AMplify: Episode 13, Trailblazers Talks live – Tim Flannery
An evening with celebrated explorer, scientist, communicator and former Australian of the Year.
Professor Tim Flannery is arguably Australia’s best known scientist and agitator for action on climate change. He presented this Trailblazers Talk on 14 April 2016.
From 1984 to 1999, Tim was the Principal Mammal Research Scientist here at the Australian Museum. His work helped extend the Australian mammal fossil record by 80 million years, and his expeditions to remote areas of Papua New Guinea resulted in the discovery of 16 species and many subspecies of mammal, particularly tree kangaroos.
Kim McKay: First of all I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners on the land in which we've gathered this evening, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to elders past and present, and also extend that respect to any Indigenous people who are in the room with us this evening. You know, when we give the Welcome to Country—for two important reasons here—we are the custodians of one of the largest Indigenous collections in the nation, housed on site here at the museum, and also it gives us all a chance to reflect, I think, on how fortunate we all are to live in this really magnificent country, and what a responsibility I think we all have to look after it in the best way possible.
And probably a person who is best qualified, in a way, to talk to us about looking after our country and why it's important to be a trailblazer and be an expeditioner is no one better than Tim Flannery, of course. Tim spent 15 magnificent years at the Australian Museum before he really came to public attention. His qualifications as a mammalian biologist, as a scientist here for that time, really put him on the map in science land, and it wasn't until of course he went on after that to campaign on climate change issues and become a well-known figure not just as Australian of the Year but also on ABC television on all those lovely adventures you've done. But Tim has really done more than just about any other Australian I can think of to raise our awareness about our local environment and how important it is to protect it.
And when I say local I don't just mean Australia, I mean right across our region. Because of course he's had so many extraordinary expeditions In Papua New Guinea and discovered so many new species, the tree kangaroos being among them. So who better to talk to us about his experiences as a trailblazer and what that means for science than the extraordinary Tim Flannery. Welcome, Tim.
Tim Flannery: Thank you so much, Kim. Tonight I feel deeply honoured as the trailblazer in residence at the museum, but also as the one responsible for giving this lecture on trailblazing, I guess, on what it means to be a trailblazer. And if I'm a trailblazer at all, really my…the opportunity to be such an entity arose in this institution, and it arose at this museum because at the time I was employed here there was a certain latitude given to scientists, a certain level of support without great expectation, I might say, that you would succeed every time. Because doing science in the field is fraught with difficulty and uncertainty, and I had some expeditions that were a terrible crash and no-one ever mentioned it. They knew you'd try again. So if I am a trailblazer at all, I owe it very much to this institution.
And I want to start talking about trailblazing just by going back to my very first days in this institution. I remember being appointed as curator of mammals and feeling it this extraordinary honour, this moment…I mean I'd been unemployed for four months before that.
I'd finished my PhD, my young son had been born, I'd put my hat in the ring for this job, there was 200 other applicants, and lo and behold I got the job. So I felt I would have done it for nothing, they didn't need to give me a salary, I would have just done the job for nothing. But it was an extraordinary moment.
I remember sitting down at a desk that had been my predecessor's desk, Ellis Troughton, and he had started at the museum at the age of 15 and the desk was deeply incised with a fair amount of graffiti, hard to interpret, but some of it I think was perhaps the result of indignation that various curators of mammals before me had felt about the institution, things that had gone wrong and whatever.
But I remember sitting at that desk thinking I somehow have to honour this heritage. There's an unbroken lineage of curators who have sat here and looked after this collection and grown the collection and ensured its safety and researched the collection, and tried to deliver value to the institution and to the society that's paying for this over…well, since 1827 people have been doing that. So I felt there was a great sense of responsibility.
I had always wanted to work in Melanesia. I felt that that was where the great opportunities were, somehow. I wanted to cross that invisible frontier from the western world, the world that was influenced by all the institutions that we know about, on to the other side of the frontier, to experience that world where people had been living independently for perhaps up to 60,000 years in our part of the world. And my role as curator of mammals at the museum really opened up that possibility for me. People gave me a salary, they gave me a desk, they gave me a collection to look after.
