tip off

Flip-flop Flannery is a climate change opportunist

Malcolm Turnbull’s new climate change plan is another in a long line of diversionary policies aimed at taking the heat off the coal industry.

His emphasis on biochar  — turning agricultural waste into charcoal and spreading it onto paddocks  — is reminiscent of attempts by the Bush Administration to sabotage the Kyoto Protocol by allowing fossil pollution to be ‘offset’ by changes in agricultural practices.

The move was rejected by the rest of the world in 2000 because it would have removed entirely any obligation on rich countries like the United States and Australia to cut their fossil emissions. No wonder the coal industry backed the US move enthusiastically.

The new Coalition focus on soil carbon has been supported by Turnbull’s confidant and de facto greenhouse advisor Tim Flannery, for whom biochar is the latest fad.

One of the last prominent scientists in Australia to acknowledge global warming, Flannery has been flip-flopping on solutions to climate change since The Weather Makers appeared in December 2005.

He initially argued that we should forget about governments and rely on the good sense of individuals to cut Australia’s emissions, urging others to follow his lead and install their own solar panels.

When he was criticised for shifting responsibility onto individuals and away from polluters and the Government Flannery changed tack, abandoning his “firm belief” that consumers should not wait for government to act, and advocating a carbon tax. He later changed his mind and endorsed emissions trading instead.

Flannery has moved seamlessly from one technological enthusiasm to the next. In 2006 he lent his support to the development of nuclear power in Australia. “Only nuclear power can save us”, he declared, playing straight into the hands of Prime Minister Howard who was happy to quote Flannery in support of his nuclear push that formed part of his climate denial strategy.

But after criticism in 2007 Flannery changed his mind, giving a “resounding ‘no’” to nuclear power in Australia. No explanation seems to have been offered for the reversal.

Flannery’s next burst of enthusiasm was for geothermal energy which he spruiked heavily in 2007, arguing that hot rocks “potentially have enough embedded energy in them to run the Australian economy for the best part of a century”. (He properly disclosed that he held shares in hot rock developer Geodynamics.)

He has had little to say about hot rocks since taking up the biochar idea in 2008. He now believes biochar “may represent the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future”. Turnbull referred to Flannery’s endorsement when announcing his latest plan.

But it is the future of the coal industry that has been the platform for Flannery’s most spectacular back-flips.

As a skilled media player, throughout 2006 and 2007 Flannery made headlines by calling for the closure of “filthy” coal-fired power plants. He argued for the withdrawal of the industry’s “social licence to operate” and said the time has come to end coal exports. He likened coal to asbestos and attacked proposals for carbon capture and storage as “stupid”.

Then last year he executed a complete about-face, accepting Australia’s financial interest in burning and exporting coal and supporting “clean coal” technologies like carbon capture and storage.

The effect of Flannery’s frequent contradictory public interventions on climate change has been to confuse those who look to him for guidance. Which of his expressed opinions should they believe? What is his solution to greenhouse pollution  — solar energy, nuclear power, geothermal, “clean coal” or biochar?

The mish-mash of policy proposals also plays into the hands of the polluters because a Flannery statement can be found to support almost any position.

The same can be said for his direct political interventions.

As Australian of the Year Flannery expressed the view of many when he condemned a “decade of delay” in which Australia under the Howard Government had become “the worst of the worst in terms of addressing climate change”.

Yet a week before the last federal election Flannery declared that if he were voting in Turnbull’s Wentworth electorate he would vote Liberal, thereby helping to return John Howard as Prime Minister.

Flannery’s ability to write engagingly about climate science has led some to believe he must have something sensible to say about the solutions to global warming, a misconception Flannery amplifies by venturing instant opinions on any topic.

But a talented science populariser can be a policy flake. When in May 2007 Tony Jones quizzed him on Lateline about emissions trading his answers became increasingly incoherent until he had to admit “I have no idea”.

Despite his statements being available for checking, when challenged about his back-flips Flannery claims that he has been “misrepresented”, even referring to a “conspiracy” of powerful people trying to tear him down.

There’s no conspiracy, Tim, just a deep skepticism about opportunism when it comes to something as important as global warming.

Clive Hamilton is the author of Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change (Black Inc.)

