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Feb 5, 2009

Flip-flop Flannery is a climate change opportunist

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. Not so, writes Clive Hamilton.

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.)

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18 thoughts on “Flip-flop Flannery is a climate change opportunist

  1. Ray Barker

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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 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:

  9. allen

    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

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

    Noting in

    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.