They didn't give me any money for fieldwork, I had to apply for that. But I found, lo and behold, that it was actually possible to get field money. The National Geographic Society that Kim knows very well was in fact my very first funder in the job. Soon after that I received some money from a bequest, just an ordinary woman in Sydney who decided that she wanted to leave money in her will for the protection of endangered species. And her solicitor, who had no idea what to do, in fact he was going to give the whole of the bequest to the Stockmen's Hall of Fame, he knew so little about endangered species, but ended up giving me a number of grants to continue working in Melanesia.
I was pretty wet behind the ears in those days. I might have been a trailblazer of sorts, but I was a pretty inept one. What was I…30? I look back, I thought I was terribly mature, but you look back at this age and realise you weren't at all. And pretty hopeless at fieldwork in some ways. I was determined but really, a lot of the big discoveries I made were really the result of working with local people. And maybe I had a knack about that, I'm not sure.
What I do know is that people who'd gone to Melanesia in the past had often cut themselves off from the local people. They were happy to trap rats or mist-net bats, and not go out with the great experts, the 'professors' really, the old men and women who know the fauna so well. And that's something I for whatever reason felt very comfortable doing, perhaps naivety or foolishness, but I would often go into a village with some tobacco and some food and try to work out who was the great hunter, who was the person who knew the tree kangaroos or the bats or whatever it was, the possums. And then go out into the bush, maybe two or three days walk away from the village and live with that person and some of his younger relatives for as long as it took to learn what I needed to learn.
I remember having some terrible difficulties I can tell you about. On my very first expedition I remember going up into the Neon Basin on Mt Albert Edward, just about 100 kilometres out of Port Moresby, and people were hunting possums, which were quite abundant up there. The local people were hunting possums. And inevitably a female came in with a fairly well grown pouch young, and I thought I can't see this animal cooked on the fire, I'll have to see if I can get it back to a zoo. So it was such a small animal, such a young animal, that I knew that unless I could keep it warm overnight it would die of hypothermia. So I wrapped it in a sock and put it into my sleeping bag and I thought I'd keep it warm through the night and try to feed it with…something, some milk that I had, till the next morning.
The only thing I'd overlooked was that there was a hole in my sock and what made matters worse in fact was that the area we were at was on a tribal boundary. So the local people I was with were really anxious. They had enemies of a very deep and dark hue living just across the hill, and if those enemies noticed that a small group of Goilala people had gone up into the Neon Basin and were hunting, they were likely to raid them and try to kill them or drive them off.
But anyway, I was blissfully unaware of all of this, sleeping in my sleeping bag with my young possum, when I felt something rather sharp grab the end of probably the most delicate part of my body. So I leapt up out of my sleeping bag and realised something was attached to that part of my body as well, which was a sock with a possum head sticking out of it. And I involuntarily screamed and all of the local guys were out there immediately—bow and arrow, looking around, where are the enemy, you know—until they finally turned around and looked at me and realised that in fact they hadn't detected the enemy creeping up on us. I was the victim of misfortune, you might say. And I'm afraid all of my credibility, all of my status vanished in an instant at that moment. I was just the local village idiot from that time on I fear, up there.
But those local people taught me some great things. We went up into that basin, the largest rat that we caught, which was an animal that was nearly a metre long and two kilograms in weight, turned out to be unknown to science. The wallaby that those local people hunted for food commonly was another species that was just not known to science. All of the smaller animals had been previously documented, because expeditions had gone up near that area and people had laid thousands of rat traps and things—this is scientists in the '30s and '40s—and caught the smaller animals, but the large ones were unknown. And that was a great moment for me. I realised that placing trust in those people and going out with them was hugely important.
I really owe my career to those 'professors' as I call them now from Melanesia, those old men and women who know so much, who knew so much. Sadly that generation is passing. Wherever I went in New Guinea, if I was going there for a decade or two—which I did in some cases—you could see the generational change. Very high death rates in parts of the country. People's life expectancy is not like ours. You'd see them pass away and you'd see the knowledge being lost. Some recent work that we've done, which I'll come to in a moment, done in Melanesia, shows that young people know about half of the native animal and plant names that older people know. And that's now. The people I knew may have known ten times the number of names. And all of the knowledge that went with those names.
So for 20 years I built my career really on the backs of those 'professors'. And I didn't acknowledge it properly at the time, I must say.
