Tim Flannery: climate prophet
IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
'I wake up in the morning thinking there are lots of times when people have woken up feeling like this, like the Old Testament prophets.'
That's Tim Flannery, Julia Gillard's hand-picked Climate Change Commissioner, or preacher-in-chief, if you prefer.
Appointed by Climate Change Minister Greg Combet to his $3,000 per week, part-time job in February, Flannery is tasked with turning around the climate change debate for the minority Labor administration.
His comments, made in a 2004 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, are just one indicator of the depth of Flannery's quasi-religious fervour for climate change, not to mention his exaggerated sense of self-importance.
Many commentators have noted the extensive use of quasi-religious language by climate activists. Followers of the hypothesis that man is responsible for so-called dangerous climate change are referred to as ‘believers' whilst doubters are often labelled ‘deniers,' ‘sceptics' and even ‘heretics.'
The public shaming and bullying of any scientist who differs from climate science orthodoxy is eerily reminiscent of a latter-day Salem Witch-trial or Spanish Inquisition, with public floggings meted out-metaphorically speaking-for their thought crimes. Indeed, ‘dissenters', as they have also been labelled, suffer ritual humiliation at the hands of their colleagues and the media, with their every motivation questioned and views pilloried.
Elements of the climate change movement are beginning to bear more resemblance to a religious cult than a scientific community. Dalliances with authoritarianism are never far from the fringes of the green movement.
Prominent green activist, Clive Hamilton, for instance, has suggested that the ‘suspension of democratic processes' might be a necessary ‘emergency' response to the threat of climate change. Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly recently wrote that ‘Australia's ludicrous dithering on a pollution tax' was evidence that voting should be a ‘privilege' rather than a right and that China should be envied because it need not ‘pander' to voters.
Flannery epitomises the trend of science with cult-like characteristics. Modern climate activists appears to increasingly rely as much on faith as science when arriving at their predictions of doom and gloom. And with their reliance on belief at least as much as sober scientific predictions, the climate change movement and its advocates adopt a positively unscientific approach.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in April, Flannery laid out some of the beliefs of this new climate religion, including his conception of ‘Gaia' in very human terms:
For the first time, this global super-organism, this global intelligence will be able to send a signal, a strong and clear signal to the earth. And what that means in a sense is that we can, we will be a regulating intelligence for the planet, I'm sure, in the future ... And lead to a stronger Gaia, if you will, a stronger earth system.
It's not the first time Flannery has made religious statements about ‘Gaia.'
When appearing on the ABC's Science Show in January this year, Flannery said: ‘This planet, this Gaia, will have acquired a brain and a nervous system. That will make it act as a living animal, as a living organism, at some sort of level.'
To be fair, Flannery is not the only scientist to embrace the kooky theory that Gaia has human properties. But it would be fair to say that it is well outside the scientific mainstream. Even fellow Gaia-fans like Roger Gifford, Will Steffen and John Finnigan have distanced themselves from Flannery's remarks.
Noting that his comments had caused some ‘confusion', they wrote for the ABC's opinion website, The Drum:
For most scientists working in the relatively new area of Earth System Science, talk of the earth ‘growing a brain' trivialises the growing body of knowledge about the functioning of the whole-earth system ... While the Gaia hypothesis, first popularised by British scientist James Lovelock as a metaphor of ‘the living Earth', has been given religious overtones by some, most scientists, including Lovelock himself, do not assert that the Earth is ‘alive.'
Gaia worship is not the only area of Flannery's work where religious elements have surfaced. Like others in the environmental movement, he exhibits a level of intolerance of dissent that religious organisations have previously been accused of.
Like Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, Tim Flannery is not averse to using the power of the state to enforce his views. He has openly fantasised about judicial punishments being handed out in the future to those who doubt climate science today. ‘Perhaps the day will come when a prosecutor in some yet-to-be-formed international court will appear with a copy of Scorcher under his arm,' he has said, referring to Clive Hamilton's book attacking the ‘greenhouse mafia' of citizens and businesses who are sceptical about man's contribution to climate change.
His record of inflammatory alarmism about climate change and his patchy-at-best attempts to forecast environmental doom also belie a fundamentalist viewpoint. It seems as if Flannery seeks out the worst and most extreme predictions of climate catastrophe from scientific models, and communicates it to the masses as if it is a certain outcome.
In an October 2006 opinion piece for The Age newspaper, entitled ‘Climate's last chance', Flannery asked readers to imagine what a 25 metre sea rise would look like. ‘Picture an eight-storey building by a beach, then imagine waves lapping its roof,' he said. Given the Australian Bureau of Meteorology estimates that, at worst, Australia's sea-level has risen by 10mm per year for the last two decades (and as little as 1.5mm per year in some areas), it will take thousands of years to reach Flannery's alarmist prophecy, if current trends persist.
