Dinner With the Salman Rushdie of Climate Change

“A man for all climates”

Former Gillard Government Chief Climate Commissioner Panasonic Sustainability Professor Timothy Flannery—Tim, for short—is probably the most respected scientist in Australia. He’s best loved for his patient attempts to explain to a deplorably illiterate public the latest complex discoveries of science:

“I think that within this century the concept of the strong Gaia will actually become physically manifest. I do think that the Gaia of the ancient Greeks, where they believed the earth was effectively one whole and perfect living creature, doesn’t exist yet, but it will exist in future… ants of course have democratic processes; they actually vote. We’ve seen the IPCC projections are now ground-truthed against real-world change. For the first time, this global super-organism, this global intelligence will be able to send a signal… And lead to a stronger Gaia, if you will, a stronger earth system.

Although you’d never suspect it, this sober man of science used to be religious. It was only in his mid-teens, the Sydney Morning Herald reports, that he finally disproved the existence of God:

Flannery was deeply religious until he was about 14, when he realised the Blessed Virgin Mary, although extremely prominent in the Catholic Church, appeared in fewer than four paragraphs in the gospels*.

This is just one of the revelations contained in an important new article by Herald writer Mark Dapin.

The real subject of the piece, however, is Flannery’s life today as a fugitive from anti-science death squads. To appreciate the article it’s necessary to understand how we got to this point, where a scientist can be hunted down—in 2014, in what’s practically a first-world country—just for forecasting the facts.

Historical context

The roots of the tragedy go back to 1996 and the start of Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s rule. (In Australia the Labor party is identified with the liberal-progressive tradition; it’s the confusingly-named Liberals who represent the politics of hate.) Mere months after Howard seizes power, a mass shooting in one of Australia’s overseas territories hands him the perfect excuse to disarm the populace on a silver platter. He takes advantage of the nation’s shock to expedite gun buy-back laws, transferring all means of deadly force from the people to the state. And the rest is history: in the words of His Master’s Voice, a samizdat pamphlet penned by pro-democracy dissident David Marr,

Howard has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the [anti-government Australian Broadcasting Corporation], gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra’s mandarins, censored the arts, banned books and criminalised protest.

The nation survives—just. Fast-forward to 2011 and our understanding of climate change is increasingly airtight, with multiple lines of evidence now converging on a single scientific truth: Australia needs a tax on carbon dioxide.

The peer-reviewed data leave Professor Will Steffen no choice; it is his duty, as a science advisor, to tell PM Julia Gillard the verdict of nature: “make the carbon tax hurt.” But this announcement of their findings drags the nation’s climate scientists against their will into the world of politics. It is a game in which they never asked to be players, and for which they’re completely unprepared.

Meanwhile, and in response to the sheer quality of the science, a counter-movement has sprouted in the shadows. Its centre of gravity is the landed classes, who’ve taken advantage of a fateful loophole in the Howard-era laws—an exemption for firearms used in pest control—to stockpile an arsenal of unknown scale.

This anti-science militia is thought to be led by John Coochey, an enigmatic pastoralist and standover man. Beyond his deadly renown as a “good shot” little is known about him.

Coochey has kept a low profile ever since a probable 2010 plot to massacre dinner guests at a climate reeducation project was foiled by the quick thinking of Professor Steffen. The ANU industrial chemist turned climate expert—who insists he’s no hero—raised the alarm when he suspected Coochey was discussing the planned shooting spree in code: cull for “kill,” kangaroos for “climate scientists,” the diminutive ‘roos for “climate scientists’ children in front of their eyes,” and so on.

“The individual [Coochey], who identified as a strident climate sceptic [dangerous man-made climate change sceptic], had expressed frustration with our deliberative democracy [Delphi Technique] sessions,” Steffen explained. “So what possible motive could have made him come back for the dinner, if not Columbine-style vengeance? Not the mediocre main course, that’s for sure.”

Since the narrowly-averted slaughter all major Australian universities have had panic rooms installed for their climate staff.

But steel doors can only protect them from bullets; no technology can block emails. The Queensland University marine biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, for example, has been the beneficiary of such electronic advice as, “Eat shit and die to [sic], lying Communist asshole.” (Guldberg says he’s not a Communist.)

He tells reporters that,

“They are pumping out [emails] on a daily basis almost as if it is a nine-to-five job for them… Whether these individuals are in the pay of special interests or not is an interesting question.”

