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Tim Flannery, Australia's Climate Change Commissioner and author of Here on Earth

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Matilda Lee

9th March, 2011

Australia's climate change commissioner and author of new book Here on Earth talks to Matilda Lee about Gaia's true principles, the power of the internet and why legally binding climate treaties are pointless

Matilda Lee: Your new book is a joint history of the earth and of human civilisation. In it, you turn Lovelock's Gaia theory on its head arguing that we are witnessing the birth and not the death of human civilisation. What gives you cause for such optimism?

Tim Flannery: I suppose the book originated out a sense of concern that everyone saw gloom and doom everywhere. I decided to go back to first principles to determine whether there was a basis for this. As I researched one area after the other I found critical signs of hope. The population issue is a good example, the latest UN projections make the point that we will stabilise on the current trajectory most likely at 9 billion. If we work hard we might stabilise at 8 billion. Another example is the spread of democracy around the world in my lifetime has been astonishing - North Africa hadn't happened until after I wrote the book but that sort of thing gives me great cause for hope. Democracy is a building block in the global civilisation that we are creating. There have also been really good environmental successes - the use of satellite surveillance to detect illegal logging. There was a lot causes for hope. It's all happening too slowly and there are major threats. Nevertheless, having done all the research I felt it wasn't right to write off our chances.

The other thing I realised is that evolution is on our side. The organising principles of our global economies and Gaia as a whole are shaping us to be part of that system.

As humans, we've now got an information system that's beyond anything that's been known in the universe. The internet, the globalised common intelligence of humanity, is a massively powerful information system and will exert an enormous influence on the earth. Evolution has produced things like you and I, which have a command and control system, a brain. We will be Gaia's brain one day, the command and control system for the planetary system. It will bring more productivity to the planet and actually create the planet as an entity that hasn't been before. Of course, there is no difference between us and earth anyway. Physically what we are is mobile bits of the earth's crust.


For a chance to win one of five copies of Tim's new book Here on Earth, click here.


ML: For you then, humans' cooperative gene is more important than Dawkins' selfish gene?

TF: I don't think it's a cooperative gene. In insect societies, the big superorganismic glue that keeps them together is genetic. For us, it's not. I argue in the book that our genetic diversity, while it's very limited, is still too great for that to be the glue. It may give us the commonality of understanding and act as the basis for the glue, but it's not the glue. For us, the glue is the division of labour that Adam Smith talked about and an increasing commonality of vision. What we are seeing with the internet and the democratisation of the world is a manifestation of this underlying common view that we have, of respecting other people. There is a whole commonality of what it means to be human. In the book I talk about going to a village in New Guinea which had been cut off for 60,000 years from my lot and still understanding people. That was testament to me to this common understanding we have as a species.

ML: Yet, whatever other superorganism such as ants do as individuals is also for the benefit of the colony as a whole. With humans, on the other hand, this isn't the case. Just look at how certain countries use a much larger share of natural resources than others....

TF: As Plato wrote in the Republic, in the ideal society mine and thine means the same thing. That is what prevails in the ant colony - the interest of the individual ant is entirely concordant with the interest of the colony as a whole. That's not the case with humans so Plato categorises democracy as among the imperfect forms of government, which they clearly are. But for a wilful, upright ape it seems to be the best. As Churchill said, it's the worst of all forms of government apart from every other that's been tried. If you look around the world at the way democracies actually operate, I think you can see cause for hope. There is a commonality that is sufficient to make things work. The basic question is -is there enough glue to hold a global superorganism together?

ML: Presumably also enough glue to deal with global challenges such as climate change. You've been involved in global negotiations on climate change. What do you think the chances are of getting a  post-Kyoto legally binding treaty to limit global emissions?

TF: I was chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council for 3 years and now I'm Australia's Chief Climate Commissioner, so I'm quite involved in that space. The question I'd like to ask you is what is the difference between a legally binding treaty and a common agreement?

ML: Enforcement.

TF: OK. Canada has exceeded its Kyoto - which is a proper formal binding treaty - emissions target by a very large amount. It will owe in excess of $1billion (CAN) under Kyoto within the next 12 months or so. Stephen Harper is clearly just not going to pay. Now, will Ban Ki-moon send in the Blue Berets? Do you think that will happen? So what's the use of a globally binding treaty? I think that an agreement like the Copenhagen Accord actually has every bit as much power as a globally binding treaty could. The Copenhagen Accord is a very firm basis for action - it gets us about two-thirds of the way we need to go to avoid dangerous climate change on the balance of probabilities.

ML: Why is the new scientific field of Earth Systems Sciences so important?

