January 2013 | Jai Wadia

'Climate change is a threat to our civilisation'

Professor Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist, explorer and conservationist, has been passionately championing the cause of climate change for several years. He is a former director of the South Australian Museum and is currently a professor at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Speaking at the Tata Business Excellence Convention 2012 on ‘Reversing people induced climate change’ the best-selling author of The Future Eaters and The Weather Makers stressed the need to take immediate action in this critical decade to prevent further environmental damage and to leave a more acceptable inheritance for our children.

Climate change is the most talked about issue today. What is the extent of the ecological damage done and which parts of the world are most affected?
What is happening in climate change is similar to changes which take place in a body when the temperature of the body goes up; damage can manifest itself anywhere as circumstances change. The parts of the world which are experiencing the most rapid temperature increase are the poles. The North Polar ice cap has melted away at an alarming rate. In fact, this year it reached its record lowest and scientists think that sometime in the next five to 30 years there will be no more polar ice cap in summer. That is an extraordinary change; those ice caps have been there as long as we have records going back a hundred thousand years or more and to lose that during our lifetime is a very dramatic change. We are also seeing other changes worldwide, sea levels are rising about 3mm a year as the ocean expands because it is warming up, the ocean is acidifying as well as warming and that is damaging coral reefs globally. In the last 40 years, we have seen many episodes of coral bleaching, where the coral reef, because of high temperatures and acidity, dies and takes a long time to grow. These are just a few examples. These are just some of the early changes in what will be a dramatically different world.

What are the immediate steps that need to be taken to combat climate change?
The first step is to stop producing so many polluting carbon emissions. We now have new technologies like solar energy to help us. Solar panels have decreased in cost by 75 percent in four years and it may go down another 30 percent this year, so they are becoming very cost competitive. Wind turbines are also becoming much more efficient and more cost competitive globally. They are already the most cost competitive among the renewable energy technologies. We are seeing some really big changes in these two technologies in particular. For the first time now we have seen a dozen large OECD (Organsiation for Economic Cooperation and Development) member countries decouple their economic growth from their emissions. Before, when we were dependent on fossil fuels, economic growth and emissions went together, now they have been decoupled in 12 OECD countries and we hope the others will follow.

In addition, 19 nations covering 93 percent of global economic activity have climate action plans in place and they include some of the biggest polluters like the US, which has set itself a target to reduce its emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade and they are on track to achieve that despite the fact that they haven’t got a bill through Congress. China is really forging ahead with clean energy technologies; they are the world leaders in solar and wind installation and production, and they are very serious about reducing emission levels. The two biggest emitters, thus, have good programmes in place. Many middle tier emitters such as Australia now have a price on carbon and are starting to decouple their economic growth from their emissions profile. What is against us still is that emissions continue to grow year by year. This year around 36 billion tonnes of carbon will be released into the atmosphere — so we know that in the next 5-10 years things have to change if we are to avoid the worst consequence of climate change.

What, in your opinion, is the role of governments and corporations in the fight against climate change?
Governments set the rules, they can introduce taxes or trading schemes, they can broker international agreements, and they can set the playing field. But all of the hard work is done by companies. It is companies that have to risk their capital and their time and expertise as they make investment decisions. Therefore, companies actually do most of the work required to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, oftentimes government policies and subsidies to fossil fuels hamper the shift to cleaner, more efficient technologies.

What are the major challenges in combating climate change?
There are two major challenges. One is brokering a good and binding international agreement so that countries can divide up the cost in addressing this issue. The second is technological innovation and deployment at a scale to allow countries like India to leap frog over the traditional development path through fossil fuels, and to go straight into a clean energy future. A third really big challenge is increasing energy efficiency in industrial processes. In Australia nobody was interested in energy efficiency until very recently because we had cheap energy. Companies invested hundreds of millions of dollars in plants, factories and technologies that were terribly inefficient. Now, with rising energy costs and the carbon issue, energy efficiency has become extremely important.