So prolific is this campaign of cyber-terror that the entire ANU climate faculty can receive as many as two abusive emails a month. Little wonder then that “the barrage has left the scientists… working behind unmarked doors and surrounded by heavy security, as one report claims.

At first ANU officials try to block publication of the messages, citing security concerns, but the scientists defy the gag order on the grounds that all obscurantism is repugnant to the openness on which science itself depends.

The public then sees for itself the kind of blood-freezing hate speech to which the world’s most important researchers are exposed on an almost yearly basis, in emails like this:

If we see you continue, we will get extremely organised and precise against you. We will not do so if you rightfully argue against our points from a science [point of] view. But we will if you choose to stray into attacks on us as people or as a movement. The institution and funders that support you will find the attention concerning.

Scientists who’ve spoken to CN have no doubt these are the words of an anti-intellectual paramilitary group. While ordinary Australians joke about the denialist “army of pensioners,” for the targets of the fatwa it’s no laughing matter. Like all skeptics, those linked to Coochey are old white males. But what makes them dangerous is the “extremely organised and precise” background they share—they’re a motley crew of former sharpshooters, marksmen, accountants and snipers.

Ian Chubb, the Australian Chief Scientist who was then vice-chancellor of ANU, never got a chance to read the threats but views them as an outrageous attempt to stifle the non-existent debate on climate change. Professor Chubb notes that when scientists are too afraid to open their own emails,

We’re back to the Middle Ages aren’t we?

He condemns the groups that are sworn to gun down climate scientists on sight, saying,

I mean, that’s what they tried to do to Galileo.

Let us mention one last ingredient in the toxic brew that is the contemporary Australian context. In 2013 the anti-climate Liberals were returned to power—albeit for reasons that had nothing to do with climate change. (Labor Prime Minister Gillard was deposed by misogynists within her own party, who were then deposed by misogynist-hating voters at the following election.) To quote David Marr again, “The recrudescence of Coalition rule and ascension to the Lodge of that mad monk Tony Abbott—the Catholic rugger bugger and junkyard dog of parliament—augur one thing: the politics of the ad hom have returned. Sadly, personal attack is the highest discourse we can expect from such creatures.”

The Serengeti Theory

Few scientists know more about personal attack than US climate researcher Michael Mann. A graph he produced 16 years ago, called the Hockey Stick by non-scientists, was seized on by the denial machine, elevated from a footnote to a whipping-boy for climate science itself, and has since been debunked, rebunked and re-debunked almost ad nauseam. But in the context of the vast body of overwhelming evidence in favor of science, the Hockey Stick is utterly insignificant—a point to which Mann devotes several chapters of his book (The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars) about the need to move on from the Hockey Stick. So why do deniers keep talking about it?

The answer, says Mann, came to him on safari during a much-needed break in his international conference schedule. A keen observer of nature, he noticed the herd-like behaviour of the vegetarians of the savannah and thought immediately of the scientists who follow the consensus. Unlike a lion, a zebra (or climate scientist) has no pride. He or she must hide behind safety in numbers. The predatory cats, meanwhile, can only take down one victim at a time and so adopt what Mann dubbed the Serengeti Strategy. This means targeting the fastest, fittest, most robust stallion—the Michael Mann of the herd—for persecution. If anything, Mann says, the inordinate skepticism directed at the Hockey Stick should be seen not as a reflection on its many flaws but a compliment on its crucial importance to the climate-change case.

Tim Flannery is the alpha zebra of Australian science, so it was only a question of when—not if—the cross-hairs of the denial machine would fall on him too.

“They’re out to get you”

Flannery first knew he was a marked man in late 2011 when, he claims, a neighbour known only as David revealed,

“You’re on the other side of the fence [regarding climate change]… they hate you… they’re out to get you.”

Asked who ‘they’ were, Flannery would only say “conspiracy theorists.”

Things began to turn dangerous as clues about his home address, situated on the Hawkesbury River, were publicly leaked. As The Australian reported:

While his place was, he admitted, “very close to the water”, the issue was how far it was above the water—something Professor Flannery would not reveal because, he said, it could help identify the location and subject him to a Norway-style attack by conservatives.

Finally details of his mortgage were published by Andrew Bolt, a columnist for the hate-media syndicate News Ltd. That’s when Flannery began to receive threats—though he won’t say if they were by email, and if so, whether they contain swear words. The Climate Commission asked the Australian Federal Police to intervene but they told Flannery they were unable to protect him against “[the conservative] half of the country.”

