WORD: Tim Flannery – An Atmosphere of Hope, with Simon Wilson


Tim Flannery

Simon Wilson got an early laugh as he announced himself as “speaking on behalf of the Lorax.” He was an excellent chair, knowledgeable and entertaining.

A sobering fact of climate change to start with: if the earth’s temperature continues to rise at the current rate of increase, in 80 years the whole earth will be 4-5 degrees warmer on average. The sea levels will be at levels that they were 55 million years ago, and there will be virtually no ice caps. This will cause huge migrant populations, with flow-on effects including food shortages and economic problems.

To stay within 2 degrees of our current temperature, we have to reduce our CO2 emissions. Wilson was an excellent chair: one of his first questions was, on the scale of 1 – 100 in optimism in our ability to bring about change, with 100 being ‘it’s all going to be fine,’ where does Tim Flannery sit? In short, he was close to 1 seven years ago when the Copenhagen Climate Council (which he was involved in preparing for) failed to bring about change: he is now at 50 or 60, since the Paris Agreement in 2015. The significance of the Paris Agreement is that “we now have unified, consensual agreement to end the fossil fuel era.”

To put some context around this: Tim Flannery is one of the world’s experts on and authors about climate change. He is chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group, and from 2011 was the Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission, a Federal Government body providing information on climate change to the Australian public. Until he was sacked by new Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

One of the key ways that Flannery thinks that as nations, we can make drastic cuts in emissions, is by shutting down all coal-powered Electricity plants. And his renewable energy of choice is something I hadn’t previously heard of: Concentrated solar power. “There’s a lot of way of doing this – mirrors, tower, super-heated objects.” You can store it in a lot of places – silica sand being an example. Port Augusta coal-powered Power Plant was the biggest emitter of CO2 in Australia: it has now been replaced by CSP. Sundrop Farms, an agricultural farm that is run using this technology, now grows 10% of all of Australia’s tomatoes. The biggest benefit of CST is that it can make our most worthless land – desert land – the most productive agricultural place on the planet. The challenge with regular solar power is that it can’t be stored – it needs a back-up for days that aren’t sunny.

Wilson put it out there that if you breed despair, we feel hopeless. But then if you generate hope, you are in danger of people just going well then we won’t worry about it – we’ll carry on as is. To this Flannery noted, “The single greatest impediment to implementing environmental change is that we haven’t got everybody along with us.” But despite all that there are solutions, and promising trends. China has started to close down a lot of their coal-powered plants, in favour of nuclear plants, and more renewable energy plants – and they are scaling up their electric car manufacture hugely.

The trend of electric cars, and driverless cars is something Flannery thinks is going to make our world unrecognisable within 20 years. My husband has been putting off learning to drive because he figures nobody will be soon – he may well be right. Certainly by the time my kids are grown up, they will be watching out for robot cars on the roads – or perhaps being driven by them.

Flannery thinks that developed countries have passed peak oil use, and that the idea that developing countries still need to go through this stage is a strategic challenge that these countries have to work through.

Politics and the environment
Here’s where things get revolutionary. Flannery believes that our system of government has taken us as far as we can go. He believes that decisions about money shouldn’t be in the same space as decisions about how to deal with climate change. With climate change, and anything that affects the whole world, we need to select citizen juries and give them all the facts scientists know. Flannery gained an enormous respect for the common sense of people while Climate Commissioner. “We have to break the nexus between money and corruption. If we can do that, we would get a long way forward.”

The conversation shifted to carbon credits at one point: at the moment, the price for carbon credits is random. To make any true difference to our CO2 emissions using our current methods we’d need to plant all of North America in forests. Flannery says, “We need to start making investments that are required to make a difference. We need to both reduce emissions, and find new ways of dealing with our world via technology.”

The reason Flannery has hope stems from a combination of factors: the two-year flat-lining of Co2 emissions, the fact we have the Paris Agreement, the changes in technology and social networks are among them.

There were some good audience questions at this session. How do we prepare for what is coming? Flannery quipped, “NZ needs to live up to its reputation of being clean and green. You guys have some great innovators. The government needs an innovation fund to foster this in areas we’ll need in the future”.

