“A man for all climates”
Ask any Australian which scientist they respect most, and more likely than not they’ll name Former Gillard Government Climate Commission Chief Commissioner Panasonic Sustainability Professor Timothy Flannery. Tim, as he’s known for short, is best-loved for his patient attempts to explain the latest discoveries of science to a deplorably illiterate public. Who could forget this one? We may not understand it, but we sure as hell remember it:
“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.†“
Hard as it is to believe, this sober man of the hard sciences was once religious!
It’s true. In fact, it was not until his mid-teens, reports the Sydney Morning Herald, that Flannery 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.*
The real topic of the piece, however, is Flannery’s life today as a fugitive from anti-science death squads. To appreciate Dapin’s excellent article it’s necessary to understand how we got to a point —in 2014, in what’s practically a first-world country—where a scientist can be marked for death for the simple crime of forecasting the facts.
The necessary 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, whereas the confusingly-named Liberals represent the politics of hate.)
Mere months after Howard seizes power, a tragic mass murder in Tasmania (one of Australia’s overseas territories) hands him the perfect excuse to disarm the populace. Taking advantage of the nation’s shock, he rushes gun buy-back laws through Parliament, thus transferring all means of deadly force from the proletariat to the State.
And the rest is history. To quote 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.
Somehow, the nation survived… just.
Fast-forward to 2011, and our understanding of climate change has become increasingly airtight, with multiple lines of evidence now converging on a single scientific theory: that we need a tax on carbon dioxide (or in scientific jargon, carbon pollution).
The peer-reviewed data leave the climate expert Professor Will Steffen no choice. It is his duty, as a science advisor, to tell Prime Minister 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 they never wished to play, 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, which have taken advantage of a loophole in the Howard-era laws—an exemption for firearms that are used to control pests—to literally stockpile an arsenal of unknown scale.
This anti-science militia is believed to be led by a 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 an alleged 2010 plot to massacre dinner guests at a climate reëducation retreat was foiled by the quick thinking of Professor Steffen himself. The ANU industrial chemist turned climate expert—who insists he’s no hero—raised the alarm when he suspected that Coochey was discussing a planned shooting spree in code: “cull“ meaning “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 revenge? Not the rather 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], you lying Communist asshole.”
(Hoegh-Guldberg says he is not a Communist.)
Prof. Guldberg 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,” to quote one report.
At first ANU officials try to block public release of these messages, citing security concerns. The scientists themselves, however, defy this gag order as a matter of principle: all obscurantism is repugnant to the openness on which science depends.
The public then sees for itself the 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 little doubt that these are the words of an anti-intellectual paramilitary group. While ordinary Australians like to joke about the denialist “army of pensioners,” for the targets of their fatwa it’s no laughing matter.
Like all skeptics, those linked to Coochey are old white males. But what makes them unusually 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 have sworn to use automatic rifles to shoot climate scientists on sight, saying,
Let us mention one final ingredient in the toxic brew that is the contemporary Australian context. In 2013 the anti-climate Liberal Party was 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 the mad monk Tony Abbott—that Catholic rugger bugger and junkyard dog of parliament—augur one thing and one thing only: the politics of the ad-hominem 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 immediately seized on by the denial machine, elevated from a historical 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 a book he wrote this year (The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars) about the need to move on from trivia like 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 was immediately reminded of 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. (Ecologists have no term for this, unfortunately.) In other words they target 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.”
When asked who ‘they’ were, exactly, 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 contained cuss words. The Climate Commission asked the Australian Federal Police to intervene but they said they were unable to protect Flannery against “[the conservative] half of the country.”
The scene is finally set for the penetrating interview by Dapin. Flannery has been on the run ever since the Bolt threats. Living rough, he never sleeps at the same friend’s house twice and is forced to dine at a different inner-city restaurant each night. He agrees to meet with Dapin, a former beau, at a dimly-lit booth at Maha in downtown Melbourne.
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 soon 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 at their rendezvous—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 succor. 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.