Which way to a sustainable future?


"Now Or Never"

By Tim Flannery

Quarterly Essay, Issue 31

Black Inc, 2008


Incredibly, an estimated $3 billion may be given to some of Australia's richest companies by the Rudd Labor government in the form of free carbon credits, according to a report released by the Australian Conservation Foundation on October 20.

Given this sobering reality there is much to commend in Tim Flannery's "Now or Never" published in the latest Quarterly Essay.

The handouts are slated as part of the Rudd government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme due to begin in 2010. The biggest likely recipients include corporations such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Alcoa.

That some of Australia's biggest, wealthiest and most polluting companies could receive such huge handouts without even significantly reducing their emissions indicates that there is something very, very rotten with the government's climate-change agenda.

With news like this it's small wonder that the environmental crisis provokes feelings of fear, unease and even despair among some people. You don't need to be a climate scientist or even be following developments all too closely to be at least somewhat aware that the scale of the problem is daunting and the response from government and the major corporate polluters is grossly inadequate.

A major contributing factor to this sentiment is that the level of discussion and debate in the mainstream media around the threat of climate change, and the appropriate responses required, is so glaringly superficial. And all too often it is simply downright misleading — a cover for continuing with business as usual.

The mainstream debate between the Labor Party advocates of "go slowly" and the Liberal Party "go even slower" is not a genuine debate at all. The approach of both parties is conditioned by the idea that any action on climate change must be subordinated to the continued profits of big business.

In his address to the Adelaide Climate Emergency conference on October 10, David Spratt, co-author of the 2008 book Climate Code Red, argued that the bulk of the public policy debate in Australia is "delusional".

"Put simply, the debate in Australia is not evidence based", Spratt argued. "Political pragmatism, window dressing and incremental solutions that will fail take precedence over the scientific imperatives. The result can only be a suicide note for most people and most species on the planet."

Credible science

Enter Tim Flannery's "Now or Never".

Of particular value is that "Now or Never" summarises the latest scientific evidence that was studiously ignored by Ross Garnaut in his report on Australia's greenhouse emissions targets.

Flannery doesn't discuss the Garnaut report itself in his essay, but it's worth noting that his compelling account of the climate emergency the planet faces was written in the very same month that the Garnaut report was released (September).

Indirectly, Flannery's arguments annihilate the scientific credibility of the Garnaut report along with the wretched greenhouse emissions reduction strategy of the Rudd government.

Why does the Garnaut report get it so wrong? Largely because it bases its climate modeling on the outdated research conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — an organisation Flannery describes as "painfully conservative".

He contrasts the IPCC research with the latest reports by Dr James Hansen (who Flannery describes as "arguably the world's leading climate scientist") and eight of his colleagues.

"Their most alarming discovery," Flannery says, "was that, when viewed over the long term, Earth's climate system is about twice as sensitive to CO2 pollution as is shown on the IPCC's century-long projections". The conclusion is that the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere are enough to push the Earth's average temperature warmer by 2°C if left unchecked.

This level of warming will "surely yield 'dangerous' climate impacts", Hansen and his team argued.

Furthermore, Flannery draws on the research of Roger Pielke, Tom Wigley and Christopher Green who revealed in an April paper that the IPCC projections underestimate the scale of the task to reduce greenhouse emissions to a shocking extent.

In order the stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million — the uppermost "safe" limit advocated by Hansen — Flannery writes that "humanity will need to implement clean energy technologies around ten times faster than is projected by the most ambitious IPCC scenarios".

A highly commendable feature of Flannery's essay is that he emphasises that Australia has a very special responsibility to lead on the changes necessary to avert a climate disaster.

As one of the world's biggest exporters of fossil fuels, Australia ranks number one of "the greatest gougers [of] the Earth — the people who earn their living by selling the produce of the earth's crust to the planet".

Furthermore, Australia remains the worst greenhouse gas emitter per capita in the entire world.

Climate change recognises no borders. Flannery makes the critical point that alongside drastically reducing Australia's emissions, "the only feasible solution ... is for the developed world to help shoulder the cost burden of reducing the pollution [in the third world]".


"Now or Never" surveys the technology available now to move away from the use of fossil fuels and begin the necessary task of cooling the planet.

The massive potential of geothermal power in Australia is explained. The hot rocks in the Cooper Basin in South Australia alone have the potential to supply cheap, renewable, emissions-free energy to all of Australia. Flannery also outlines the changes that could rapidly be made to agriculture in order to both increase food yields and recapture increasingly large amounts of carbon in the soil.

Australia also has some of the best conditions in the world for solar and wind power, which could be quickly developed with the appropriate support from government.

The most disappointing aspect of the essay is the endorsement given to the unproven technology of clean coal and his view that government subsidies to the coal industry are a necessary evil if clean coal is to be implemented.

In contrast, Michael Brune, executive director of the US based Rainforest Action Network, cautioned in an October 15 article in the San Francisco Chronicle that any time spent pursuing clean coal technology is wasted time — time the planet cannot afford.

"Clean coal is both an oxymoron and an excuse policymakers use to avoid developing a responsible energy policy. Every dollar spent on a clean coal infrastructure is a dollar better invested in energy efficiency and renewable energy", Brune said.

Flannery also speculates that large amounts of sulphur dioxide could be pumped into the atmosphere as a "last resort" to prompt a global dimming and avert the complete melting of the polar ice caps.

But the risks inherent in such an artificial disruption of the biosphere are so great that such a "cure" could potentially be as catastrophic to life on Earth as runaway global warming itself.

Despite these limitations, "Now or Never" is a major contribution to the debate on climate policy in Australia, which dramatises the acute nature of the climate crisis we face and highlights the feeble political response so far.

The climate justice movement can and should take up many of the arguments in Flannery's essay, and wield them as a weapon for political change.