Review: “Now or never”, Quarterly Essay 31
By Tim Flannery
Black Inc, $15.95

WHILE THE great financial melt-down has dominated the headlines for the past month, there is no good news on the global warming front. This is the context in which Tim Flannery has published the latest Quarterly Essay titled “Now or never”.

More than any other public figure in Australia, Tim Flannery has popularised the ideas of global warming and climate change, which John Howard recognised when he made him Australian of the year in 2007 as a gesture towards responding to climate change.

For a natural optimist Flannery is close to despair about the failure of governments and corporations to do anything to reduce greenhouse emissions and halt global warming. The essay is his cri de coeur to focus national attention on how dire the situation is, but he is at pains to offer solutions to transform the economy to low-carbon mode.

Dark age of dead oceans

Flannery uses James Lovelock’s Gaia concept as a metaphor to make an impassioned plea to the human race to act like the brain of the “organism” Planet Earth. He starts with Lovelock’s prediction of a new dark age in which global warming has blighted most of the planet’s eco-systems and the human population has collapsed to a tenth of current levels, struggling to survive on Greenland and the Antarctic continent amidst starvation, wars and chaos.

What to do

Having got our attention, Flannery demands that we begin to reduce emissions and capture carbon from the atmosphere. His key argument is the need for political will and leadership. The reason he is pessimistic is the demonstrable lack of it in either reducing emissions, phasing out coal or investing in alternative energy technology.

He presents a variety of solutions, from sustainable agriculture, to pyrolysis and rainforest investment projects monitored via the internet and an exposition of how carbon capturing from coal could be implemented in the Coopers Basin. It’s not that Flannery favours clean coal, he just expects the world will continue to burn coal for energy so a means of capturing carbon from it must be found.

One of the essays most useful aspects is his account of pyrolysis, a relatively new means (well to me) of capturing carbon from the atmosphere, and new farming methods to lower emissions.

Pyrolysis is based on first capturing carbon by growing crops. The refuse from the crop is roasted to reduce it to inert carbon (charcoal), plus a by-product of oil or gas which can be used to produce electricity.

Any organic matter, from farming, garbage management or sewage-works, can be treated this way. The charcoal produced is buried in the soil where it improves moisture retention and mineral content. This is significant because it actively removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Then there are new technologies for energy production and transport. Tim Flannery treats us to a utopian vision of a new Australian city based on hot-rocks energy production, Geothermia. He argues this could be developed as a minerals-processing powerhouse in the Coopers Basin area where the existing infrastructure could be used to store carbon dioxide piped from eastern seaboard power stations.

Flannery is beside himself because he can see the opportunities to develop low-carbon technology, but nothing happening in Australia. His solutions all suffer from the same flaw. He can offer no explanation for why the government will not act and has no strategy to overcome the inertia.

By accepting the market-based framework – whether it’s a tax or carbon-pricing – he cannot then criticise it as a mechanism for mediating change, even while its failure is manifest. His only tactic is shifting public opinion.

It is imperative that socialists advance a strategy based on the working class using its organised strength to place demands on business and on the government. In fact the unfolding financial disaster demonstrates the high risk of relying on the unregulated market and provides the opportunity to demand public investment in low carbon technology as a measure to deal with the likely recession.

As Garnaut said when he released his report on October 16, financial crises are comparatively short-lived, but “[he] would stress that, climate change is a long-term issue but an urgent issue. It will still be here tomorrow, but our chance of dealing with it may not.”

By Anne Picot

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