World on Fire
Amy Goodman asks scientist Tim Flannery if it’s too late to save earth from its most pernicious inhabitants
(Following is a partial transcript of the Oct. 25 edition of “Democracy Now!” featuring an interview with earth scientist Tim Flannery by the show’s host, Amy Goodman.)
Tim Flannery is an Australian mammologist and paleontologist. As a field zoologist he has discovered and named more than 30 new species of mammals. He has been described as being in the league of all-time great explorers, such as David Livingstone. Here in this country, Flannery might be best known as the author of the best-selling book “The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change.” Earlier this year he was named 2007’s Australian of the Year.
AMY GOODMAN: A group of scientists in Britain are warning global warming could wipe out more than half the earth’s species in the next few centuries. That finding appears in a new study published by researchers at the University of York. Scientists examined the relationship between climate and extinction rates over the past 500 million years. They determined that rising temperatures caused three of the earth’s four biggest periods of mass extinction.
We are talking today in dire times. Fires are raging in Southern California. A major drought has struck the Southeast, from Tennessee through the Carolinas and Georgia. Atlanta could run out of water. And then we’ve seen this drenching downpour in New Orleans; they had to close City Hall, close the schools. Is there a connection between the fire, the water and the drought?
TIM FLANNERY: Yeah. Look, the best way to think about these things, really, is to take a bigger global view. And Americans might feel they’re suffering from a whole lot of severe weather at the moment, but look globally and you see exactly the same thing around the world. Anywhere with a Mediterranean climate, such as Greece or Australia or California, is suffering extreme wildfires. Now, why is that happening? The climate is slowly shifting, so that the desert regions adjacent to those Mediterranean areas are starting to expand.
The same with droughts and floods. It’s not just the Southeast of the United States. Europe has had its great droughts and water shortages. Australia is in the grip of a drought that’s almost unbelievable in its ferocity. Again, this is a global picture. We’re just getting much less usable water than we did a decade or two or three decades ago. It’s a sort of thing again that the climate models are predicting. In terms of the floods, again we see the same thing. You know, a warmer atmosphere is just a more energetic atmosphere.
So if you ask me about a single flood event or a single fire event, it’s really hard to make the connection, but take the bigger picture and you can see very clearly what’s happening.
AMY GOODMAN: We were reporting just a while ago about the fires in Greece. Is there a connection to the fires in California?
TIM FLANNERY: Absolutely. It’s the same sort of environment. Greece is part of a Mediterranean climate system. And what you see there is that those very harsh conditions that characterize the Sahara to the south are now attempting to move northwards. You know, the climate is shifting, so that those conditions are going to prevail farther northwards. So this is part of a global picture.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about a controversy in Washington, DC, just this week. The Bush administration is being accused of severely editing congressional testimony by a senior health official on the impact of climate change. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee just last Tuesday (Oct. 23). The Associated Press reports two sources familiar with both her initial draft and the White House’s revisions say the administration imposed major changes. Gerberding’s final testimony is said to have omitted lengthy passages she had initially included on the health risks of global warming. Her final document was whittled down to four pages from an initial 14.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Dana Perino was asked about the controversy. This is what Perino had to say.
DANA PERINO: As I understand it, in the draft there was broad characterizations about climate change science that didn’t align with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). And we have experts and scientists across this administration that can take a look at that testimony and say, “This is an error” or “This doesn’t make sense.” And so, the decision on behalf of CDC was to focus that testimony on public health benefits. There are public health benefits to climate change, as well, but both benefits and concerns that somebody like a Dr. Gerberding, who is the expert in the field, could address. And so, that’s the testimony that she provided yesterday.
REPORTER: Is it typical for the White House to cut that much of an administration official’s prepared …
DANA PERINO: You know, I don’t look at — what I can tell you [is], it is typical for us to review testimony that comes across. And I think that when you have an issue as large as climate change and as complicated — and the White House reaches out to all sorts of scientists across the administration when it comes to climate change — if they have concerns that the IPCC document, which we agreed to its conclusions on, does not align with the testimony, that the prudent thing to do is to move forward, to have her testimony — and remember, we only suggest the edits.
REPORTER: There’s another CDC official saying that the testimony was “eviscerated,” which is pretty — I guess, accusing the White House of playing very heavy hands.
DANA PERINO: I understand what they’re accusing us of, but I can — I just reject it. And I will tell you that, again, we believe climate change is real; we believe that humans are largely responsible; we are working on a way to solve the problem. And in the meantime, we are working with experts like Julie Gerberding to figure out what are going to be the health benefits and the health concerns of climate change, of which there are many. And she testified fully on it yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, your response?