I remember I had a little bit of a patter that when I went into a village and talked to people, they were always curious to know why you were there, and I had to explain somehow why I was there. So I said, 'Well, I'm here to do a survey of the fauna of this part of the world so that we'll have a record of it for all time, and so that when your government decides to make planning decisions perhaps, of a new mine coming or whatever, they can do it with some knowledge of the local fauna that might be impacted by this.'
And I remember one old man, when I'd given that patter, in quite a remote area of West Sepik Province, just turned to me and said, in Pidgin, he said, 'No, that's not right.' He said, 'You're here to put your name up. Put your name up high.' And he was absolutely right, in a way. I was building my career. He was absolutely right. That was the thing. And he said that really I think to remind me that I needed to give something back. And I found it very, very difficult to give anything back for a number of years. It's only very recently that I think I have found the means and a way to repay some of that debt. I'll come back to that in a moment, the new initiatives that are happening around this museum in terms of engaging those communities and giving something back which is very important to those communities in return for the knowledge we've built up over the years.
Of course I didn't stay as a mammalogist, someone doing trailblazing in remote parts of New Guinea. As much as I loved the work and found it fascinating, things happened in my life that took me in a different direction. And one of the most important things that happened was a realisation, actually, as I was climbing high mountains in New Guinea, that the world was changing. I remember going up into the alpine zone of one high mountain after the other and seeing everywhere I went evidence that the tree line was rising, that the alpine areas, treeless alpine areas where shrinking.
I didn't know quite what to make of that in the early '90s, but I soon realised that it was a manifestation of a global climate change that was occurring everywhere. And once I realised that and went back and looked at the history of New Guinea, I realised that 20,000 years ago when temperatures were five degrees cooler, the tree line was at 2,100 metres. When I was in New Guinea in the 1990s the tree line was at 3,900 metres. The highest mountain in New Guinea is only 4,900 metres.
And temperatures are rising so much now that we're committed, pretty much, to three degrees of warming by the end of the century. So those environments that I documented diversity in, where the wallabies were, the giant rats were in the alpine zone on these high mountains, is sort of destined to be swamped, destined to be overgrown by forest unless something…unless we can act very dramatically, quickly, we will lose those habitats. So it was that growing realisation that set me off in a different direction.
I eventually became director of the South Australian Museum and started working quite closely with the South Australian government under Mike Wran. And that just opened an opportunity for me to do something a bit different, to address the climate issue as well as the biodiversity issue. I'd been working as, as I said, a taxonomist documenting biodiversity, but I had to ask myself in the end, what was the use of doing that if I knew that it was all doomed to extinction if nothing was done.
So while I was director of the museum I used every spare moment of time I had to write a book called The Weather Makers, which was about climate impact. It was my effort to explain just to the ordinary people in the street, to people like my mum. She's now 86. She went to grade 8 in school, form 2 in school, but she's really smart. I was writing for that sort of audience, to say, 'Here's what's at stake with the world.'
I finished the book and that sort of swept me into a whole new area of trailblazing, about engaging my own tribe, my own community, with deepening their understanding of the way we're impacting on the world.
I remember being in Adelaide writing the book, and it was summer, it was a 40-degree day outside. I got up, went to have a shower, turned on the hot water just a little bit, because I didn't want it absolutely cold, and sat under the water thinking, you know, this hot water is being heated by the burning of coal, very inefficiently, 300 kilometres away from where I am, and then been transported very inefficiently down power lines to heat my hot water heater, and then being used very inefficiently just to give me a bit of comfort. I thought, this is the most immoral shower I have ever had. Probably the most immoral shower anyone has ever had.
So I felt, having made that realisation, you go into your own society and see people do things that are absolutely mundane and normal and yet somehow are wrong. I remember walking through the streets of Adelaide watching people in motor vehicles keeping their engine running just so they could run the air conditioning. And not realising that by air conditioning the interior of their car they were helping cook the planet. The heat has to go somewhere. It doesn't just vanish, you know?
When I started doing that work it seemed an impossibility that we'd be where we are today, I must say. When you're working on climate change issues it seems that you're getting nowhere fast. But looking back on the last ten years I can see we've moved actually really fast.
