Tim Flannery on climate change and what Canada can do

An interview with Tim Flannery, best-selling author and former head of the Australia Climate Commission, on carbon, coal, and the U.N. conference in Paris

Dr. Tim Flannery in Edmonton, Alberta on Wednesday, October 21, 2015. (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

Dr. Tim Flannery in Edmonton, Alberta on Wednesday, October 21, 2015. (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

Tim Flannery is quite sure humanity can no longer change course fast enough to prevent warming the Earth’s climate by two degrees Celsius. Yet the scientist, activist and former head of the Australia Climate Commission has called his new book Atmosphere of Hope. Ahead of December’s international climate change conference in Paris, he sees glimmers of progress amid the gloom, and puts faith in what he calls “third way” technologies to save the planet—including an idea to suck from the air the carbon we pumped into it, and stuff it beneath the ocean bed. Maclean’s spoke to the author of the seminal book The Weather Makers while he was in Edmonton to consult with the NDP government.

Q: Ahead of major potential turning points in the climate change saga, it’s useful to take stock. It’s perhaps the old Jon Stewart question: How screwed are we as a planet?

A: We’re committed to getting to 1.5 degrees (Celsius) of warming, just by the gas that’s already in the air, so we’ve had a decade of a worst-case-scenario emissions trajectory. We’re now tracking the worst case imaginable.

Q: After Kyoto and Copenhagen, after all these attempts, we’re on a worst-case trajectory?

A: To give you an idea of how bad that might be, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will be dead at 1.5 degrees of warming, according to the scientists who study such things. It would be next to impossible to pull short of two degrees of warming. The Paris meeting looks like it may change our trajectory from heading toward four degrees of warming by 2100, to closer to 2.7 degrees, so that would be an improvement, but still way, way not enough.

Q: Over the years, you were critical of Stephen Harper, and you were an honorary pallbearer at Jack Layton’s funeral. The NDP during this campaign criticized the Liberals and Justin Trudeau for not setting its own targets, preferring first to consult with the provinces. What would be your advice to him?

A: In Canada, the provinces are responsible for energy policy, and they have most of the levers of power. So, as a national government, you don’t want to be committing to things that would be unfeasible or you just would impose on others. I guess what we’ve learned is that the bottom-up approach, while it takes more time and results in less ambition than necessary, at least gets something done. It would be lovely to set a target. In a perfect world, that would be the way to do it, but we don’t live in a perfect world.

Q: An article in Foreign Policy before our election said it could matter a great deal that both Canada and Australia send to Paris prime ministers who are more serious about tackling climate change than were Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott. Can new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Trudeau have a meaningful impact on talks in Paris?

A: Absolutely. Australia is the 13th-largest polluter overall, so we are one of the heavy hitters, and Canada’s right up there, as well. It’s hugely important that Canada and Australia play a constructive role in this. The danger was that one or both would play a very negative role, and lead a coalition of the unwilling that would make it that much more difficult to get things done.

Q: You’re talking to the Alberta government, and they’re obviously a more progressive regime than the past one. But they have been stout proponents of oil sands development. Quite a few say, as one might in Texas: Dance with the one who brung ya. You write in your book that three-quarters of the oil sands must stay in the ground. How far can they go with sustainable development of the oil sands?

A: The argument I made when I was here three years ago, to the old government, was that, in Australia, we have seen a collapse in the coal price. It wasn’t at the supply end; it was demand that was dying. And this was in the early days of the Chinese shift to clean tech, and away from fossil fuels. Oil is in a very similar position. Experts in the marketplace think they’re both about half responsible for the current price. Supply is going to fluctuate: If there’s a revolution in Saudi Arabia, the oil price is going to go up for a bit, but the overall medium-term trajectory has to be driven down by that demand equation. If you’re looking at a future for the tar sands, [ask]: Are you a low-cost producer? No. Are you a carbon-intensive producer? Yes. Is there likely to be some consequences to that, given the Paris meeting? Yes.

I’m going to say to this government, as well: Whatever you do and whatever you say about oil, there are larger forces at work here that suggest to me that a responsible government should be hedging its bets. Start putting programs in place to diversify the provincial economy. Don’t do what every other government here has done in times of low oil prices, which is to mouth some platitudes, start some process, then abandon it once oil prices creep back up again.

Jimmy Jeong

Jimmy Jeong

Q: Your book advocates the use of carbon capture and storage, but not the sort of initiative the Alberta government had put billions of dollars into: the geo-sequestration from coal or energy plants.

