A man, a plan: Tim Flannery

October 28, 2009

FLANNERY by Alex Szalay_RGB

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my oenophile eyes and 30/20 vision (for reals, I have crazy-good eyesight) tell me that’s a bottle of Wolfblass in the photo above, nestled carefully in a grassy knoll. Oh, and that guy next to the bottle of wine is Tim Flannery — environmental author extraordinaire. I can confirm that this guy loves his Australian reds, too, because I sat down with him recently in Toronto and he ordered a glass of shiraz, apologizing for the long-distance selection. He then apologized even more when he ordered a plate of steak frites with it, insisting that he rarely eats meat when in North America. I was dubious about these menu selections, but I must say, by the end of our lunch date I was heartily convinced he is a man who cares about the planet and is very engaged in doing something about it.

His new book is called Now or Never, and it’s out in stores now. I scarfed it down in about two hours because he really is that good at conveying all the scientific this-and-that behind global warming to people like me, who can’t even explain why leaves turn red in the fall (I had to ask my mother, who has four science-related degrees and understands how chlorophyll works). He also provides incredibly concrete solutions that pretty much every single politician in every single country should be adopting immediately. Of course, even if you haven’t read Now or Never, you may know Flannery by his previous book, The Weather Makers, which was a best-seller and led to major environmental policy changes in Australia; he also chairs the Copenhagen Climate Council and is promoting the upcoming UN treaty negotiations that start in December, which is very, very soon (um, Harper? Did you hear that? It’s time to get yer ass out of the tar sands and over to Denmark!).

“When you’ve got as complex an issue as climate change, where no one has all the answers,” Flannery told me, “an ongoing dialogue is essential.”

Indeed, Flannery is such a fan of dialogue that he took a remarkably different approach to Now or Never. Rather than simply publish his own views on the challenges of global warming, he invited a handful of critics to respond to his work. In the end, readers get 107 pages of his initial argument, followed by 45 pages of critique from Bill McKibben, Richard Branson, Peter Singer, Fred Krupp and Peter Goldmark, Gwynne Dyer and Alanna Mitchell, with a final reply from the author. The idea was to make the book resemble a 19th-century political tract, at least in format: a concise, pointed essay meant to both enlighten and provoke readers.

“I felt that this was an important book to get out in advance of the Copenhagen meetings,” Flannery said. “Progress is slow right now, and that scares me. I must say, I wake up in the small hours of the night occasionally thinking, ‘What are we going to do on Dec. 19 if we’re faced with a suboptimal outcome?’ ”

He certainly didn’t seem to have high hopes for Canada, either: “This is as bad as a developed country gets… Harper has no friends internationally in this anymore — he used to have [former U.S. president George W.] Bush and [former Australian prime minister John] Howard and they’re gone now, so it’s a real concern … It’s in the government’s interest for the Alberta tar sands to continue, but the rest of the world can’t afford it … The tar sands represent one end of the hydrocarbon spectrum — the really dirty end — and other countries will eventually look at Canada and say, ‘If they, as a wealthy country, can get away with destroying their environment and producing highly polluting petroleum, then why can’t we?’ It’s a corrupting influence on the world.”

Flannery’s words sound harsh, but he also admits there are good things happening here too; part of Now or Never, for instance, looks at an alternative energy system called pyrolysis, of which Vancouver-based firm Dynamotive is one of the world’s leading developers. There are also a number of carbon-neutral or even carbon-positive housing developments being constructed on the West Coast and in Toronto, not to mention countless Canadian environmental NGOs, charities, offsetting organizations, wind and solar companies and more.

“It’s easy to get disillusioned in the West, but the world is moving and there’s still hope,” says Flannery. “Look at what people have done in the banking sector — how we’ve reigned in some of the greediest people in the world and said to them, ‘This isn’t good enough anymore.’ If we can do that for finance, we can do it for greenhouse gases, and we will.”

But what do you think? Is this really achievable, or has Flannery had a few too many glasses of shiraz?

P.S. Exciting news: Green as a Thistle will be in Copenhagen for the first week of the climate negotiations!! Stay tuned for more details on where to find my reports!

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