We couldn't have the sort of discussions we're having this evening ten years ago. There was just too few people aware of the issue, and sufficiently understanding of it to know what was at stake. And we're at the beginning now of a very rapid period of change, I think.
We've all seen the huge uptake of wind and solar in this country. And we've got to a point now where the system's at breaking point. We've had a lot of wind, a lot of solar installed, but there's been hardly any old coal shut down. So at the moment the south-eastern electricity grid in Australia is oversupplied by 30%. So we're burning coal for electricity that nobody wants. Even the people that run the power stations down in the Latrobe Valley or up in the Hunter are calling on government to regulate, to shut down the oldest or the least efficient or the most polluting, whatever it is, so that at least the remaining power plants might have a chance to make some money.
And the debate continues to go on as if nothing really much has happened in terms of how we deal with the problem. I remember two days ago I was looking at something by the Grattan Institute, and people were saying, 'You know, the price on carbon is the most efficient way to deal with the problem of carbon pollution.' And that's sort of theoretically true, but what it doesn't recognise is the fact that we've just had a decade of worst-case scenario emissions.
We are committed to one and a half degrees of warming, no matter what we do. If we turned off the lights tonight and all went home and just lived on our solar and whatever else, the world would still warm by one and a half degrees by 2050. There's a lot of inertia built in to the system. And while I can empathise with the idea that carbon price is important, I really do think the moment has come now for regulation. The government needs to act to help shut down some of those old coal-fired power plants, otherwise we won't get anymore uptake of wind and solar.
So we're at a critical moment now, and as the experts who study the Great Barrier Reef will tell you, one and a half degrees is really going to be damaging for the reef. Two degrees will basically transform it, will kill the reef that we know today and something else will be in its place. And we will be at two degrees of warming potential if we dither for another decade. This is the time for decision making now. And I think as a trailblazer, and having seen what I've seen in terms of climate change and in terms of technological change and in terms of where the community is at, we can see that this is the time now for decision making.
One of my jobs, and one of the more important ones, is Chief Councillor at the Australian Climate Council. Some of you in the room may be supporters of that organisation, I don't know. Is there anyone who supports our organisation? Fantastic. Great. Well you know as well as anyone that the will is there in the community for change now. We simply have to push through, and I think the next month's, perhaps this electoral cycle, is the time to do that. If we don't make that push through, we will have lost another opportunity and another few years. And another few years is another 150 gigatonnes of carbon in the atmosphere. That will really weigh on the ultimate outcome. So I think that yes, a lot's happened in ten years, but a lot has to happen in the next year if we are to really make a difference in terms of averting what is a really enormous threat to biodiversity, to our own futures.
I'd like to just turn briefly now from climate change, which I wanted to talk about, back to biodiversity protection.
Because we live in a world where there are multiple threatening agencies, there are multiple sources of deleterious change. A big driving one is climate change. But there are many smaller ones. And one of the ones that I feel really strongly about dealing with is just the collapse of biodiversity in our Australian region.
Fifteen years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to be a founding member of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and I'm really proud of the work they've done in terms of protecting Australia's biodiversity. We're now well on the road to securing the futures of almost all of our highly endangered species, at least in the short term. I was also on the board of a thing called the Tenkile Conservation Alliance in Papua New Guinea. And if you haven't heard of that I recommend you have a look online. That organisation has prevented the extinction of two species of tree kangaroos and it protects now a huge area of mid montane habitat in northern New Guinea where there's probably the highest concentration of endemic species anywhere on the island.
But in addition to that, that organisation creates really serious betterment for the lives of 10,000 people. It's providing education, providing funding for schools. It's providing clean water for people in an area where enteric diseases, dysentery and so forth, is really endemic. It's providing high quality protein in an area where the kids all have bellies like this because they're not getting enough protein. And all of this is done in exchange for protecting biodiversity. It's a great organisation, it's doing fantastic things.
And it was my inspiration really to set up this organisation at the Australian Museum, which really came into existence last week. I was fortunate enough last year to obtain a grant from a European foundation to do some conservation work in the Pacific.
I thought about those people, those 'professors', those people who'd helped me so much as I was building my career, and I went back out to some of those communities and found two communities that were in a good position to start to conserve their biodiversity and to start working for the betterment of those communities.
