Tim Flannery has perhaps the most unenviable job in the country: explaining to the Australian public why they should pay for pollution before the rest of the world.
It means he’s got influence, as anyone with the ear of government should. But it has also made him some powerful enemies. And they’re not afraid to hit him with a tsunami of tongue-lashings, criticising his credentials, methods and predictions.
“Tim is right at the heart of the climate change debate,” prominent writer, academic and former ALP staffer Tim Soutphommasane tells The Power Index. “That he’s such a target of the News Limited papers and talkback radio shock jocks testifies to his stature: he is a scalp that those opposing the carbon tax want to claim.”
As head of the Gillard government’s newly-created independent Climate Commission, it’s no surprise Flannery is spat with venom from foes in the media. To them, he is public enemy number one: they disagree with his reading of the science; they’re opposed to his advocacy for taxing the economy.
Most notably, it’s the conservative columnists, in lockstep with talkback tsars like Ray Hadley and Alan Jones, who are the quickest to feed on anything that can be used to discredit Flannery’s work.
Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and others, pitchforks in hand, regularly deride him as an “alarmist” or a “fear monger”, while fellow keyboard culture warriors Tim Blair and Piers Akerman laughingly refer to him as a “professor of warmenology”, “rich Labor luvvie” and one of Julia Gillard’s “claque of handsomely-paid shills”.
But it’s not just the frothing tabloid media that has a problem with him, Flannery also has his critics in the more measured scientific community as well.
While many praise his skills as a communicator (he’s a prize-winning author of books like The Future Eaters and The Weather Makers), they say his good work is often unraveled by making daunting forecasts which are yet to be proven. Stated claims that Perth could be the 21st century’s “first ghost metropolis” and that sea levels could rise by “eight storeys” are regularly dredged up to damage his credibility.
“He does occasionally make mistakes,” says Melbourne University climatologist David Karoly, who works with Flannery at the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. “And so some of his statements on climate change science are not completely correct.
“But that’s a relatively small number … he is still a respected figure in climate change science, who is tackling a very difficult task.”
Flannery also attracts heat for talking outside his area of expertise. While the Akubra-wearing naturalist may be a polymath, with degrees in arts and geology and a doctorate in palaeontology, one thing he is not is a climate scientist.
Still, as Karoly tells The Power Index, Flannery knows his stuff and is an effective “translator” of the climate science advice he has received. And, according to childhood friend and naturalist Bob McDonald, criticism from the cheap seats is unlikely to bother him anyway.
“Tim’s answer to [opponents] could be to say ‘well then how the fuck are you qualified?’, but he doesn’t. He just lets it go over his head,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean invectives go unnoticed. When The Power Index arrives for an interview in the lobby of a Melbourne hotel, Flannery is reading a copy of The Australian. It’s an almost masochistic choice for someone who has felt the full force of the paper.
“I just find it a very useful insight into right-wing thinking in Australia,” Flannery tells The Power Index when sitting around the corner on a park bench in Treasury Gardens. “I never buy it, but I will read it.”
Minus his trademark Akubra and khaki get-up, the bald and bearded Flannery is miles away from the bumbling tree-hugging caricature his enemies often portray him as. He’s in an open-necked white shirt with a leather jacket slung over one shoulder, giving off the casual air of an academic walking through the quad to get a coffee.
And as the interview progresses, it doesn’t take long for him to fall into his consuming passion as a naturalist. On a couple of occasions he interrupts our discussion and identifies a family of wood ducks waddling through the park.
But when The Power Index cites the regular attacks from some in the media, Flannery’s casual mood darkens ever so slightly.