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Tim Flannery Discusses Global Warming

Posted By Ed Voves On March 30, 2007 @ 3:23 am In Environment,Non-Fiction Reviews,Science | 11 Comments

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is an Australian author and scientist. His most recent book, The Weather Makers : How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, addresses man’s influence on the climate.

Your new book explores in great detail how the escalating use of fossil fuels is causing global warming. However, you begin your book from a very personal perspective, reflecting on the implications of global warming on your own family and, by extension, the entire human family.
I call the bond between generations the “chain of deepest love.” I have been thinking of that even more since I wrote the book. Ultimately, global warming is a moral problem rather than a purely scientific or economic one. We are enriching ourselves by the use of fossil fuels in ways that degrade and imperil the future of our children, grandchildren and all future generations.The more I think about it, the situation is like that of the people who launched the anti-slavery campaign in the late 1700’s. One of the group’s leaders, William Wilberforce, is a great hero of mine. When they began their efforts, people were getting rich by degrading the lives of the slaves brought over from Africa to work on the plantations in the West Indies and America. It must have seemed hopeless at first, faced by the opposition of corrupt parliaments and wealthy merchants and planters. Yet, these Abolitionists changed the world by the force of their moral argument and I believe that moral argument will win the day and lead to solutions for global warming.
Actually, the two causes, the abolition of slavery and stopping global warming are closely linked. In the 1800’s, the labor of slaves was replaced by steam-powered machines powered by coal and oil. Now, the use of these fossil fuels is confronting us with a moral dilemma and I am confident we will make the right choice.
More and more people are now becoming aware that increasing use of fossil fuels is the cause of “Greenhouse” effect which propels global warming. What are some other aspects of global warming that we need to consider?
One of the most important things we need to ponder about global warming is the long lasting effect of pumping carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere. Around 56% of all of the carbon dioxide produced by humans since we started using coal and oil as sources of energy is still present in the atmosphere today. Even if we quickly shift to safer forms of energy, over half of this carbon dioxide will still be in the atmosphere in a century’s time.
Until quite recently, global warming was widely viewed as a “not in our lifetime” phenomenon. That perception is changing and many people are realizing that global warming is “now.” What do you think accounts for this change in consensus.
We really did not understand climate change until recently. That was largely a result of the computer models that we were relying on for vital data. These computer models were inherently conservative and a lot of the feedback was biased as a result.An example of this can be found in the way that data on the relation of global warming to hurricanes was projected. In 2004, the computer models predicted that global warming would increase hurricane activity by 20% by 2080. The next year Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. With new computer models available to us, we have been able to measure the increase in the energy produced by hurricanes over the last three decades and we now know that it increased by 60% during that period. There is no way that this rise can be accounted for by hurricane cycles.
Another example of the way that new data is helping us understand global warming comes from the taking of core samples from the earth. In 2006, the first sediment core from the Arctic Ocean has shown that the ocean temperature in this area was around 24 degrees Celsius fifty-five million years ago. This was much warmer than has been previously realized, almost tropical in fact, and is dramatic proof of how the earth’s climate does change.
The evidence for global warming has been there all along and I really regret that it has taken us so long to understand it.
In The Weather Makers, you discuss how other core samples have revealed very disturbing implications of the global warming that occurred during that same period, fifty-five million years ago. What are some of these?
The Ocean Drilling Project took core samples in the Northern Pacific area and found that there was a very rapid acidification of the oceans fifty-five million years ago. It happened very quickly, in two to three decades. This great increase in the level of acid was caused by global warming. As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed into the oceans, it causes a chemical reaction with sea water producing carbonic acid. This acid remains for the most part in the top levels of the oceans where the majority of marine species live. The effect on marine life is drastic. Shell fish, for instance, cannot properly form their shells in this environment. The implications of this rise in the acidity of the world’s oceans on biodiversity are very great.
A recent BBC report analyzed the disastrous effect of global warming on UN Heritage Sites. It pinpointed the bleaching of the Belize Coral Reef by warmer sea temperatures as a particularly serious situation. Since 1998, 40% of the coral there has been destroyed. What is the significance of coral reef loss due to global warming?