TIM FLANNERY: Well, I guess, overall, it’s just deeply disappointing, and more than that. I mean, Dr. Gerberding is one of the world’s leading authorities in this area, and anyone would be privileged to have her input into this debate. It’s a critical issue for government. They need to know what these health issues are going to be in future, and they need a proper assessment of what the health issues are now. From what I understood of Perino’s comments on it, the White House has decided to sort of edit out anything that’s bad and keep in the good news. And that’s just not acceptable. I mean the public of America needs to know these things.
AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t there a new study on the health effects of global warming?
TIM FLANNERY: There is, indeed. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is headed by an Australian who I work with and know very well …
AMY GOODMAN: The IPCC that just won, with Al Gore, the Nobel Peace Prize.
TIM FLANNERY: Absolutely, and what a great moment that was, really, for the scientific community.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is the head of it?
TIM FLANNERY: A man called Dr. Tony McMichael.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does he do?
TIM FLANNERY: He’s an epidemiologist. He studies diseases, how they spread and what they — how epidemics are caused, and so forth. But their article, which was published in a very prestigious journal, establishes that there’s already an additional 70,000 deaths a year, at least, globally from the current warming …
AMY GOODMAN: Deaths, how?
TIM FLANNERY: There are all sorts of impacts — some from floods, some from additional malaria and so forth, waterborne diseases — a whole series of impacts already on people. And, of course, a lot of these deaths now are happening in the developing world, where people are just less capable of dealing with this sort of a — the assault, really, that this shifting climate is bringing.
But as these impacts deepen and get more severe, they’ll be felt globally. And it’s just very, very important that governments worldwide are well prepared to deal with this oncoming problem. We can’t stop a lot of the global warming that’s built into the system now. There’s a certain amount of change that’s inevitable. And it’s extremely important that people understand that and the impacts on their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: We live in a globalized world, yet we are so insulated when it comes to getting information in this country. … Let’s talk more about the IPCC and what it has done over the years. How significant is it?
TIM FLANNERY: Well, significant enough, clearly, to win a Nobel Peace Prize, which is exactly what they should have got. That group of scientists has been working together now for over 20 years, and every five years they produce a report that really is a report on the state of our planet’s atmosphere and the warming that is damaging it. And the early reports started off rather mild in tone, you know, saying there might be a problem, and we think it might be caused by people. The last report, the fourth assessment report, which is still being reduced in — I’m sorry, released in bits this year — is much more alarming. You know, the basic news is that this is a human-caused problem, it’s getting very severe and we need to do something about it.
And it’s 400-odd scientists, along with some government representatives, and so forth. One of the problems the IPCC faces is they have to do everything by consensus. It’s a bit like the old Quakers, you know, how they used to have to get everyone to agree. And you can imagine what it’s like trying to get, for example, the representative of Saudi Arabia to agree to particular wordings of things. So it’s a long and painful process, and in my view some of the leading scientists deserve the Order of Lenin, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize, because it’s a very torturous business.
AMY GOODMAN: So the IPCC wins the Nobel Peace Prize. In the United States, there is this ongoing controversy over whether climate change is really an issue at all. You have corporations, the wealthiest in the world, like ExxonMobil, which has poured millions of dollars into Washington think tanks to simply raise questions about global warming. They also have poured well over $100 million into Stanford University, as part of a consortium of corporations that are funding their global climate change program there. What is this doing to the science? BP, now Beyond Petroleum, before called British Petroleum, is also giving half a billion dollars to the University of California, Berkeley — some are calling it “BPerkeley” now.
TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, yeah. Well, look, it very much depends on what the expectations are. I would be comfortable with partnerships, for example, with BP, purely because I have a sense that that company is on the right track. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s starting to address the fundamental problems, and they’ve made that great leap from seeing themselves as an oil company to seeing themselves as an energy company. And once you do that, you can start participating in the new industrial revolution, which is going to change our lives and clean up our planet over the next 40 years.
The bigger companies, like ExxonMobil, for example, there are really no signs yet that that company has realized the nature of the world it’s now operating in, and it’s still a major problem, and particularly in the past decade. When you tally the cost of the misleading campaigns by, for example, ExxonMobil and its partners in the Global Climate Coalition, they cost us a decade of action, at least. Starting with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, those companies have been frustrating progress and as a result of that, the burden of pollution in the air causing this warming problem has grown by 20 percent. So that is a very serious issue and, I believe, a serious liability for those companies.
