The big green picture


You saw An Inconvenient Truth. You recycle your PET bottles. You turn lights off when you leave the room. You’re making a difference… aren’t you? A quick glance at a Wikipedia article called ‘List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions’ makes sobering reading. China recently overtook the US as the world’s leading carbon emitter, at 6,538,367,000 metric tons during 2007, 22.3 percent of the world total.

We’re way down the list at number 16, and although we’re still a huge carbon emitter for a country with a population of our size (wedged between Indonesia and France, countries with 10 times and three times as many people respectively), our figure in the same year was 374,045,000, just 1.28 percent. It makes switching from throwaway to cloth nappies seem kind of inconsequential, doesn’t it?

When The West got the chance to talk to former Australian of the year, author and environmental crusader Tim Flannery about his new book Here On Earth, we suggested that if the whole of Australia could magically transform into a carbon neutral society tomorrow, it still wouldn’t make any difference. But he says we not only have the influence to change the world, we already have, both thanks to practicing what we preach and the interconnectedness of the global economy.

“Australians have played a leading role,” Flannery says. “China’s 12th five year plan is coming out and it’s basically going to be concerned with clean energy. They’re going to tighten up their renewable energy target from 15 percent to something higher. They’re going to introduce emissions trading. There’s a rumour they’ll introduce a carbon tax as well, and that will of course apply to Australian coal imported into China.”

Plus of course, there’s the wisdom that Australians like Flannery himself can impart to the coal and oil hungry powers of the world. The biggest surprise of our interview was his contention that the Copenhagen climate summit wasn’t the disaster it was made out to be.

“I was Chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council for three years and we saw the attitude of places like China go from thinking it was just a problem the developed countries have caused to seeing a huge opportunity and moving very firmly towards a green economy. The process itself has been very, very fruitful. The Cop 15 Meeting in Copenhagen gave us an outcome that’s about two-thirds of the way we need to go to avoid dangerous climate change.”

It should be good news for dedicated greenies — there hasn’t been much lately. After about five years of mainstream global warming awareness we’ve been trying our best to love the Earth but we still see politicians dither endlessly and high profile sceptics muddy the issue. And scientists are still warning about impending disaster. How can we not feel helpless?

That’s where Here On Earth comes in. It’s not another vitriolic tract browbeating us about how selfish and exploitative we’ve been in our race for success as a species (chimps would be arguing about the destruction they’d wrought on the planet if they were in our position right now). But as well as the disastrous effect we’ve had, Flannery also writes about the possibilities for change our spectacular technological and scientific advances offer.

“That’s why I wrote the book really,” he says, “to say that we’ve actually made quite a bit of progress. We haven’t made all the progress we need to but what remains is achievable. So it’s by no means a hopeless situation. A lot of people have leapt from ignorance to despair that we can’t do anything, and that’s the wrong sort of message.”

Flannery was also aware he’d be up against plain old climate fatigue. Not since the dotcom days has a cultural touchstone so dominated the news, and after years of every TV news story and magazine article making token reference to our destruction of the Earth many of us might simply be sick of hearing about it. “I think so, and so climate change is only part of what I try to deal with in this book. The same old arguments are getting a little bit tired and people aren’t seeing the bigger picture of sustainability and how climate change is just a part of it. I wanted to give people a broader perspective on the issue.”

Over the phone Flannery is friendly, witty, erudite and engaging. It makes one wonder about the times where the glacial pace of addressing climate change must have made him hurl chairs across the room.

“The ongoing delays get my goat. I don’t think we’ll ever change those climate skeptics and they’re irrelevant now anyway because China has moved and the world is moving. They may slow us down but that’ll only damage future of investment patterns on our economy. But they don’t annoy me so much. What really annoys me now is the delays. Why do we have this parliamentary committee now sitting for 12 months? I don’t want us to be going to the next election still arguing about this.”

Flannery’s wish might come true. The tide is indeed still turning. Most consumer/householders have long since been won over and now cumbersome, inflexible governments are following suit. And part of the reason is informed, impassioned people like Flannery himself.


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