One of the communities is on Bougainville, and the man who I'm working with particularly there has just got his PhD from the University of New South Wales. He feels passionate about the betterment of his community first because he understands biodiversity—his PhD was in that area—but secondly because he lost his entire secondary education as a result of the war, the Bougainville war. At the age of 13 the school shut down. He couldn't go to school until he was an adult. He was about 20 when he went to year 7. He now has a PhD from the University of New South Wales and is using his own salary in Papua New Guinea to pay for a school teacher in his village, where there's no school within four hours' walk apart from the one that he's supporting.
So with my grant I brought people like that together, people from Malaita together; Jim Thomas who runs the Tenkile conservationers organisation, they were all here in this building last week, and it was one of those moments where there was this incredible giving by people, incredible opening and understanding. It was one of the most amazing weeks of my life, it really was. We went away with a very clear view of what needs to be done. And enormous ambition, I must say, but quite justified ambition I think.
We will set up in these communities organisations that protect biodiversity and that deliver great outcomes to those communities. One of the things I heard last week was that in both of those communities loggers are really active. In the Solomon Islands and Bougainville government is weak, and Asian logging companies come in, they'll offer you a contract that says we'll build you schools, we'll build hospitals, we'll pay you a fortune—and then the last paragraph just says, 'And the company will be held responsible for none of the above.'
And the amount of logging that's gone on in that area is horrific. The biodiversity losses are extraordinary, they really are.
So that's one of the things we're fighting against. We want to give the community a good reason to reject those kind of contracts, to give them enough resources and finances and support to build their communities, to be able to say no to the loggers. And there's some incredible tools that I hadn't even realised were out there. We went to the museum collections to take photographs of a giant rat that is found only on Bougainville. The last any western scientist heard of this giant rat was in 1937, so the last time we heard anything about it.
The Bougainvilleans who came down, though, took photographs of themselves holding this rat, posted them on Facebook, and we have had 80 responses. Among the responses, I can just tell you, one fellow wrote in and he said, 'I was bitten by one of those rats when I was a young fella and it still hurts. It hurts even more seeing the photograph of it again. Brings back the pain.' Another guy said, 'Oh, our cat brought in a rat like that. It was as big as the cat. Brought it into the village just last week.' So we've identified already, using Facebook, one of the threats to these endemic mammals: cat predation. And we've only been doing this a couple of days.
The expedition that Kim talked about is going to be awesome. It's going to be not just people like me going into the field, it's going to be the Solomon Islanders and Bougainvilleans themselves, documenting their own biodiversity, starting to set up programs that will bring in water tanks where they're needed or protein sources like rabbit farming and fish farming, and schools and education, start supporting that.
So I think this institution has given me a chance to start in life. Those people in Papua New Guinea gave me a chance to do something. This is the moment to give something back.
It's also the moment for us as a society to crystallise around our future needs, to tell the politicians what we need. We need a sustainable future as much as those villagers in Bougainville. And for me that's what trailblazing has been all about. It's been that engagement with people, it's been empowering communities. I'm really happy that the Climate Council's out of government and that we're now in the hands of people like you. It's a much better fit. It's where it should be. I'm going to stop there and take some questions, so thank you.
Kim McKay: Thanks so much, Tim. Boy, last week was amazing here to see those people come down and spend the week with you and work on the plan for the future, and it showed me very much the incredibly relevant role that institutions like the museum have to play in the future. Now Tim's struggling a bit. He's been losing his voice today, and not feeling 100%, so we thank you for coming out, so you're going to answer some questions though, because he's very good like that. Trailblazers have to be tough explorers, and he is a toughie.
Tim Flannery: Apologies, I do have a touch of the Neville Wrans.
Kim McKay: I should just say Tim's also the first recipient of the Australian Museum Research Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, and when we gave it to you a few years ago, Tim—oh, two years ago now, because I've only been here two years—when we gave it to you I got hate mail from people, a certain type of person I've got to tell you, they were all male, all of a certain age (don't feel bad, blokes, it's fine), about Tim's stand on climate change.
And in that short time I've seen a shift happen yet again in Australia. Like finally, you know, maybe after the climate talks in Paris, and you were there for those, maybe there's been a bit of a global shift and understanding that the climate science is something that's very real, it's not a conspiracy.
Tim Flannery: If only…much easier to deal with a conspiracy.