Coral reefs are an extremely important component of the world’s ecology. Around 25 percent of all of ocean’s species spend part of their lives living in coral reefs. Five nations are built on coral atolls in the Pacific and are entirely dependent on them to exist. There is an economic factor, too. Nations like Belize and Australia earn huge amounts of revenue, about 30 billion dollars a year, from tourists who come to swim and explore these unique and beautiful reefs. For many nations, this is revenue that they would not otherwise have access to. Like the coral reefs themselves, it is unique and can not be replaced.The destruction of coral reefs world-wide is very a serious factor, a sign of the general warming of oceans throughout the world. With just a two degree rise in the temperature of the oceans, coral begins to die. And that same warming affects ocean currents and other elements of maritime life.
In addition to the already apparent effects of global warming, there are several other possible scenarios which you discuss in the chapter of your book called “The Pack of Jokers.” What are these possible climatic “tipping points” that may result from overheating the earth’s atmosphere? Which one do you think is the most likely to occur?
First of all, there are enough causes of concern right now about the way our use of fossil fuels is degrading the earth’s ecosystems and endangering our children’s future. But when you add these new possibilities to the consideration of global warming, the concern is much greater. For if these occur, they could destroy human civilization.These global warming “tipping points” are the collapse or slowing down of the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic caused by water from melting glaciers, the demise of the rain forests of the Amazon and the release of deadly methane gas into the atmosphere from the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
Scientists in the United Kingdom, which is currently the leader in global warming research, are closely studying the possibility that as glaciers, particularly in Greenland, melt and release cold freshwater into the oceans, this could affect the Gulf Stream. The best of evidence from their studies is that there is a 5% chance that the Gulf Stream could collapse as a result. This is still a high risk, since the flow of the Gulf Stream controls the temperature of the world’s oceans and destabilizing it would have devastating effects on biodiversity and rainfall patterns.
I feel that it is a remote possibility that global warming will trigger a large scale release of methane gases in the immediate future. However, a collapse of the Amazon rain forests is more likely. The flow of the Amazon River is decreasing and the El Nino weather cycle is changing. These shifts could trigger a reduction of rainfall in the Amazon basin and a shrinking of the Amazon rainforest. Since the rainforest is one of the world’s most important regions for absorbing carbon dioxide, its loss would result in vaster amounts of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere and a further rise in global warming.
As an Australian scientist, are there any particular global warming concerns for you own native land
Australia has been suffering from drought in recent years and global warming is a major contributor. The drought has been moving from the farm land of Western Australia to the east where most of the major cities and the bulk of the population is. The central coast, just north of Sydney, is down to 18% of its water reserves. The situation for Darwin in the northwest is even more critical and the city is bringing in water by truck.This extreme situation is forcing the Australian government to re-evaluate its energy use policy. It has begun to shift from a coal based economy in order to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Up to now, Australia has stood along with the United States on everything from waging war in the Middle East to reliance on fossil fuels. This is the first real sign of dissent on Australia’s part to the fuel policy of the Bush Administration.
Do you think that diplomatic efforts between nations, such as the Kyoto Protocol, will be effective in dealing with global warming?
Getting nations to cooperate is important, but I think a quicker solution will come from what I call a carbon tax break. This involves taxing pollution at its source, whether it is generated by an oil company or a coal burning energy plant. The money raised by this carbon tax would be distributed to citizens who would then use it to purchase energy. Since gas or coal-produced energy which emit high levels of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would be highly taxed and thus more expensive, people would naturally buy the cheaper, and lower carbon emitting, forms of energy. Companies that comply by cutting down on the amount of carbon dioxide they emit or by creating more innovative solutions for dealing with global warming would be rewarded by lower taxes and greater sales. This is a positive feed-back loop which is simple to understand and simple to implement, since there are only so many sources of pollution.
Do you really believe that big corporations will cooperate in such efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming?
I’ve given the fossil fuel industry a bashing in my book. But there are some really good companies who are acting conscientiously to solve global warming. However, people in the United States are being kept in the dark by other companies, particularly in the coal and oil industries, in much the same way that they were misguided by the debate over tobacco in the 1960’s. The link to cancer, heart attacks and other diseases from smoking was known for years but it wasn’t until a number of doctors and researchers refused to be silenced that the Surgeon General’s Report of 1964 was released.
In a similar way, someone is going to have to stop the dinosaurs of the coal and oil industries from misleading the American public about the true dimensions of global warming.
You conclude The Weather Makers with a list of things that people can do in their everyday lives to meet the challenge of global warming, a “climate change checklist” as you call it. So, with a growing awareness of the dangers of burning fossil fuels and the use of “green power,” are you confident that humanity will act in time to deal with the threat of global warming?
Yes, I have a faith in human nature that makes me believe that we are going to triumph and not bequeath a legacy of global warming to our children.

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