18
  • 1
    Ray Barker
    Posted Friday, 6 February 2009 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Tim Flannery ‘professes’ to know a lot about climate change.

    To back up his theory that the world is warming, and the seas are rising, Flannery reminded viewers of Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope series that thousands of years ago you could walk from Tasmania to Victoria.

    Once upon a time, inland Australia was covered by sea. So, according to the straws of science grasped by the professor, this would prove the world is actually cooling!

  • 2
    Rod Campbell-Ross
    Posted Sunday, 8 February 2009 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    It is disappointing that Crikey publishes articles that are climate and peak oil skeptical.
    Some learning would be a good idea.

    As to the specific question posed: there are no silver bullets. As usual the biggest part of the solution was not even proffered: use less. So nuclear, etc are all important, but using less is critical too.

  • 3
    expiscor
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Time Flannery seems like a really nice guy, bursting with ideas who naturally wants to share them with everyone. He was initially an English major who moved into science. However some of his closest biology colleagues and mentors refer to him privately as Flim Flannery. Apparently there is a bit of a lack of rigour in his scientific approach, a fair dash of opportunism, and a preference for the rhetorical flourish. He’s worth listening to, but proceed with caution. He’s a bit more interested in being agreeable, not really challenging the fundamental causes of the environment crisis.

    Clive Hamilton espouses a consistent, compassionate and courageous vision for Australia based on sound universal principles of fairness and equity. He cops it from both sides sometimes (e.g. latest net censorship debate), and he rubs some people the wrong way (he was once a little rude to my wife), but his vision has much more substance because it doesn’t avoid addressing the basic underlying economic and political causes of environmental degradation.

  • 4
    Graemel
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    All Clive H ever does is sling s..t. A bit of scientific substance might persuade someone but it is never there in any of his writings

  • 5
    Tom McLoughlin
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    A little morale booster for Flim Flam - as a teenager I might have played for the VFL but contact lenses pursuaded me to get an education instead. Then as a science graduate I was a better lawyer. But as a lawyer I was a much better political activist.

    Which is a long way of saying according to my judgement, Flim Flam got the freezer stare from Howard start of 2007, and refused to baulk. He went at it and made himself really very unpopular with that dinosaur regime. This was a great achievement Timbo, no risk. And that’s despite my childhood buddy Ben McHenry later at South Australia museum being quite uncomplimentary.

    Just as Peter Garrett for his many sins also surely helped thwart the Howard vision of a domestic nuclear … weapons capacity here either of our own or via a US military base.

    It’s a swings and roundabouts sort of reality methinks.

  • 6
    mike smith
    Posted Monday, 9 February 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Flip-Flopping? Yeah, right. It’s now become a derogatory adjective apparently. When it really indicates the ability to think flexibly, and admit you were wrong. Something many scientists seam reluctant to do, especially in this field.

  • 7
    Colin Bower
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Clive Hamilton has hit the nail on the head. As a biological scientist I have never been a fan of Flannery and his outpourings. Flannery is an ‘ideas’ person, rather than a deeply analytical scientist. His career success is based on the development of headline-catching, often controversial conjectures that capture the popular imagination. His writings scratch together evidence that supports his ideas, ignoring everything that doesn’t. He seems to have little interest in testing his own hypotheses scientifically, leaving that to others. In the process misconceptions are propagated that become fixed as facts in popular culture. A good example can be found in the Journal Cunninghamia (Vol 5 No 4 1998) in which Benson and Redpath expose his breath-takingly superficial scientific approach in The Future Eaters. It is interesting that Flannery’s response in that case was also to claim to have been misrepresented and misquoted. Flannery is full of helium. It’s time his balloon was pricked.

    (By the way, I was utterly appalled some years ago when words similar to ‘Foreword by Tim Flannery’ were placed on the cover of a book in larger type than that of the author!!!)

