A snake in recent Queensland flooding, Australia

To accompany the (all action but what’s the message??!!) Greenland production at the National Theatre, there have been a few conversations with leading climate scientists.

On Thursday, I listened to Tim Flannery, author of the Weather Makers and now, Here on Earth, in conversation with David Shukman, the BBC’s Environment and Science correspondent. The following are various notes I took from the discussion.

They covered the issue of how it’s difficult for the public to turn to for credible information regarding climate change, and how this is related to the way, as Flannery put it, that science works. For him, the scientist is the ultimate sceptic, there is no truth out there and the scientist is constantly questioning and testing hypotheses.  Climate scientists can’t predict the future but they can produce various insights into a range of probabilities about future climatic events.

Most people these days want to know if an extreme weather event such as floods, can be attributed to climate change, and Flannery, despite stating that ‘the Climate is the sum of all weathers’ and that one weather event is not ‘the climate’, also mentioned recent research conducted that studied data around the floods in 2000 in the UK, and concluded that there are consistent links.

http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2011/110216.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12484314

Flannery is from Australia and he said, that unlike the political consensus in the UK around climate change, there is great tension in Australia, due to the facts of it being the world’s greatest coal exporter and therefore has a vested interest in maintaining the world’s dependence on fossel fuels, and also it has a strong resource extraction lobby wielding power and influence over government. On the other hand, Australia is a hot, dry, flat continent and is therefore extra vulnerable to climatic changes.

Map of areas prone to flooding, Australia

Flooding in Queensland, January 2011

They discussed Copenhagen briefly, and the crazy, dysfunctional negotations that took place, but Flannery said that he thought the  tiny, 5 page document that was actually signed up to is an important milestone.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/12/19/2776545.htm

Flannery came across as an optimist and a pragmatist, saying various times that for the next couple of decades we have to muddle along, trying to reach agreements about how to reduce CO2 emissions.

His latest book, Here on Earth, he describes as a ‘biography’ of our planet and ourselves and is asking the question ‘Regarding Climate change, is evolution on our side or not?’  The concept of natural selection, as it has been traditionally used, implies a dog-eat-dog world, and he states that Darwin’s research was taken up to promote injustice. He, however, looks at evolutionary science in a more holistic and spiritual manner; he illustrates species interdependence by citing an example of  how the human body is covered in microbes and funghi and that we could not live without them as they perform some vital function. He closes Here on earth, by stating that loving one another and loving god/ the earth is the only basis for a sustainable future.

In response to a question from the audience about Gaia theory’s inventor, James Lovelock’s ‘giving up’ on the possibility of change, Flannery said  first that Lovelock’s discovery of CFC’s in the atmosphere was a massive leap forward in the evolution of climate science. He then went on to say that Lovelock’s scientific position is reached at by writing through empathy. For Lovelock, Gaia is a frail old lady – Lovelock himself is now 91 years old – and she can’t stand what is being done to her through human interference. Flannery said that for him, Gaia is more like a new born baby than a frail old lady and therefore, not developed enough to deal with the consequences of its own behaviour. Humans could be seen as the ‘brain’ of Gaia; only 2% of body mass but consuming more than 20% of the body’s resources (blood, nutrients, oxygen etc). The brain inherently selfish. It will shut down other parts of the body when under threat in order to survive itself.

And then to conclude, a question from the floor. What does he think about carbon trading?

His response –  it all depends on the cap. Carbon tax is definitely a way forward. Governments need to use multiple approaches. We have to accept direct action as one method of bringing about change. And finally, it doesn’t matter where the cuts come from, we just need to reduce the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.