A: With that, you’re only doing something that prolongs, or attempts to prolong, the life of oil and gas and coal.

Q: You propose a different type of carbon sequestration in the ocean, which would be a much, much larger operation. How would a government like Canada even begin to go about that?

A: Those studies are at desktop stage only at the moment. That would involve everything from the study of the ocean bed and its chemistry to the technology required to get the stuff down two or three kilometres, and the costs involved in that, and what the source is. And one of the sources I talk about in the book is seaweed farming [a potential carbon sink]. There is a [decades-long] pathway to being able to unlock that resource at scale. That’s just what we saw with wind and solar. For 30 or 40 years, people have been investing in wind and solar and [those sources have] remained massively highly priced. It’s only after 40 years that it’s become cost-competitive.

Q: Along with carbon capture, you explore what used to seem like science fiction. Now we see groups such as Carbon Engineering in the very early stages of removing carbon from the atmosphere. How much of our climate strategy is it worth staking on such long-term ideas?

A: What are the alternatives? I would ask. It’s at the early demonstration stage. The costs look as though they’re going to be around $2,500 a tonne, but wind was comparably expensive 30 years ago. I don’t think we can cut emissions fast enough to avoid two degrees of warming. You’d need a revolution in the way things are done: You’d need to walk away from the tar sands, walk away from Australia’s coal today, lots of other things. I don’t think that’s going to happen, realistically. The only way we can stay within that two-degree guard rail is to start developing some of these technologies that start drawing CO2 out of the air, at scale.

Q: What are the big potential emission reductions for Canada?

A: Here in Alberta, you’ve got a 55 per cent dependency on coal. To phase that out and go to clean energy sources would be a huge benefit in multiple ways. The proposal for natural gas here in Alberta is, I think, very dangerous. What they’re in fact suggesting is that you would source electricity from your cogeneration in the Alberta tar sands. So what you’re then doing is linking a fossil fuel industry, which is in trouble, to your certainty of electricity supply. And that is mad, quite frankly.

Q: When other means are put forward, they often get pushback in Alberta. If not natural gas, of which Alberta has an oversupply at these prices, what then?

A: You’ve already got 35 per cent gas in the mix, and 55 per cent coal, so you need to diversify. What are the options? There’s hydro, but large-scale projects are very expensive. There is wind and solar, and wind and solar have the great advantage of being incremental; they’re modular. I’m looking here in Edmonton, I can’t see a single solar panel on any rooftop. In Australia, there are 1.4 million solar panels on rooftops of houses. So 20 per cent of Australians now generate their own power through solar [photovoltaic cells]. Second, wind power: You’ve got 5,000 megawatts of very good resource here in this province, which is instantly accessible. You don’t need great interconnectors to link it all up, and wind is really cost-competitive at the moment. You don’t need to spend a billion dollars to put in wind; you do it in a modular way.

Q: Twenty per cent of homes are going solar in Australia, and that would have developed under Tony Abbott, who has a reputation like Harper’s. That suggests movement by the public to push things forward there.

A: It’s not people who care for the environment, or anything else. People who are putting this stuff in are mostly pensioners and people on fixed income, or people with big mortgages. They’re the ones who are putting in rooftop solar, because it allows them to control the size of their electricity bill.



Tim Flannery on climate change and what Canada can do

      • Hilarious that you would post a link to Patrick Moore after that comment – a guy who really does make a living telling selling his name to mouth any words his employer wishes him to say as a “founder of Greenpeace”.

        And yes, Suzuki and Flannery are both scientists. The PhDs and professorships are pretty good clues.

        • And a PhD in Fruit Fly studies makes suzuki an expert in climate doom and gloom?

          • I do enjoy the droolers’ ‘fruit fly’ reference, as if Suzuki’s fruit fly genetics research was something they might do between cleaning their gutters and catching some wrestling on a Sunday afternoon.
            But no, unlike deniers Suzuki doesn’t pretend to be an expert in climate science. He leaves that up to the climate PhDs.

        • It would appear that you didn’t take the time to look at or understand what Moore had to show and say. His comments are all backed up with real data.

          • I’m sure whatever he has to say can be found in science journals, amirite?
            I’ll wait for the links.

  1. The election is over.

    Give the ignorance a rest, gentlemen

    All 3 men are scientists.. Neither of you are.


    • Yes, with Canada’s 2% of world GHG emissions we are are right up there with the big boys. These guys are so tiresome.

