The final lecturer in the Shaw Festival’s four-part series in the “Provocative Spirit of Bernard Shaw” will be Professor Tim Flannery—the Australian equivalent of Al Gore, but with more of the facts at his disposal. His topic, is also the name of his bestselling book: The Weather Makers: How We Are Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth.
This is a fitting closer to the Sunday services whose sermons began with Nigerian Ken Wiwa’s personal journey following the murder of his activist/writer father, then the side-splitting humour of home-talent Mary Walsh’s marvellously irreverent take on humanity. Last week, Sir Salman Rushdie—whose notoriety for telling the truth in his fiction has put his own existence at risk—took the stage. Ever-provocative, his questions, “Has childhood been abolished?” “If all ‘chance’ occurrences are acts of a god, what’s the divine purpose of a bridge collapse?” both stimulated the assembly and made many squirm.
In his book, Flannery reminds us that the atmosphere is really the ocean of the sky—what we breathe connects us all. We also learn that carbon dioxide has a very long shelf life and that CO2 levels as a budget item in the global ledger has already been overspent.
Reached by telephone at his home in Sydney, Flannery recalled his stint as a visiting professor at Harvard. “My year there was just fantastic, but not without some culture shock. A word like socialist—where we think proudly of many people-oriented government programs—was almost always taken to mean communist.”
This trip also begins south of the border. “I’ve a couple of speaking engagements on the east coast, then will be driving to Canada. It should be an experience crossing the border, but I’m looking forward to my first view of Niagara Falls. Your country is one of my favourite places—similar to Australia yet it feels so different from the U.S.”
His passion for his work is immediate and obvious; he has the ability to sum up the current situation clearly: “We’re in the century of environmental limits,” he said.
Along with Erik Rasmussen (editor-in-chief of the Danish publication, Monday Morning), Flannery founded the Copenhagen Climate Council whose daunting mission is “to work for a successful new protocol at the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen in December 2009 to replace the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.” There’s a lot at stake in this politically-charged issue.
“I’m pushing at that; Kyoto [and the Australian opposition party] is ahead in the polls, but we just don’t have time for another [accord]; another treaty would take years. If between now and 2009 we can get the world to say to their leaders ‘We don’t want you to come out of that meeting without an agreement’ it will have been a success.” But we all know the challenges.
He’s also well-versed in the Canadian political landscape, being a big fan of Jack Layton (“What an amazing man!”) and quick to agree with Mary Walsh’s description (“I’ve seen brighter lights on small appliances”) of John Baird, Canada’s current Minister of the Environment.
“I find it extraordinary that [Prime Minister] Harper has abandoned Kyoto. Especially since Canadians are known for doing the right thing; people have come to expect Canada to do something more positive,” he said.
Those wary of academia need not worry that Flannery’s presentation will be jargon-filled or dull. “I won’t be using projections of charts and graphs. I’m planning to take people through the issue, which I originally described in The Weather Makers. At the time of publication, the threshold of dangerous CO2 content in the atmosphere was projected to be 450 parts per million. Unfortunately—just five years later—we’re already there. It’s time to pull out all of the stops.”
What can we do?
“Become a champion for the subject; do something small every day to reduce personal or business use of fossil fuels; do something at work: ‘When can our company undertake an environmental audit?’ ask the right questions of all candidates at the next election. It’s up to people like us to prevent the inevitable severe climate shift. There is no choice,” he said.
Finally, with the subject of climate change making headlines instead of the back pages, Flannery’s appearance couldn’t come at a better time. Let’s hope leaders of all levels and stripes will attend and move their knowledge base from hearsay to fact.
Let’s not go back to the future: “It is exciting to have a real crisis on your hands when you have spent half of your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment,” said then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1982 Falklands War. JWR