Flannery has been on the run ever since. Living rough, he never sleeps at the same friend’s house twice in a row and is forced to dine at a different restaurant each night. The scene is now set for the penetrating interview by Dapin, a former beau, whom he agrees to meet at a dimly-lit booth at Maha.

Tim is a big guy, a power-lifter. Swirling, whirling Middle-Eastern music courses through the speakers, and it would feel quite romantic if Tim did not have a beard.

We are sitting in a dark corner of chef Shane Delia’s Maha restaurant in Melbourne’s city centre.

(Several paragraphs are then devoted to Flannery’s bear-like physique.)

He likes to feel strong—and he needs all his strength.

”There’re a number of very weird conspiratorial right groups who believe that the United Nations is trying to take over the Earth using climate change as their beachhead,” he says. ”There’re quite a few unhinged people out there [...] There’s a risk of people taking justice—as they see it—into their own hands.”

Flannery has a glass of sauvignon blanc with our first course, magnificent slices of local salmon with chargrilled asparagus, and a smoked chickpea hummus with chicken and pine nuts.

They discuss Flannery’s gullibility as a young boy.

”And I discovered masturbation at the same time,” he says, ”which is a mortal sin, and I remember the father telling us, ‘Every one of those sperms is a life, boy,’ and I worked out I was worse than Hitler.”

His triceps curve like biceps, lending his upper arms a broad ellipsoid symmetry. And it’s really, really good.

We eat Bodrum-style stuffed zucchini flowers with a smoked-eel dressing, and crispy quail’s legs. They are delicate and divine, and Tim does not get any bits of food stuck in his beard.

Like all modern conversations, the interview turns to the topic of climate. Flannery describes the “contempt” with which PM-elect Tony Abbott treated the Climate Commission, despite its religiously apolitical nature.

Dapin then asks why the argument from “scientific consensus” has been so successful in raising awareness.

”The history of science teaches us people will long be convinced by fallacious arguments,” he says.

Is Flannery surprised at the staying power of climate-change sceptics, some of whom seem, if anything, more deeply entrenched in positions opposed to the scientific consensus?

Flannery seems to mishear Dapin’s question—due, no doubt, to the acoustics of their meeting place—because he answers in political and not scientific terms:

”I worry the political brand is now so damaged,” he says. ”If you slag off people and degrade their reputations, you ultimately degrade your own—because people’s trust in the political class is degraded….”

Flannery has a Moroccan shiraz with our final course, a 12-hour slow-roasted shoulder of lamb with burghul pilaf and fattoush.

The almost-platonic dinner comes to an end. We never do find out who Flannery goes home with that night, on whose couch he takes refuge. Dapin’s? The “impressive” sommelier’s? Dapin doesn’t—can’t—tell us. But somehow, that’s OK.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to appeal to the reader’s pity for Flannery’s circumstances. But Dapin is a better writer than that. Instead he’s composed a profile of the indomitability of the human spirit. It’s precisely when our existence is most precarious (the piece seems to argue), when we’re living out of a suitcase and in constant terror of the next bullet, that we’re most connected to life. When each day might be our last the things we normally take for granted—a decent sauv blanc, crispy quail’s legs, the company of an intellectual, a simple smoked-eel dressing—are suddenly imbued with a numinous realness that helps us cling on to our humanity, even our sanity. And climate commissioners need all the help they can get.


ABC Radio National, The Science Show, January 1, 2011

*The Bible is surprisingly long; to put this in proportion, Flannery had discovered the character of “Mary” barely takes up as much space as the misprinted Himalayan prediction in the IPCC AR4, and so can safely be discounted.

7 thoughts on “Dinner With the Salman Rushdie of Climate Change

  1. usedtobespeedy

    As I range around this magnificent planet of ours, I am continually inspired by the courage and humility shown by Climate Scientists such as Tim Flannery. Impervious to the dangers they face, they risk their all in assuming high profile government and academic positions; the appalling toll taken on their lives by deniers etc has gone largely unreported in the mainstream media. WHEN will this injustice be corrected?

    Tim Flannery – a living legend. And, if the deniers have their way, a former living legend.

    Reply
  2. H.D. Kline

    Agreed! Tim Flannery is “The Man”. So what if the Secret Network of Big Oil funded, denialist Conspiracy Theorists is out to get him? Their empty threats will ring hollow when it’s their turn to be re-educated by their children. Forgive me, for once again, linking to a Denialist site, but I think the Denialists’ paranoid, bleating panic illustrates how much they fear The Truth being illuminated in their children’s hearts and mins.

