Tim Flannery believes no one can know the future with certainty, but the evidence is overwhelming that global warming will likely have devastating impacts. The time for debate and discussion has long since passed, he writes in his new book, "The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change.""If ... we wait to see if an ailment is indeed fatal, we will do nothing until we are dead." A noted zoologist and director of the South Australian Museum, Flannery says our fate is in our own hands - "for we are the weather makers, and we already possess all the tools required to avoid catastrophic climate change."
Q: What are the most devastating impacts of global warming now, and what will they be in the future?
A: Many Inuit and Pacific Islanders are already suffering devastating impacts. They've lost their homes, livelihoods and familiar habitats already. The world's coral reefs are already substantially damaged, and, of course, we've already seen extinctions as a result of climate change. In the short term, impacts will continue to be most severe at the poles and among the coral atoll nations of the Pacific and Indian oceans, but within a few decades, if we continue polluting with greenhouse gases, severe impacts will become far more widespread. I think it's likely that the Netherlands, for example, will see severe damage from extra-tropical low-pressure systems, floods and rising seas, while damage will continue to mount in hurricane zones. Fifty years out, it may well be that all low-lying regions of the planet are under stress from rapidly rising seas. But honestly, the possible impacts are so various that when we consider where the worst damage will be in a century, it could be almost anywhere. For a long time, the argument seemed to be that global warming either wasn't real or that it wasn't being caused by man.
Q: Has the world seen enough evidence now to move beyond that?
A. The argument you outline has been dictated by a small group of skeptics, many of whom are paid by those who make money from polluting and who don't wish to see changes to the way they do business. They've gone through at least three stages of denial: first that climate change doesn't exist; then that it does exist but it's not human caused; then that we are causing it, but it's too expensive to fix. Who knows what the next state of denial will be? And of course, ever since the 1980s we've had sufficient evidence to justify gradually increasing restrictions on the polluting gases.
Q: How do you respond to those who say it's too expensive to fix?
A: This is the third stage of denial, and it's the flimsiest of them all because its proponents never try to estimate the cost of letting business go on as usual. The insurance companies, however, are doing a pretty good job of keeping track of the cost, and they know that it's not only sending them broke, but is growing so swiftly as to threaten the global economy. A few years ago, Swiss Re, the world's largest re-insurer (they take the risk from the insurers), threatened to withdraw director's liability insurance for directors of the worst polluting companies, which gives you some idea of their mood.
Q. What do you say to global warming naysayers who say climate-change models are flawed?
A: The climate models all agree on one thing - the planet will warm as greenhouse gases accumulate. They disagree on how much warming will occur, but even at the lowest end of the projections, if we go about business as usual, the changes will be immense. Some have argued that global warming is a good thing - it allows longer growing seasons, expands the range for some agriculture and could increase the area where human habitation can be comfortable.
Q: Is global warming a good or a bad thing?
A: To answer that, we need to know a little about the scale and rate of change, because big, fast changes are very bad for almost everything adapted to conditions prevalent before the change. It turns out that even conservative projections of climate change to 2100 indicate a change almost as big, but 30 times faster, than that which occurred at the end of the ice age. And that, even on a geological time scale, is almost as fast and hairy as change gets.
Q: How do you convince the potential losers to go along with a corrective program?
A: As we switch to the low-emissions economy required to limit climate change, there will be big winners and losers. The Danes, for example, have already monopolized wind power and are set to do the same with the enzymes needed to produce new biofuels. The Japanese have a huge head start with hybrid engines and photovoltaics. It really scares me when I look at my own country of Australia squandering time on the idea that coal has a future, and not building up its intellectual property portfolio in the renewables. As far as I can see, the same applies to the U.S., which used to be a world leader in wind and solar in the 1970s. I think both countries need to start carving out their turf in the renewables now.
Q: Should we fear the unknown - damaging consequences that are impossible to foresee or pick up in a climate-change model?
A: Yes, it's certainly the things that we don't know that are most worrying. Just consider two facts: The global climate system is full of positive feedback loops that amplify small initial changes, and we don't fully understand the system yet. That implies that our computer projections are underestimates. And indeed, that's what we're seeing in the real world. Shifts, such as increases in hurricane intensity, are progressing decades ahead of the projections. Greg Bell, at the Climate Prediction Center, argues that the recent wave of intense hurricanes striking North America is part of a normal, multi-decade cycle. Would you agree? Bell seems to have confused regional and global trends. There is cyclicity in regional hurricane activity, but overlain on this is a sharp global rise in the energy expended in hurricanes (60 percent over the past 30-odd years) and a big increase in the amount of that energy going to category 4 and 5 hurricanes.
Q: Does the American populace, in your estimation, still need convincing?
A: Americans, like everyone else, need to educate themselves more fully about climate change, because big investment decisions, both personal and corporate, need to be made. This applies regardless of whether you are convinced climate change is real or not. I'm convinced that climate change will soon become the only issue of global importance, and among individuals, as with nations, those best informed will be the most successful in dealing with the altered world. What can and should the average citizen do to fight global warming? It's simple: Reduce your emissions as close to zero as possible, then encourage your business to do the same. And finally, never vote for anyone who you are not absolutely convinced understands the issue and will act in the national interest to combat climate change. Having reduced my emissions substantially (with international air travel excepted - which I'm working on), and having cut my museum's emissions by 15 percent, I can tell you that it's economically sensible and fun to do. In my case, solar panels were the obvious option and a hybrid fuel car. In other parts of the world, other options may be more sensible.