Many cynics believe that climate change and global warming are theories put forth by alarmists without any scientific basis. Why do you think there is worldwide denial even when the effects are plain to the eye?
Sometimes the issue of climate change does seem overwhelming and there are fears about acknowledging climate change and what it means. It means that we are responsible for changing conditions on the surface of the earth. However, much of the science is self-evident. One example is the issue of coral reefs. In Australia we have conducted a series of experiments where we have taken sea water, reduced its acidity and temperature to create conditions as they were 200 years ago and then put coral in that; the coral thrives in that water. We can take sea water as it is today and coral does not grow so well. We can put coral into water with conditions as they will be in 10 years’ time and we will see that the coral is stunted and dying. We can see that this will happen — carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produces carbolic acid in the ocean, the ocean becomes acidic and things die. This is not hypothetical, this is real — you can see it with your own eyes if you go to a research station
in a coral reef country where they are doing these experiments.

So why the denial?
The denial, at least in Australia, is particularly strong in one group — men over 65. These are often the people (mainly engineers) who have built the power plants which are now causing the problems. When they built the plants they had no idea that they would cause so much trouble. But then they discovered that young people are turning around and seeing them as virtually criminals because they built this stuff that is destroying the future. So I think they are very disillusioned with that and the first response is denial and to say that these youngsters are wrong.

As a professor at Macquarie University, you interact with students from across the world. How important is educating the youth in the implications of people-induced environmental damage? How receptive are the youth — the inheritors of the planet — to create a more sustainable world?
The truth is they (the youth) motivate and inspire me. They understand much better than my generation that we have to start living sustainably. They can act in the most amazing ways. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition has 70,000 young Australians as members and they use social networking to campaign. One such campaign called “Power up” mobilises young people in a particular area or suburb who get together through social networking platforms and decide to shop in a particular super market on a particular day. One person goes to the shop and informs it that they will bring all their friends there to shop if they decide to invest in more efficient refrigerators or solar panels, etc. Shopkeepers are thus motivated to become cleaner and more efficient. At first the shopkeepers are sceptical but when 2,000 people come and shop there, they are converted instantly. And they want it to happen again — so it’s a very powerful method adopted by these 18 year olds. They inspire me, they think of things that I would have never imagined possible. They are very receptive. Also, they can see their future in this.

In your book The Weather Changers, you write that we are the weather makers and we can avoid catastrophic weather change by being less complacent. What can we, as individuals, do to join in this global fight against climate change?
The one thing that all of us can do is show some leadership in this area. At the workplace we can find ways to reduce power bills, and similarly at a religious group or sports club we can do the same. We all pay electricity bills and we should try and understand how electricity works in our lives and use that knowledge to reduce our bills and use energy much more efficiently. Use of LEDs is one way of becoming more energy efficient. Also, we should look at transport and try to pick the least polluting options.

A field biologist, professor, director of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, you have donned multiple hats in your professional life. What prompted you to champion this particular cause?
In the 1980s, I was working in Papua New Guinea doing biological surveys and climbing many of the high mountains in the region. I noticed that on almost every mountain I climbed the trees were smothering the grass by growing higher up the mountains, the tree line was rising. I realised that this was a symptom of climate change. I realised that those alpine herb fields, which were unique repositories of biodiversity with species going back for millions of years, would go extinct if the trees eventually took over from the grass. It brought home to me what a massive threat climate change is going to be to biodiversity in the future. I also realised that one-third or half of all of the earth’s species could be extinct by the end of this century unless we reduce emissions. That, to me, is intolerable and unacceptable. It is not an acceptable inheritance for our children. As I read more about the subject and understood more about it I realised that climate change is, in fact, a threat to our civilisation.

What message would you would like to share with our readers?
I think one message is to understand that the world is moving to act on climate change. India and the Tatas are not alone in this. We have seen the most dramatic shift in the last decade with regard to this. We have made huge advances. So that is a very optimistic and important message. The second message is that we must double, and then double again, our efforts over the coming decade if we have any hope of avoiding the dangers of climate change. So it’s not going to be easy, it needs to be done now, it cannot be put off till tomorrow and we need to work together on this.

This interview is part of a series of interviews with speakers at the 2012 Tata Business Excellence Convention, an event that focused on identifying the challenges of the future and finding sustainable solutions for them. More from the series:
Transforming to meet the future
Interview with Adam Werbach, co-founder of Yerdle, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi S and sustainability officer of Saatchi & Saatchi

Interview with Chris Zook, director, Bain & Company
Interview with Walt Cleaver, principal and founder of the Cleaver Consulting Group

Interview with Pavan Sukhdev, founder-CEO of GIST Advisory