    Were Tim Flannery to grace this forum with his presence I would have no hesitation in saying, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability!” Of course, I would be speaking not of the esteemed Man himself, but of the countless millions of the world’s poor who, I feel, would gladly continue doing without safe indoor cooking, electricity, irrigation, and modern conveniences to help The Cause – or at least to make a symbolic gesture in that direction.

    Lest it be thought otherwise, I will add that I should like nothing better than to make my own symbolic gesture in the direction of The Man, but this would be reserved for a meeting in person.

    Reply
    1. usedtobespeedy

      Kline. I feel that we are of one mind. I confess to finding your continuing reference to Denier blogs unsettling, but assume that you visit these sites to bring truth to the unenlightened. Give it up, my friend. These people are beyond redemption, and seem to think that basing their arguments on facts, logic, statistics and other mathematical fluff can be an adequate substitute for the authority and gnostic wisdom that is bestowed only on people like us.

      Don’t be fooled. Denier sites like the ones you cite are cunning traps being laid for the unwary – they suck you into playing the game on their level (maths, logic, statistics etc), and next thing you know you are having your posterior served to you on a plate. Stick to the true sites like SkS and Deltoid etc where these sort of hazards are studiously avoided.

      I also sense that you are trying to pre-empt a Denialist scandal ahead of its genesis. Imagine, if you will, the Deniers attacking Tim’s credibility simply because he enjoys a sumptuous 5 star luncheon! Part of the reason is, as we all know, that Professor Tim lives in the assassin’s shadow, and each meal could be his last. That is why he makes absolutely sure it’s a good one – crispy quail, slow cooked lamb, exotic red wines etc. Of course, the Deniers, should they ever hear of such a thing, will go into a lather about the supposed incongruity between the low impact, small footprint,and simple lifestyle that Professor Flannery teaches us, and the apparently self-indulgent lifestyle he adopts for his own practice.

      Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Do you think Professor Tim ENJOYS this sort of thing? Of course not! How much it must pain him to know that there are some billions of people who have no access to clean water, adequate shelter, safe cooking facilities or even a half-decent crispy quail drumstick? But Professor Tim is the one who is speaking for the countless unwashed millions – and therefore it is his responsibility to eat for them as well.

      But does he receive any gratitude for his life of selfless sacrifice? Of course not – and yet another reason, I’d like to see him get what he deserves.

      Reply
  3. Peter Crawford

    Professor Tim once expounded on the necessity of humans to develop an insect-like “hive-mind”. He didn’t expound much on how this could be achieved but he is a qualified marine biologist so one presumes he knows what he is talking about.

    I think it is beholden on the likes of realists such as Flannery to ram home the message (or possibly the thai-assisted massage, he’s an Australian BTW) to deniers in forceful terms. In that regard I think Flannery and many others have failed. It was their duty to COMMUNICATE THE SCIENCE. Or at least talk sensibly.

    Let us be frank here. In the war against denialism Flannery’s initial skirmishes have floundered in the mud of some latterday Passchendale. He needs more and better tanks if he is to prevail against the denialist menace. I suggest at least Panzer Mk IV’s or the Russian T34, modern tanks would be even better of course, but to expect the folks at Deltoid to even know what a tank is, let alone how to drive one, is a bridge too far.

    Reply
  4. Peter Crawford

    I am also a bit worried about Tim’s “bear like” appearance. The only bears I have seen have their own dung clinging to their very hairy hindquarters. If this is Tim’s problem then a visit to the barber (or the vet) should clear things up and he will be able to continue on his denialist-smashing way unmolested by bees.

    Reply
    1. usedtobespeedy

      Peter

      I very much doubt that a pleasant little repast as has been described would be concluded with a close inspection of the good Professor Tim’s hindquarters. More likely, the interviewer was describing his face.

      I would hope you could tell the difference. If not, I would be forced to conclude that you are yet another denialist Big-Oil funded troll, and are trying to insinuate that Professor Tim speaks from his arse.

      Reply
  5. millersnose

    Proffesor Flannery’s bravery does not just cease at the onslaught of denialist bullets

    Consider also his selfless putting himself in much danger by living on a waterfront.
    This enables him to not only study the expected 100 meters of sea level rise but also to more closely empathise with the tens of millions of climate refugees swamping new zealand

    Reply

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