It’s hard to know where to start to convey some of the amazing energy that leading US climate scientist Michael Mann brought to Sydney this week for a workshop and demanding round of media appearances.
One of the world’s most respected climate scientists who has rankled the denialist industry more than most – and we know that because he’s received death threats –Mann was the star attraction in great panel line up that brought out the most inspiring responses to the mess that’s unfolding in the US and by contagion it seems, here in Australia.
The tour, organised by University of Sydney Professor Christopher Wright from the Business School and The Sydney Environment Institute, came in the two weeks since Donald Trump took power in the US and promised to destroy American leadership in climate action.Poignantly, as if to underscore what’s at stake, it was also amidst the increasingly vile weather punishing the country.
Poignantly, as if to underscore what’s at stake, it was also amidst the increasingly vile weather punishing the country.
Panellists and audience alike were clearly still in the early stages of shock and grief at the politics in the US, and in no way ready to move on or have even an inkling of how the road ahead might pan out.For Australians in particular, the global politics right now can be a terrifying case of déjà vu writ large. We’ve experienced first hand what a belligerent and outright hostile government can do to stop climate progress.
For Australians in particular, the global politics right now can be a terrifying case of déjà vu writ large. We’ve experienced first hand what a belligerent and outright hostile government can do to stop climate progress.
There’s been huge recovery since Tony Abbott was removed as the leader of this vampire pack but the memories are still fresh. And his ghost keeps rising every day in the papers, wearing a “President Trumble” suit. Though we strongly suspect no-one any longer takes him seriously when he talks about coal as having some kind of play, in a real world where money talks – and everyone knows the “jobs and growth” are green.
Certainly, the truth no longer has power on the political stage.
Which is why it was even more important and powerful that those on the panel spoke unflinching truth and presented facts and impartial analysis.
Speaking were Mann, who is from Penn State University; Ian Dunlop, former coal chief and now climate campaigner: Blair Palese, CEO of 350.org; David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific; Lesley Head, University of Melbourne; and Timothy Stephens, University of Sydney.
Timothy Stephens, University of Sydney. The Fifth Estate was chair, with Professor Stephens.
There was no false and blasé optimism – nor was there particularly, negativity. Just a presentation of the facts, the climate challenge ahead and the political progress and set
backs so far.
All mostly bad news. Yet by the end of the day there emerged something unexpected, a kind of solace and strength that has something to do with the shared commitment and acknowledgement we were all on the same side. Maybe for now that’s all we can hope for.
Mann himselfwas stunning. Humble, quietly spoken, reserved, like the really superior minds among us are, and also mindful not to venture publicly into too many political no-fly zones, lest he provides more targets for those who lie in wait to down even more respect for science with their ballistic missiles.
Because as his book The Madhouse Effect shows, it’s science itself that has been wounded. And he documents this meticulously, showing how honoured scientists have been bought with money from fossil fuels, in techniques refined by the tobacco industry.
Mann spoke about the science on the day but also ventured that there was a time when the Republicans in the US (mirrored in Australia by the Liberals) agreed that carbon had to be wound back.
His book documents how the message was corrupted by the fossil fuel industry to turn around the argument and discredit the science.
For instance, Frederick Seitz, a “world-class physicist” who had been president of the National Academy of Sciences accepted $500,000 from tobacco giant RJ Reynolds for his advocacy of downplaying the health threats of tobacco, Mann writes. In a later role Seitz received more funding from ExxonMobil “to downplay the threats of climate change,” becoming, “the first of the all-purpose deniers-for hire.”
Seitz also promoted a letter pointing to a fake journal article formatted “to look as if it has been published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.”
“Smelling a rat” the Academy publicly denounced the article by Arthur B Robinson, Noah E Robinson and Willie Soon.
Mann also documents mistakes such as over the differences in temperature recordings between land at atmospheric by John Christy and Roy Spencer who used a minus sign where there is supposed to be a plus sign – an error that took 10 years to unearth. By which time the false data had done the rounds of media and the internet and become embedded in the denialists’ DNA.
His book quotes Rex Tillerson, then CEO of ExxonMobile and now in the new Trump inner pack, who posed, “without any apparent sense of irony, the question ‘What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers’.”
Ian Dunlop used his background that ranges from his training as an engineer to membership of the Club of Rome to demonstrate the climate emergency we face.
Lesley Head dealt with the emotional side of climate change and posed that we don’t always have to be optimistic; that there is value is acknowledging grief; it has its own work to do.
The Barrier Reef, for instance, is in fact mostly gone. As in, most.
She has a point. The death spiral of the planet has started and no one yet knows how to bring it back. And in addition we have amongst us the enemy who are trying to actively stop us taking action.
The irony is that our most precious gift that allows us to adapt to difficult circumstances and forget pain becomes a fatal ambush with planetary warming.
Yes, there was value in the camaraderie.
Yes, there was surprising uplift in the sharing of perspectives that we may have forgotten about: ancient notions related to humanistic values, communal bonding, a more spiritual bent of mind – take your pick. This popped forth like brilliant pop of fireworks from David Ritter, the quietly spoken, lawyer and academic who’s headed up Greenpeace since 2012.
He said even if there is just a fraction left – a tiny whisper or suggestion of the thing we loved – then it’s worth every sinew of our being to protect it and defend it to the death.
Cue, chill down spine.
These are the inspiring, healing and awesome words that will galvanise a shift from stunned despair to something else.
Not sure yet.
At the dinner for some of the people afterwards some tried to bring the focus to something more concrete, solutions.
Could it be the single geo-engineering solution that Michael Mann says in his book might, just might work?
This is a kind of “giant sucking machine” that would extract carbon from the atmosphere, like a “mechanical tree” that mimics what trees do, but more efficiently and more powerfully and then allow it to be permanently sequestered.
Yes, it will need energy and yes it will be extremely expensive. Mann says about $500 a ton.
But wait, what’s the most powerful tool/weapon we have on the planet?
If this technique is so hugely expensive then maybe that a good thing.
It means people can make money out of it. First by building it and charging the rest of us to run it. Then by working out how to make it cheaper
Next, and this could be magic, why don’t we give it to the greediest and richest people on the planet? The enemy.
The ones who are trying to kill us.
Let’s give the technology holus-bolus to the oil and gas and coal companies. Let’s use the dame distraction technique you use with screaming toddlers when you take their toy away: give them something else to play with.
In this case it will be something that will make them not just filthy rich but maybe even liked and… hell… yes, maybe loved and… even respected.
Let’s give this technology to the Koch brothers.
Let them play with it in their tar sands pit and we can get on with our lives.
We’ll bring you more of the output from the workshop in coming weeks.