Australian Tim Flannery: The Other Al Gore
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
We haven’t yet colonized Mars.
It’s hot. Too damn hot.
This is the chief complaint of Aussie Tim Flannery today, as he addresses a sweating, sunglassed crowd in Melbourne. The 300 protesters gathered here don’t entirely mind: They are braving 100-degree weather by the Sandringham suburb’s coastal bay, near the famously pristine waters of Brighton Beach. “Look, it’s getting hot out here, but I’m going to be as brief as I can,” he says.
Flannery means it in a double entendre, existential sense. This is Australia’s Al Gore, author of the best-selling climate change manifesto The Weather Makers — a bible for alternative energists — and former chief of the federal government’s Climate Commission. A paleontologist by trade who cut his teeth diving for shark molars and studying mammals, he was named Australian of the Year in 2007 — the same year Gore won his Oscar. He’s lobbied in a big way for a carbon tax (which came about in 2012 but was repealed in 2014) and has generally been a thorn in lawmakers’ sides over everything from greenhouse gases to droughts to locusts.
Most of the talk about climate change centers around large industrialized countries like the U.S., China and India. But Australia, with its 23 million people, is a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to global warming, says climate scientist David Karoly. The initial impacts of warming are already hitting Australia harder than most other countries, he says, given its pre-existing hot, dry weather. On top of that, Australia remains the world’s second-largest coal exporter, according to the latest figures from the World Coal Association. Despite those stats, there’s still no shortage of climate change deniers for Flannery to bump up against — a climate change denier was even appointed by the Aussie government to work on national energy issues.
Interestingly, though, the guy with a habit of thinking about the big picture on climate change is today focusing on something quieter. Here in Melbourne, in the waters where Flannery tracked down his very first fossils, he and his band of protesters are concerned not about a carbon tax or about the burning of fossil fuels — not at this exact moment, anyway. They’re upset because a private yacht club wants to scrap an ancient shore bed. This particular bed is unique: It’s the only site in Australia where land fossils and their ocean brethren commingle.
And why should a climate change activist get his bloomers in a bunch over a marina? Because these ancient rocks are crucial to understanding global warming. Studying them allows scientists to preview a much warmer climate, says John Long, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. The critters that lived in those times may have baked in a heat similar to the one in Australia’s future.
Increasingly, forward-thinking scientists are looking to the past. Paleontology reveals how human and natural influences cause extinction and affect global environments, says Shaena Montanari, a University of Edinburgh postdoctoral fellow. Now almost all change is Homo sapien-induced. And for those wondering how man-made climate change will affect the world we live and breathe in, this science will become even more important for understanding the impacts that warming will have on biodiversity.
Which leads us back to this fossil site in Victoria, where Flannery’s career is coming full circle — as a younger man, he discovered several new dinosaur fossil sites near here, classified 29 kangaroo species, and helped extend the Australian mammalian record by 80 million years. He’s long had a habit of connecting big bodies of knowledge: Fossil diggin’ brought him to his first book, The Future Eaters, about human migration in Australia. Even in that book, he displayed an early concern over resources, arguing that the nation’s population was already outstripping its natural resources.
The Catholic-raised son of an accountant, Flannery discovered an ancient seal’s fractured spine while snorkeling off the Beaumaris suburb’s shore as a teenager. Soon enough, the Museum Victoria hired Flannery to see what else he could scrounge up. The luck kept striking: On his first day, he found a perfect specimen — a tooth of a megalodon, a now-extinct shark. So, understandably, Flannery made his way through school and toward a doctorate in paleontology, in which he focused his work on kangaroos.
The celeb scientist has no shortage of critics, though; some say the grizzled 59-year-old is more Indiana Jones than meteorologist. “There’s no doubt that Tim Flannery is an effective media performer and a ceaseless advocate for his cause,” writes deputy executive director James Paterson in a report for Melbourne’s Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank. (Paterson told OZY he’d like the article to “speak for itself,” declining further comment.) “But Flannery bears much closer resemblance to a religious evangelist than a scientist.”
The snidest of skeptics point out that Flannery’s seafront home north of Sydney will soon be underwater if his possibly alarmist predictions of eight-story sea rises even partially pan out. And he sometimes asks for controversy, like when he said coal would one day be seen as just as dangerous as asbestos — sparking a reprimand from then-Prime Minister John Howard.
But today he hasn’t got much time to be an obnoxious gadfly. It’s too damn hot. He pulls at his wide-brimmed safari hat and finishes a final screed. “Look, I’ve got to go here,” Flannery says, dashing out. His mother is waiting. She is 85.