TF: The use of models in a whole lot of areas is becoming the way we deal with complex matter. Once you have three data points, you have basically got a model. It is a matter of being very explicit about that and saying that this is the way more holistic science works. Reductionist science is enormously powerful and of course it was given a greater impetus after World War II with the enormous power of nuclear bombs. And it still is a very important tool in terms of understanding the world but it must sit alongside a broader view.

The great thing about Earth System Science or climate modelling is that it really resonates with the way we deal with complex issues in other areas of our lives. If we want to understand the human heart or marriage - we turn to a play or a novel. That is an exercise in modelling. What the novelist does is take an idealised version of the world, usually a model world where you can gain some great insights into things which are otherwise muddied because of the great idiosyncrasy and randomness in the world we live in. This is a natural way for humans to understand complex systems. We should think more laterally on how we use it.

ML: You talk about the cataclysmic course' that pesticide companies have put us on - and our ‘war on nature' - are you a strong advocate of organic agriculture?

TF: Yes. Using ecosystems to enhance productivity is the only way to go. In Australia, despite the horrendous droughts and floods in recent years we‘ve managed to increase both grain and wheat production by about 50 per cent. You ask the agriculture minister why that is - and it's because of innovations which focus very much on ecosystem buffering. New systems of management like ‘zero kill' and ‘zero till' they are revolutionary in Australia - hugely important. Other innovations have resulted in better ecosystems, more soil carbon and more productivity. These kinds of things are where the new agricultural revolution is going to be heading.

ML: Could you talk more about the idea you mention in your book of a Clean Energy Bank?

TF: One of the things people have been looking at is how we fund programmes for the major deployment of clean energy. Unfortunately the money we are looking at is on a very large scale. In Australia, to decarbonise the economy, we'd be looking at a $37 billion (AUS) a year for ten years. These are very large figures- so where do you get money for a Clean Energy Bank? Maybe a Green Bonds approach - there may be a way. You'd have to say that looking at the instability in the region of North Africa and the Middle East - somewhere along the line we are going to have to make a big investment to wean ourselves off it fossil fuels.

ML: Could you recommend five top books to read?

TF: I could but it'd be broad. I'd start with Samuel Pepys diary - the reason I'd recommend it is that it reveals a period of enormous cultural change which is what we are going through now. We see a society facing many assaults - it's a fantastic insider's view. I'd have to suggest Darwin's On Natural Selection - we need to understand that; Lovelock's Gaia - another important one. Wallace's Man's Place in the Universe and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring

ML: Similarly, top issues to campaign for?

TF: First, the education and social standing of women, globally. The population issue depends almost entirely on making that work. Secondly, the promotion of democracy globally and, in our own democracy, the eradication of the last special deals and preferences that still plagues our civilisation. Third, climate change. Fourth, re-wilding your local environment. Fifth, the civilising of our market - meaning corporations that behave in socially acceptable ways.

ML: You emphasise the need to end global poverty. A lot of developing countries are not developing sustainably - there is a big push to mine, for example - how should the West approach this type of development?

TF: It must insist that corporations based in the West obey the laws of the West. Every time a bribe is paid in a developing country, we need to bring the CEO and the Board to account. Send them to jail if they break the law. The rule of law must prevail. We certainly need better global regulation around elements like lead, cadmium getting into the global environment.

ML: What's wrong with our approach to communicating climate change?

TF: The key is just to explain what the scientists say. Scientists are themselves the biggest sceptics. When a ‘climate change sceptic' says "I don't believe that, we'll say that we don't believe anything either". What we are telling you is that what our studies reveal is that there is a greater probability. Tell us why what you say is more highly probable than what we say. Of course, they have no argument. There is no certainty in science; it's a question of probability.

ML: What do you think about current attempts to stop Amazonian deforestation?

TF: We've made huge progress in the last couple of years. The rate has declined very dramatically. In the state of Para, the governor, using very unconventional means - such as satellite monitoring - has done a lot of work. Once satellite surveillance schemes get into the hands of people, there are very few dark corners in which to hide. I would like to see more public shaming of companies - such as the Top Ten companies of shame with visuals.

ML: As Australia's new Climate Change Commissioner - what are your plans for the next year?

TF: I've just got to do that job well. To understand what climate science is saying, what the international negotiations have actually achieved and where we are in terms of options.

ML: Where are we in terms of options?

TF: What's the most effective option? Should we have more regulation, a carbon tax, an emissions trading scheme, should we buy clean energy credits? There will be a transitional scheme - perhaps initially a tax going into an emissions trading scheme. The tax just gives you the ability to ease your way into a scheme when prices vary a lot. This is certainly what the government intends to happen in Australia, they are proving to be a very competent government and I think they will most likely have their way.

Here on Earth: A New Beginning by Tim Flannery (Allen Lane, 2011, £14.99)

 

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