Kim McKay: If only it was, that's right. So Tim is tough, and we appreciate it. So we're very happy for him to take some questions for you tonight, so please go for it. We've got a microphone up there…
Audience question 1: In Throwim Way Legyou wrote about bringing a friend from a remote, isolated community out to a big city. Can you explain a bit about how that went off, what the reaction was?
Tim Flannery: Sure. That old man was Kasper Seiko who is from the Torricelli Mountains, and that's the area that the Tenkile Conservation Alliance is now operating in. It was an extraordinary moment for me. He had done something very special for me. He was one of the oldest members of the community and he was what was called Papa bilong groun. He was the special senior man who was responsible for a particular piece of land where these tree kangaroos…it was really their last redoubt. And he went up there and helped me.
I wasn't allowed to go in initially. He went in and collected some specimens and information that was critical in me establishing what that animal actually was. So I brought Kasper down as a thank you to Sydney, along with a friend of mine called Gary Steer, who made a film with him. Kasper stayed at my house. I did my best to entertain him but I found that the sort of things I was interested in, Kasper wasn't particularly interested in. The trains and the big city and everything just seemed to…it didn't impress somehow.
I took him out and showed him some possums, and he was really interested in that. But when I went back to the village the following year, I heard Kasper talking to his family about everything he'd seen, and he said, 'You know, there's this amazing thing they've got in Australia,' he said, 'It's just in the wall of the house and you turn it and fresh water comes out of it.'
And that was an important clue for me, because when Tenkile Conservation Alliance started I realised the incidence of diarrhoeal disease in those areas is huge. The population's trebled since 1940. The forest has been cut down, there's a lot of pigs, water sources are compromised, and kids can't go to school because they're sick with gut aches. People can't work, they can't go out into their garden to work. The second that we put water tanks up into those villages, the incidence of diarrhoeal diseases declined by 80%. Just the money people were saving from buying medications was significant for them. The fact that kids were well enough to go to school, or people were well enough to work in their gardens was transformative.
So Kasper, anyway when he came down and talked about the water, I'd never thought about taps. I thought people had plenty of water. So it was an important moment. But no, wasn't impressed with the subway, the underground, the metro, no, nothing like that.
Audience question 2: What was the most striking moment of discovery in your career?
Tim Flannery: My career? I think probably as a biologist it was the discovery of this extraordinary tree kangaroo in Irian Jaya.
It's an animal called Dingiso, and it looks like a small panda. It's black and white, very, very long fur, and lives very high in the mountains. It look me a long time to track it down because I was a bit stupid. I'd been sent a photograph of a young animal, a black and white pouch young, that was taken in Irian Jaya by a photographer, a South African photographer. So I mounted an expedition to go and see if I could locate the animal, and lo and behold people had a name for two kinds of tree kangaroos in the area.
So I went out with hunters into the forest and we spent weeks looking for this animal: absolutely nothing. Found lots of the other kind of tree kangaroos, until I finally asked them, 'Where does it live?' And they said, 'Oh, right up there, high on the mountain.' I said, 'But there's no forest up there. This is a tree kangaroo.' They said, 'No, no, that's where it lives, for sure.'
So very reluctantly, after wasting weeks and weeks and weeks I went up into the alpine zone with a hunter called Jonas…forget his second name now, but he knew where these animals were. He went up with his family, caught some, and brought a dead animal down which he was going to cook for me. And it was an amazing moment, because this tree kangaroo was unlike anything I'd seen. It didn't live in trees, it lived above the tree line in Irian Jaya so I'd wasted a lot of time with my preconceptions. I should have just asked the people first off where it was rather than going out looking for tree kangaroos in the forest.
And then when Jonas caught it, anyway, I sat down with him and I said, 'Well, what does it eat?' And he said, 'It eats worms.' Now, there is not a kangaroo anywhere on earth that eats worms, I can guarantee, and I thought oh yeah, this is another one of these weird things, like a bit of folk knowledge, you know. But he cut the stomach open in order to prepare the animal for eating for his family, and it was packed full of worms, strongyloides worms. I couldn't see any leaf matter in there, no grass, nothing. Just worms. And again, it was this astonishing moment where they were right, I was wrong.