Speaking at the National Climate Change Forum shortly after his appointment as Climate Commissioner, Professor Flannery warned Australian families their summer trips to the beach would be a thing of the past. ‘It's hardly surprising that beaches are going to disappear with climate change,' he said.
Flannery has predicted that many of Australia's capital cities would all run out of water at different times. In 2004 he predicted that ‘Perth will be the 21st century's first ghost metropolis.' The following year, he said that Sydney could run out of water in as little as two years.
Undaunted by that botched prediction, he tried again in 2007, saying Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane would ‘need desalinated water urgently, possibly in as little as 18 months.'
Undeterred by their failure to dry-out, Flannery was at it again in 2008, arguing that ‘the water problem for Adelaide is so severe that it may run out of water by early 2009.' Of course, even amid a severe drought, none of these cities have met Flannery's doomsday scenarios.
And the forecast from his 2007 article in the New Scientist magazine that ‘Australia is likely to lose its northern rainfall' looks awfully silly against recent flooding rains in Queensland.
These failed prophecies have all the hallmarks of a religious cult-leader or wacko preacher predicting Armageddon-if we don't atone for our environmental ‘sins' against the planet. The idea that we have sinned against Gaia-by its very nature a religious or moral question rather than a scientific or economic one-has never been far from Flannery's comments.
In 2007, for example, he mused that ‘some may say that Australia deserves its fate' because of our then failure to ratify the Kyoto treaty and as a high per-capita emitter of carbon dioxide.
Although Flannery has avoided directly attributing the recent floods in Australia to climate change, he has said that extreme weather events like the floods are more likely to occur as a result of climate change.
Using current weather events to bolster a case for human-induced climate change is fundamentally unscientific. Aside from confusing weather and climate-something sceptics are often accused of-it is also an un-falsifiable hypothesis, a key requirement of any scientific theory. If lots of rain, no rain at all, cold temperatures and hot temperatures are all evidence of climate change, what could we observe that would disprove Flannery's theory?
That Flannery is a strange man probably won't come as a surprise to his critics, climate science sceptics and those who are simply sceptical about the politics and economics of pricing carbon dioxide.
It may, however, have come as a surprise to the Gillard Government, who have entrusted him with selling their message that climate change is happening, humans are to blame, and that doing something drastic about it is in Australia's national interest.
But they should have known better, given his extensive record of odd or extreme public commentary.
Many in the media love Flannery for his ability to churn out a ready-to-print quotable quote. Too often, however, he is treated by the media as if he is an impartial climate expert, rather than a highly political or quasi-religious activist.
Yet his public comments betray his image as a disinterested scientific observer, and point to his true identity as an environmental activist with strong political views and religious-like certainty that has little to do with science.
Take, for instance, his belief that it is ‘is absolutely imperative as we move forward that we get some more equal distribution of resources', which he shared in his recent Guardian interview. A long-held political goal of many on the left, perhaps, but hardly a scientific response to climate change.
Yet despite his own thinly-disguised ideological bias, Flannery has not been averse to smearing other scientists for their supposed political beliefs. Speaking of the highly regarded Richard Lindzen, a Professor of Meteorology in Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he said; ‘the problem with Richard Lindzen is his politics is to the right of Andrew Bolt and Genghis Khan.'
And like a cult leader who sees conspiracies to thwart him around every corner, Flannery has a paranoid streak. Even fellow climate-preacher Clive Hamilton has mocked Flannery's belief that he has been a victim of a conspiracy of powerful interests trying to damage him:
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.
Flannery's proposed solutions to climate change have veered on the radical, even excluding his enthusiasm for both a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme.
Interviewed in 2007, he likened the coal industry-which employs thousands of Australians and provides the vast majority of our cheap power generation-to those that had sold asbestos. He also argued their ‘social license to operate' should be withdrawn. A year before, he wrote that ‘the old coal clunkers need to be closed as quickly as possible' and proposed that they be replaced with hitherto unproven technologies like geothermal and wave energy.
There's no doubt that Tim Flannery is an effective media performer and a ceaseless advocate for his cause. He's also high profile thanks in part to his 2007 Australian of the Year award and the books he has written about climate change.
But Flannery bears much closer resemblance to a religious evangelist than a scientist. His doomsday prophecies, radical solutions and religion-like certainty are all indicators of his status as a modern-day climate prophet, rather than expert scientific advisor.
It seems the Gillard Government has failed to do their research into his absurd, inaccurate and often extreme public statements before appointing him to his well-remunerated public post. Or perhaps they're just hoping we won't notice.