AMY GOODMAN: In the United States, we have a situation where the Bush administration is vacuuming the words “global warming” off of Web sites. You hear the whole controversy with Gerberding, changing the wording to soften the impact of findings that climate change is a major problem. Do you have the same problem in Australia?
TIM FLANNERY: Well, look, our prime minister and George Bush were the only two leaders globally who saw fit not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. So it gives you a sense that he’s hardly a left-winger, this prime minister of ours.
AMY GOODMAN: John Howard.
TIM FLANNERY: Exactly, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: The one who gave you Australian of the Year.
TIM FLANNERY: He did, although — could I just say — he presented it to me; the people of Australia really gave it to me. It’s — people make submissions from the public, and then there’s a committee process, so I think it’s…
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he had a hard time doing it?
TIM FLANNERY: I think he probably did, but he may have felt it was necessary. Perhaps it was — he thought at that stage he could do something to shift public perception of his stance. But that hasn’t happened. We have an election on the 24th of November and the polls are running strongly to the opposition. And I think we’ll have a new government on the 24th of November. And their first move, they’ve said, is to recall parliament and ratify the Kyoto Protocol. So then it will be the United States alone, if that happens.
You ask about the nature of the White House intervention in this climate change issue. For me, it’s perplexing, and it’s counterproductive. And despite the orientation of our government in Australia, it’s just not possible for them to do that. What they’ve done is cut funding to critical programs dealing with development of new energy, for example, and the monitoring of the science of climate change. And astonishingly, this year, which is the International Polar Year, Australia, which claims a third of the Antarctic, is giving zero dollars to support research into the International Polar Year. It gives you a sense of how bad things are. But we don’t get this sort of lying to the public, where people deliberately twist what their experts are saying. And I find that deeply disturbing. This is a democratic country; people have a right to know.
AMY GOODMAN: And you don’t because of the check and balance?
TIM FLANNERY: That’s right. It’s much more difficult for our government to operate that way. We have a tradition of frank and fearless advice coming from the bureaucracy to government. And although that’s compromised when government has a particular view, it’s really impossible to eradicate and to alter wordings, such as occurs here in this country. I think it’s just — it’s a legacy of — perhaps the power of the White House and the structure that scientists work within in this country may cause this problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the problem of the feedback loop? What does that mean?
TIM FLANNERY: Well, Earth’s climate system is set up in a way that it’s finely balanced, so it can go along for a certain period of time in one state, and then a small impact can precipitate a whole series of changes that build on each other to rapidly shift the climate into another state. And I’d say it’s a bit like, you know, the old analogy of the flap of a butterfly’s wing in the Amazon causing a hurricane, that’s the sort of model that you’ve got to think about when you think of this climate system of ours. And a small — a relatively small input, such as human pollution into the atmosphere, can translate into a very big impact that can become impossible for us to stop. We’re not there yet, but we could get to that point in the next few decades, if action isn’t taken.
AMY GOODMAN: In your book you
talk about the three scenarios. What are those scenarios?
TIM FLANNERY: Well, look, those scenarios really deal with those big positive feedback loops, you know. The first is the shutdown of the Gulf Stream, which, if that occurred — and, you know, the Gulf Stream runs along the US East Coast and up into the North Atlantic and brings a tremendous amount of warmth to Europe. We know it has shut down in the past. If it shuts down again, Europe will face very severe conditions, cold conditions. And that heat, of course, has to go somewhere. That was normally going north and being dissipated. My guess is it’s going to go into the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic and cause more severe hurricanes and so forth. But, you know, we have to do more science on that to really justify that view.
The second scenario is the collapse of the Amazon rainforest. Climate change is looking as if it has the power to destroy those forests, which are the greatest carbon sink on our planet. So if those forests start dying, the pulse of carbon released to the atmosphere will set us on an irreversible trajectory to a world that is really hostile to the way we live and who we are.
AMY GOODMAN: How would they die?
TIM FLANNERY: What we think will happen is that the plants — as carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere — the plants breathe less and less. This is a very simple view of it. But when plants breathe they let moisture go back into the atmosphere. And that moisture falls again as rainfall over the Amazon. So if the plants breathe less and there’s less rain coming in, basically we’ll see very widespread drought conditions in the Amazon.
I was very concerned last year to see those very low water flows in the Amazon, because that’s exactly what we’d expect from the first stages of this change. And eventually there’s just not enough water for the trees to survive, so they die. The computer modeling suggests that anything is going to have a hard time growing there because conditions become so hostile. We may get some sort of semi-desert vegetation growing where there was once a rainforest. And, of course, all that carbon that’s locked into trees, because trees are made
of carbon dioxide, you know, is just released into the atmosphere and sets us on an irreversible trajectory. I hope it doesn’t happen. This is a scenario. We have scientific concerns about it. But it would be an absolute disaster for life on Earth if we start to see that.
