Author Tim Flannery predicts 'new dark age' if global warming not addressed

Although many lawmakers agree that climate change is a major problem that must be addressed, consensus on a solution has been elusive thus far. During today's OnPoint, Tim Flannery, author of "The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth", discusses various "tipping points" that exist within the Earth's climate, and why these changes could prove to be irreversible. Flannery also explains why he believes a carbon tax is the most efficient way to approach climate change policy, and addresses some of the potential economic and cultural impacts of global warming.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Tim Flannery, author of the book "The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth." Tim thanks for joining me.

Tim Flannery: It's a pleasure Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: You have a deep-rooted background in science, zoology, climatology, geology, are all among your areas of expertise. Why did you decide to immerse yourself in climate change?

Tim Flannery: Well I realized that I had underestimated the power of climate change to alter our world. So about five years ago I started to just diligently research the topic to make sure that I understood it properly and to really allow other people the opportunity to see the science.

Monica Trauzzi: Talk about the first time that you really started to understand climate change and you understood the enormity of it.

Tim Flannery: Well I guess that was when I was, I'd seen things in nature myself. You know I had a few dots on my join-the-dot diagram, you know, in my mind. But when I started to read the major articles on impacts on biodiversity, saw how many species were going to go extinct, what was already happening in the natural world as a result of this warming trend. That really struck me and you cross a Rubicon, you know, you go to a certain point where there is just no turning back once you understand what's happening and you have to act. So that happened to me. I went home and bought a solar hot water system. You know, started to change my life, yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: Who are the weather makers that you referred to in the title of the book?

Tim Flannery: Well, everyone who uses fossil fuels is a weather maker. Citizens of this first global society are causing a global pollution problem with these greenhouse gases. So anyone who contributes to that pollution problem is a weather maker.

Monica Trauzzi: You talk about three main tipping points in the book and once we reach them we'll be in drastic and dramatic change. Explain what the tipping points are.

Tim Flannery: Well all of them concern major rearrangements of the Earth's climate system. As we heat the atmosphere we put pressure on the climate system and it changes abruptly, or can change abruptly, from one state to the next. The really big steps that change may include things like change in the ocean circulation, so a shut down of the Gulf Stream is one of the symptoms of that, which could dramatically alter the climate of Europe. You know Paris could end up with a climate like Siberia. More worrying to me is the collapse of the Amazon rainforest because we're ready seeing signs of decreased water flow through the Amazon in summer these days. And just that sort of, the impacts of that would be enormous. We would have 200 gigatons of carbon go into the atmosphere. And what that would mean is instead of having CO2 levels at say maybe 700 parts per million at the end of this century, there might be 1000 parts per million. And that of course is an enormous difference. That means runaway heating. And the other thing that is of great concern is what's happening at the poles. You know, will the Arctic tundra melt in such a way as to release the methane that's contained within it? And if that happens we face runaway warming.

Monica Trauzzi: In the book you pinpoint the 1970s and 1998 as two crucial points for climate change. What makes our current situation different and why do we need to be more concerned now?

Tim Flannery: We have got to the point now where we are seeing very large-scale changes in nature of a magnitude which simply haven't been seen before. This last winter an area of the Arctic ice failed to solidify or to freeze, on the order of more than 100,000 square miles, a very large area. We've just had news from Antarctica that the West Antarctic ice sheet is showing signs of instability. Were that to break up, there's enough ice held there to raise global sea levels by something like 20 feet. It's a vertical movement of the sea of 20 feet. So when you start seeing incipient signs of this you know that you're starting to create serious destabilization. There's no time to lose in terms of addressing this issue.

Monica Trauzzi: And you say that we could have cataclysmic changes affecting us by 2050. That's a very strong statement and some people may feel that you are trying to scare citizens into effecting change. Do you think you're guilty of scare tactics?

Tim Flannery: I now believe that that timeline of 2050 is a little bit too generous. I do think that we are starting to see now very ominous signs of change. And that within the next few decades we may start to see even more substantial signs of change. I don't think this is, it's not political at all. I mean what I've tried to do is simply read the science as clearly as I could. I'm not a political person by nature. My biggest personal concern, apart from my children's future, is biodiversity. But you can start seeing these shifts and you know that this air pollution problem is getting worse and worse and worse. And it is actually so easy to address.

Monica Trauzzi: You do address the politics behind climate change a bit in the book. You talk about the Kyoto Protocol at length. And the fact is countries are having trouble meeting the standards set in the Kyoto Protocol. But you contend, in the book, that in order to stabilize our climate Kyoto will need to be increased by 12 times over. What's the solution if countries can't even meet the current standards?