  • 8
    Frank Strie
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    May I suggest Clive Hamilton should do his homework on the issue of Biosequestration. He is doing us no favour with such cheap attached, as I he had actually listened to the interviews provided via podcast by community groups such as beyondzeroemmissions.org he would know by now how urgent the combined action of various carbon negative initiatives combined with the at best carbon neural other renewable energies. Readers and Crikey could also assist by exploring the issues via websites like the very informative international website: http://biocharfarming.wordpress.com

  • 9
    allen
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Wasnt it Flannery who a half dozen years ago ripped a new one in Micheal Crichton when he came out and was sceptical of global warming?
    I may be wrong but If memory serves me correctly wasnt Flannery’s big claim that Chricton was only an MD and fictional authorTherefore he had no “expertise” or authority to talk on climate change.
    Apparently anthropologists are allowed to write and speak adnauseum on the subject though.

  • 10
    Tom McLoughlin
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Love your work Alen … Greer (related to Germaine?), another idealistic science tough guy.

    Noting in http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/letters/index.php/theaustralian/comments/only_privatisation_can_solve_the_mess_in_our_water_system/

    dated 27 January 2007,

    LONG-time environmental ambulance chaser and now Australian of the Year Tim Flannery may anticipate conflict with John Howard over federal Government action on climate change, but that will be of little concern to the Prime Minister, who has just seen the electoral light on climate change.

    What Mr Howard needed and got from this choice in an election year was a celebrity environmentalist who advocates consideration at least of nuclear energy as a climate change solution.

    Allen Greer
    Mudgee, NSW
    ………………………………………

    Ouch again.

  • 11
    Julie
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Can see your point of view - I was alarmed listening to Flannery on radio about India going nuclear energy - what about a renewable industry? However, I’m willing to listen and process and think about what he is saying. He is like all of us, coming to terms with how best to save our souls and our planet. He’s allowed to say I’ve been looking at it further and I’ve changed my mind. It’s all part of the dialogue we have to have.

  • 12
    Peter
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    How about a response from Tim Flannery. Has he been contacted? It would be good to hear from him

  • 13
    Mark Byrne
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Clive,

    Arn’t there more worthy targets before we start turning on those who are genuinely working for action? Tim might have made some mistakes, but what is this strategy?

  • 14
    allen
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    arthropologist

  • 15
    Pauline Clynes
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Clive Hamilton has expressed what I have long suspected - that Tim Flannery’s views are popularist and lacking in substance. Tim has certainly increased the general level of interest in climate change issues and deserves credit for doing so, but there has been a fair amount of self promotion along the way.

  • 16
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    What is his solution to greenhouse pollution — solar energy, nuclear power, geothermal, “clean coal” or biochar?”

    Simple answer: We’ll need all of them, and then some. This isn’t an either/or question.

  • 17
    Andrew Glikson
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    The predicament natural scientists (climate scientists, ecologists, biologists, botanists, some Earth scientists, paleontologists) have found themselves, once they have identified the magnitude and pace of dangerous climate change, needs to be looked at in perspective.

    Identifying the unthinkable, namely a return of the atmosphere and oceans to pre-ice age conditions, with implications for life and civilization which can hardly be contemplated, they arrived at a situation analogous to an astronomer detecting a comet speeding toward Earth, yet no one wants to believe!

    Each of these scientists responds in a different way, including a myriad mistakes.

    But compare their efforts with the silent majority of scientists who are familiar with the critical evidence, yet would not express it in public.

    Or with the minority of well-publicized and mainstream media-supported people who exercise denial under the guise of “skepticism”, argue with established facts, try to re-write the basic laws of nature and the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere, and use ad-hominem and conspiracy theories against climate scientists, indeed often opposed to the scientific method..

    Or with the inaction of the democratically elected leaders whose first and foremost responsibility is to protect the people and the future generations.

  • 18
    Tom McLoughlin
    Posted Thursday, 5 February 2009 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Ouch. One could refer to glass houses I suppose and evidence that. But really it’s just too hot and muggy in Sydney to argue.

    There is no doubt both Hamilton and Flannery have alot of skills and talent to offer on this terrible challenge, and as political campaigners are both too easily exploited by both major parties.

    True Flannery has always been indebted to industry since that grant money from big mining (?) to study the fauna and flora of PNG.

    Hamilton on the other hand was a servant of the Hawke regime’s qango the Resource Assessment Commission which did a very good job too.

    My vote goes to Mickey Rouke in The Wrestler, all others please take a cold shower.

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