whole globe and that means certain vulnerability, so the earthquake and tsunami in Japan immediately reverberated throughout our civilization. And that is a relatively fragile entity. You know, if we don't have the water and we don't have the food and the other amenities required to sustain that civilization, it could well collapse. We may start fighting among each other and we are armed to the teeth now with nuclear weapons and we may create a world where it's just not possible to build a global civilization again, at least in the short or medium term.

Monica Trauzzi: So, being a super organism is not necessarily a good thing?

Tim Flannery: It is a very good thing in terms of empowering us as a species. You know, I think we're seeing the end of tribalism in the world now. We're seeing people becoming interconnected in ways that were unimaginable a couple of decades ago. But it does have its own fragility and vulnerability.

Monica Trauzzi: Democracy, why do you say that it's integral to our survival?

Tim Flannery: Well, it's-I think the only sustainable way of managing willful, upright apes, like ourselves, is to empower them and democracy does just that. And we have seen, in recent decades, the retreat of dictatorships around the world and just watching in the Middle East recently it's been astonishing to me to see people in Syria dressed in traditional thawb and hijab and with the big beards and, you know, speaking Arabic. But what they're saying is, you know, the people united will never be defeated. We are one great human family at that level. So, yeah, I think democracy is our future. It comes with both enormous benefits and liabilities as well, but it is the only system our species has evolved which appears to be stable in the longer term, in terms of allowing us to organize around these great cities and great, great entities that we have, economic entities we have.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show, nice to see you.

Tim Flannery: It's been a pleasure, thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

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