Tim Flannery: Look, I think part of the problem with the Kyoto Protocol is the carbon trading scheme, you know? We've seen a collapse in the price of carbon over the last month. It's gone from 29 euros a ton to 9 euros a ton and that's due to corruption, governments giving away too many credits. Whether that can be fixed or not, I don't know. I think that there's a much more straightforward way of dealing with this, which is a carbon tax. A straightforward revenue neutral carbon tax would tax all sources of greenhouse gas emission across the economy. And then give all Americans an income tax break of an equivalent size. People would be scrambling to reduce their tax burden. We would see the market unleashed all of the sudden to deal with this problem. And I think we would literally see sort of a tidal wave of innovation that would very effectively deal with the issue.

Monica Trauzzi: Have you discussed this carbon tax with lawmakers in the United States?

Tim Flannery: I've discussed it with business leaders in the United States, some of whom are strongly in favor of it, people from industry. They don't want to be remembered as the people who destabilized the Earth's climate. They want to do something about it. They don't want regulation because that disempowers them. They don't want litigation, which is where it will end up if nothing is done. So taxation is the, let's say, the least objectionable of the three options open to them.

Monica Trauzzi: Will you be talking to lawmakers about it?

Tim Flannery: I certainly will. I hope to do that increasingly. But people need to understand how urgent this issue is and that the solutions are not going to be painful. You know a carbon tax with an income tax break is going to be revenue neutral. It will put dollars in your hand. It will reduce the price of things through the free market operating eventually. So I think it's a win-win situation.

Monica Trauzzi: In the book you say, and I quote, "It is in the United States, and specifically with the second Bush administration and its industry supporters, that the opposition to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is most virulent." What do you think is happening with the current administration? Where are they going wrong?

Tim Flannery: I do believe that America has done so well out of the fossil fuel economy over the 20th century that it is very reluctant to move on, particularly for some in the industry and some in the administration. The fact is we can't go on the way we have been. We've got to a point of no return. Changes are occurring internationally and America will be left behind unless they move. I think there's a dinosaur end of the fossil fuel industry who still see themselves as coal miners or oil barons or something, who, rather than energy company executives, that are holding us back and we've got to change that mindset.

Monica Trauzzi: And speaking of changing that mindset, you're in the U.S. making public appearances, trying to spread the word about climate change and talk about the book. What kind of response are you getting from everyday people who potentially could be driving SUVs? What are they saying about the book?

Tim Flannery: It's extraordinary, when you explain to people that 56 percent of the pollution that they put into the air, today, getting to this talk in their SUV or whatever, will still be there in a century's time hanging over their grandchildren's head. That makes a big difference to people. They realize that this is, at base, a moral issue and that it's their lifestyle that's degrading, potentially, their children's future. So people realize the need for change by and large. Sometimes they feel disempowered or they feel that the change is too big to be made, but you can explain that that's not the case. All we want is the services. We just want the lights and the cameras rolling, we don't necessarily want that electricity to be generated from fossil fuels. There are lots of alternatives.

Monica Trauzzi: Hollywood is getting involved in the efforts to raise awareness. There is a strong possibility that once the issue of climate change gets into pop culture it will become a fad and then eventually die out. So do you think that Hollywood's influence will, in the long run, help or hinder the issue of climate change?

Tim Flannery: I have no idea. I'm no expert on Hollywood. But could I say that at the moment we need awareness? We need people to understand. I mean up until now the science has seemed to be too compensated and formidable for a lot of people. They need to understand just a couple of things; that it's an air pollution problem, that we're causing it, that it's very dangerous and that the tools are all there for us to actually do something about it. What we need now is the political will and the industrial will and if Hollywood can help with that, well and good.

Monica Trauzzi: But if people keep hearing about it will there be this climate change fatigue of sorts? That it just gets to the point where it's too much and they forget about it?

Tim Flannery: I think it's very much like the tobacco issue or the overall obesity issue in the US, where we end up building a long-term liability for ourselves through our lifestyle. Whether it's being overweight and eating bad food or smoking cigarettes. And the same with climate change. We're building up a liability for our future. Now these are long-term messages that need to be thought of in that context. And people haven't got sick of the tobacco message. They haven't got sick of the obesity message. So I do think that if we look at it in that context we can see a way forward. I don't think it's something that's going to be solved like that. It's going to take time.

Monica Trauzzi: Final question. We're almost out of time. If things stay the same as they currently are, people continue living their lives like they are right now, where will the Earth be in 2050?

Tim Flannery: We'll be remembered as the generation that destroyed the future for our children, because the climate changes will be so rapid that the economic impacts will be unbearable. The human cultural impacts and the political impacts of hundreds of millions of refugees will just put enormous stress on our civilization. I think there's a fair chance there will be a breakdown in law and order and a new dark age. And I don't want my children to be living in a new dark age, where we've got more of the most dangerous weapons that humans have ever devised than at any time in the past.

Monica Trauzzi: OK. Tim thanks for being here.

Tim Flannery: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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