AMY GOODMAN: And the third scenario?
TIM FLANNERY: The third one concerns another greenhouse gas called methane. Vast amounts of methane are locked up in what’s called clathrates, which are an icy substance found at the bottom of the world’s oceans. And it’s held in that form in the ice by pressure and temperature. So in the Arctic, for example, as temperatures increase, these clathrates become unstable, and we may see a mass release of methane. Methane is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. So if we saw a mass eruption of methane into the atmosphere, again we’re set on an irreversible trajectory toward a hostile world.
We know these sorts of things have happened in the past. Predicting if and when that will happen in the future is extremely difficult. But they’re the sort of things that we really have to be aware of as possibilities, and they should act as a great spur to us to reduce the burden of pollution in our atmosphere that may unleash these very severe positive feedback loops.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the golden toad and the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica.
TIM FLANNERY: That animal was really, I think, the first well-documented victim of this global climate change that we’re about — or that is looming on our horizon. It was a beautiful animal found just up in the mossy forests, and the American Indians had wonderful stories about it. They didn’t see it very often, because it only came out a couple of weeks a year. And it was golden, of course, a wonderful animal. They believed if you ever found one you would find great happiness. And they tell stories of one person who found such a toad and didn’t know what happiness was. Another one just couldn’t bear the happiness that he had found. And a bit like us humans, really, we don’t recognize the beauty and wonder of the world that we have and we seem willing to trade it for such short-term benefits. But, anyway, that animal is the leader in this extinction cascade that’s now emerging. As you said earlier, half of the world’s species may go extinct in the next century or two. And that would just change our world, ultimately impoverish it, destabilize it. What a legacy to leave our children! Horrifying.
AMY GOODMAN: You write in your books about how you were a global warming/climate change skeptic. What changed you?
TIM FLANNERY: Well, I had studied geology, and good old Charles Lyell — you know, the first modern geologist, really, who wrote “The Principles of Modern Geology” in 1850 — told us that if you want to understand the rocks, look at the world around you. That’s fine for many geological processes, but for climate change it just doesn’t work because we’ve had a long period of climate stability. And so, as a geologist, I thought, well, climate change, it might be real, but it’s going to unfold over hundreds or thousands of years.
What really changed me was the ice core record. Scientists now have drilled out of the Antarctic ice cap and the Greenland ice cap, where we have a year-by-year record of the state of our planet and its atmosphere going back 640,000 years. And what that record tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that our climate can shift very rapidly from one stable state to the next with very severe consequences for life on Earth. And once you understand that simple fact, you have to be concerned about the current indications that we’re getting from the world’s climate scientists that we are approaching a threshold to dangerous climate change — and the time to act is very limited.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s happening at the North and South Poles?
TIM FLANNERY: This is, for me, the most disturbing thing. You know, the ice cap at the North Pole has been there for three million years. You know, walrus, polar bears, many unique species have evolved in that wonderful environment. And, of course, it’s an absolutely essential regulator of Earth’s climate. It reflects a vast amount of heat, of energy, back into space that doesn’t then heat our planet.
What we’ve seen, starting in the 1970s but particularly since 2005, is a rapid melting of that ice cap. And it’s possible now that as early as 2013 there will be no polar ice cap in summer, and that will change the world, if — that is, if that happens. I just hope that that will not happen, that we’ve got a long, good timeframe to act. But all indications are it’s melting with unprecedented rapidity.
Once that happens, you know, the North Pole turns from a cooling agent or refrigerator for our planet to a heater because the ocean starts trapping heat energy and then we see a restructuring, I think, of the whole of the northern hemisphere’s climate systems. Now, how severe that will be, how it will unfold, is very difficult to say at the moment, but it is one of the areas of grave concern for all climate scientists. In fact, when you speak to them, they find it hard to comprehend, really, what’s happening. They keep hoping that next year things will get better. It’s not, at the moment. It is the great warning sign for us that all is not well, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: The South Pole?
TIM FLANNERY: South Pole is a little bit better off. We’re seeing melting around the margins and very severe melting out on the Antarctic Peninsula. But because the South Pole is land-based and is a very high ice cap, we’re not yet seeing those profound impacts. And I just have my fingers crossed that we’ll see ongoing stability there, because if we start seeing a severe meltdown at both poles, the changes would be astronomical.