Tree kangaroos normally don't get intestinal worms, because they live in the trees and their faeces drop to the floor of the forest and there's no cross-transmission. Their hands don't go into the faeces so there's no way for the worms to get back into the system. But this tree kangaroo lives on the ground. And it has so many worms, far more than a normal kangaroo. But the worms themselves are very interesting, because they're not parasites. They seem to be symbionts. They eat the leaf matter that the kangaroo takes into its mouth, the worms eat that. The worms then, as they die and break down, go into the bowel and the nutrients are absorbed by the kangaroo. So finding dingiso was amazing. It's such a spectacular, large animal, and to discover it in 1995, it's one of the last of the large marsupials, certainly, that'll ever be discovered. But then to realise the limits of my knowledge and my terrible preconceptions was also a great gift, I think.
Audience question 3: What were your conclusions from the Paris talks, and just your thoughts on batteries and how that fits in to…?
Tim Flannery: Sure. I did mean to cover off on Paris but I was running out of time I realised, as I went on. I came away from Paris greatly buoyed up. I think the world now is serious about this. We have seen major reductions already in places like China and the US. For the last two years global emissions seem to have plateaued, which is good. I'm looking forward to the day they decline, and I think that can't be far off. But Australia is just…we're doing so badly. Our emissions from the burning of fossil fuels continue to grow rather than decline, and we just seem to have this policy paralysis that is getting us nowhere.
You look at the state of the Great Barrier Reef this year, you look at the impacts of climate change and you wonder why in the hell aren't we moving? When industry itself is calling out for some of the plant to be shut down. Anyway…so Paris I came away optimistic.
I saw something that actually buoyed my optimism even more about a month ago at Port Augusta. South Australia now has no coal-fired power plants. It's wind, solar, gas. Their last 500-megawatt power plant called the Northern Power Plant at Port Augusta is just in the process of shutting down now. And there's a new industry starting up there called Sundrop Farms. It's a tomato growing greenhouse, initially financed by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. It takes in salt water from the same intake pipe that the old coal-fired power plant used to. And they've got a massive solar array there that takes that water, that salt water, desalinates it, generates electricity as well, generates heat for these greenhouses. And Sundrop Farms right now is growing about 10% of Australia's tomato crop, using not a drop of fresh water and not a drop of fossil fuel. And the people who are employed at the old coal-fired power plant are being employed at Sundrop Farms. The chief engineer at the coal-fired power plant is now the chief engineer for Sundrop Farms, a guy in his 50s who has retrained to work in solar rather than in coal. So the old coal-fired power plant employed 400 people, Sundrop employs 200, 200 full-time jobs in agriculture, which is pretty impressive.
So the potential's there. I can see the technologies, the stars are aligning for the technologies. Batteries are going to be part of that as well. Absolutely, without a doubt. Maybe not next year or the year after, but soon. The political will is there, but taking that agreement in Paris and applying it to our local policy area is a challenge the government's not yet ready to take up. And I find that frustrating, and we know we have to do it this year or next. We can't leave it another decade. We are now right at the cusp of really serious damage, so we need action now. How we get that, it's up to us. We're the people who appoint those politicians. We need to hold them accountable.
Audience question 4: Speaking of politicians, I saw Al Gore's film when it was first put out, and I was convinced from that point. The evidence seems to be now overwhelming, and yet a lot of our politicians seem to be very sceptical, if I may use that word, of climate change. Why do you think that that's the case, and how do we change their opinion, because we don't seem to be not able to elect them.
Tim Flannery: Look, my personal view of that is that the politicians who are in power now are not broadly representative of the community. And they're not broadly representative of the community because of the process that puts them in place. The Hawthorn Football Club has got more members than the Liberal Party. Certainly more members than the Labor Party. The whole process of selecting candidates seems to me to be opaque. It's a bit like what we're seeing in the US, with their presidential runs. They're not really as broadly democratic a process as they should be.
I think probably in the not too distant future people will get so sick of this they'll start taking back some power. I can imagine a day coming when someone of good standing in their community might say well look, I will stand for election to represent you in the community. I'm not going to join a party. I'll only be there for one term. I'm not going to take any entitlements, I'll just do my best to represent your view, and I'm not going to come to you with any policies. I want to hear from you what the policies should be. And let's develop a sort of a jury system approach where we can empanel members of our community to really give some thought—and pay them for their time—give some thought about how we deal with some of these issues. Just to deepen our democracy. And I think that's the way things are going to go, but we're not there yet. We're still in the grips of a system which manages to pervert the will of the people, I think.