      • Everybody claims an excuse…..but emissions have to be cut

      • What % of the oceans’ trash do you need to be responsible for before you stop dumping your trash there?

    • So you would trust a mechanical engineer, with a PhD, to prescribe pharmaceuticals to you? He’s a scientist, after all…………….

      • No need for that. The IPCC has assembled the research of the world’s climate experts all in one place.

        • You ever hear of Climate Gate where they were caught fudging the data and the head of The IPCC resigned in disgrace.

          • Um, the head of the IPCC resigned because he was accused of sexual harassment, no “data fudging” or anything of relevance to the science or my comment.

  2. “Start putting programs in place to diversify the provincial economy.”

    In Realspeak this means; more taxpayer funded boondoggles to the government’s favorites, such as windmills and solar power companies.

    • In Realspeak this means; I never wanna stop offloading the costs of my lifestyle on the rest of the world.

  3. Will you liberals please un-muzzle your science gods and allow them to finally end this debate to save the planet and at last say; ‘PROVEN’ for a CO2 ARMAGEDDON?
    Hopefully before it’s to late to say it!

    • Will you dimwits who spam message boards across the internet with the idiotic mantra that ‘scientists don’t say ‘PROVEN’ therefore no problem! *snort snort*’ please let us know what it would take to get it through your thick skull that science deals in probabilities not proof?
      I’m open to anything that might work.

  4. ” So what you’re then doing is linking a fossil fuel industry, which is in trouble, to your certainty of electricity supply. And that is mad, quite frankly.

    As opposed to wind and solar, yes.
    And that is not mad, it is common sense.

  5. Editorial
    Patricia offers another climate change warning

    Sunday, October 25, 2015 , Jamaica Observer — Thankfully, Hurricane Patricia appeared to have done very little damage to Mexico after making landfall on that country”s Pacific coast as a Category 5 storm on Friday.
    We are particularly relieved that Puerto Vallarta was largely unscathed by the hurricane because, like us here in Jamaica, that city relies heavily on tourism for economic survival.
    While we take comfort in the outcome of Mexico’s encounter with Patricia, we cannot ignore the fact that after the storm formed suddenly last Tuesday, it quickly strengthened to a hurricane and, within 30 hours, attained Category 5 status.
    The National Hurricane Center tells us that, by Friday, Patricia was the most powerful hurricane recorded to hit this hemisphere, with a central pressure of 880 millibars and maximum sustained winds of 200 mph (325 kph).
    In order to fully appreciate the danger it posed, one need only recall that Hurricane Gilbert, which devastated Jamaica in September 1988, had top winds of 185 mph.
    These, we hold, are warning signs of the threat posed by climate change.
    Unfortunately, there still exist some countries and individuals who — driven by complacency, poverty, selfishness, greed, and short-sightedness — give insufficient attention to this problem.
    The complacency arises from the fact that climate change, until recently, has been so gradual as to be almost imperceptible. People who exist in absolute poverty, in their struggle to survive, often unwittingly destroy their natural environment by deforestation and overfishing.
    Selfishness is evident when people from one country pollute the air and water of other countries by practices which are outlawed in their own countries.
    Greed drives companies to devastate the natural environment in order to maximise profits, while the people who are short-sighted think that they will be dead long before there are any significant climate change effects.
    What we find most pernicious, though, is the fabrication and spread of misinformation by corporations in an attempt to deny mankind’s culpability in accelerating climate change.
    We in the Caribbean cannot afford to let that kind of thinking affect out mitigation strategies, as the evidence of climate change is increasingly visible and undeniable.
    The warming of the ocean surface in the Caribbean, especially around small island states, has already been detected, and this trend is expected to continue. Projections show that this warming will be accompanied by temporal and spatial changes in precipitation patterns and more intense or frequent hurricanes.
    These will adversely impact arable land use, water resources, and biodiversity, causing negative impacts on agriculture. Further, the destruction of coral reefs, erosion of beaches, and depletion of fish stock will affect tourism.
    Caribbean states have lost considerable shares of GDP each year due to weather-related natural disasters. There is an enormous cost of rebuilding and an extended period of economic recovery, even in developed countries, as shown by the unfinished recovery of New Orleans from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina nearly a decade ago.
    We all should ensure that we do everything possible to limit the effects of this threat, and Hurricane Patricia is a cautionary sign.

  6. Within the wider scientific community, Flannery looked upon as a joke. Shame on Macleans for providing this charlatan with a soapbox.

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