Audience question 5: I find as individual people we all feel quite small in this issue. We all want to help, but there's so much information out there. I just today…a few courses at uni in environmental management, and all I got out of it was the problem is so complex, it's so hard, we don't know what to do. So you get all this information and then you think, well, what can I do? You can have shorter showers, you can become a vegetarian, all those things, but it's all really useless. So what's your advice or take on what the individual person can do?
Tim Flannery: Look, at one level it is a complex problem, there's no doubt about that, and particularly responding and adapting to it is complex. But at another level it's a simple problem. We have…there's 20 coal-fired power plants in this country that need to close down. It's only 20 pieces of kit, you know? So already the market's oversupplied. So we could do that if we wanted over a five-year period, and we'd have a big hunk of the problem solved.
As far as individuals and empowerment, I think that one of the things that's really changed, and it's a bit like what's happened with this Solomon Islands project I'm doing, the internet, the mediation that Facebook and other things give us has allowed us to work together as members of a community, to do things and achieve things that we couldn't do previously. And the Climate Council is certainly a manifestation of that, people getting together to make change.
There is the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, there's the Solar Citizens Initiative, all of these things are working in their own way to start putting pressure on for the sorts of changes that we need to see. So everyone's circumstances are different. I'm not quite sure what yours are. Some people can put solar panels on their house because they own it. Other people are renting. Other people can give away their car and take a bicycle to work, whatever it is you do. But on top of all of that I think the big changes will come from engaging with a community of people and working with them, because that amplifies your voice.
Kim McKay: One last question?
Audience question 6: Thank you. With your book, The Weather Makers, from my recollection there weren't that many books like that in existence when you produced yours, and so I imagine there wasn't much of a template for you to go by as to what would work and what was an appropriate medium for you to express your ideas. Could you talk a little bit about what your thought process was in coming up with what you eventually then produced?
Tim Flannery: Well, I researched the book for about five years. I remember sitting down and reading the back issues of NatureandScience, the lead journals, and Tellus, as well, which is one of the leading atmospheric journals, trying to get an understanding of what the broad areas of impact were and what the big issues where.
And so I then just started organising the data in those impact areas which became chapters of the book, really. And I guess people had tried to get a handle on climate change before but I don't know whether anyone had taken that step back and decided to go from first principles and just read the science and work through it.
But I think the other thing that was important for me is I wanted the book to be understood by people. So when I'm writing something like that I do think about my mum, or someone in that position; someone who is intelligent and willing to put the time in to read, but who is not necessarily highly educated. And that was really important I think to me, I wanted to make it understandable to people. So it has to be a story and it has to avoid jargon. It has to have some beauty in the language as well. And when you're describing the natural world how can you not use beautiful language, you know, the workings of the atmosphere and the oceans and so forth, they're incredible, they're a huge revelation.
That was the other thing I had to do, was put myself through a course on atmospheric physics and oceans and stuff, so I bought the textbook that people study in the US, and just worked my way through it trying to understand the basics of how the atmosphere works. Anyway, that's why it took me a long time, it took me five years to do.
Kim McKay: Thank you so much.
So Tim Flannery, you are a legend. You're a legend here at the museum certainly as part of the family of the Australian Museum.
But you're a legend in Australia as well, and I have worked a lot overseas, and I can tell you he is one of our best known and most highly regarded Australians on the global stage, and we're just very proud to have you as a trailblazer here. Again, thank you so much for a great talk.
Flannery wrote a defining work on climate change in 2003, The Weather Makers. He was declared Australian of the Year in 2007 and appointed chairman of the Federal Government's Australian Climate Commission in 2011.
"The temperatures are rising so much we are pretty much committed to three degrees of warming by the end of the century, so those environments that I documented diversity in, where the giant rats were in Alpine zone on these high mountains, is destined to be swamped and overgrown by forest… we’ll lose those habitats. It was that realisation that set me off in a different direction.”
Join Tim for a fascinating evening as he shares highlights of his career and his responses to the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.