Ultimately, “We have to start preparing to adapt to the unavoidable. We need common sense regulations in place to deal with that.”

I am going to be reading more about this essential topic – I think we all need to. This is the world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren. My sons will still be alive in 80 years; I don’t want them to be living in a ruin caused by us.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Atmosphere of Hope: Tim Flannery

Atmosphere of Hope
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355406

The Explorers
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Classics
ISBN 9781921922435

We are the Weather Makers
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781921145346

The Unravelling: Emma Sky at #AWF16


pp_emma_skyI had never heard of Emma Sky before I saw her name in the festival programme, and this was a mistake, because it turns out this self-deprecating English woman has been quietly influencing 21st-century world history. She was the Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk, Iraq, for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, and served as the political advisor to U.S. General Ray Odierno from 2007 to 2010. She’s met Obama, argued with Joe Biden, and tried to keep the US military in Iraq honest.

I haven’t read her memoir The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, and in fact haven’t even touched it, because the hundreds of copies the booksellers had in stock sold out in a flash. Simon Wilson had read it carefully, though, and his interviewing was excellent.

cv_the_unravellingSky was strongly influenced by her time on a kibbutz as a young woman, and wanted to help make peace in the world. When the war in Iraq broke out – with which she strongly disagreed – she wanted to help. She answered a call for volunteers from the British government and went to Iraq “to apologise”.

“I’m Emma from England and I’m here to volunteer.” When she arrived in Iraq there was no one to meet her and she was shifted from pillar to post before ending up in Kirkuk. “I assumed the British government knew what they were doing but had just neglected to tell me.” Sky was equally wry about the violence all around her: “Insurgents tried to assassinate me in my first week … it usually takes longer for people to try to kill me.” She met the US army when she went to ask them for accommodation: “It’s all rather awkward and embarrassing but my house has been blown up”. She told another funny story about her employer back in Britain asking when she’d return: “I’m very sorry but I can’t come back to work in Manchester because I’m running a province [of Iraq]”. They told her to stop exaggerating.

As well as filling me with a desire to learn more about Iraq, Sky also made me miss England (I am an English Kiwi). I was reminded of Kate Fox’s Watching the English (one of the truest books I’ve ever read), in which she argues that the distinguishing characteristic of English humour is not is dryness but its omnipresence. There was humour underlying nearly everything Sky said, and when Wilson asked her to speak of the horror of living in a war zone, she became uncomfortable. She did try to articulate it, though, telling us that at one point Iraqis stopped eating fish because the flavour had changed, because the fish were feeding on all the corpses in the river.

Based on the success of her work in Iraq, US General Odierno invited Sky to be his political advisor. Her job was to follow him around and tell him when he was screwing up: “It was fantastic!” They were two very different people but obviously developed an enormous respect for one another. One senior US official Sky has far less respect for, however, is Joe Biden. She blames him for screwing up Iraq’s chance to create itself a robust democracy by focusing instead on his own political gains.

Wilson asked Sky about the sexism she had experienced. She seemed reluctant to talk about it too much; maybe – as Mallory Ortberg said at Writers Week in Wellington earlier this year – she’s sick of the ‘you’re a woman, that must be so hard’ kind of question. In any case, if bombs and gunfire couldn’t slow her down, mere sexism never stood a chance. She made a couple of intriguing allusions to her upbringing in a boys’ school, which she likened to a Lord of the Flies experience. Men, she said, “are much better when they’re adults than when they’re boys”. Feels like there might be another book right there.

The hour we had with Sky flew by, and we could easily have done with a whole other hour for audience questions. I would have liked to have heard her thoughts on voluntourism and the white saviour complex, for example. She says her students at Yale, where she now teaches and writes, tell her to get back out into the world. I’m sure that, for Sky, there are many more history-changing years ahead.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage 

The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky

AWF15: Stop tweeting…commit! With Jolisa Gracewood, Russell Brown and Simon Wilson, chaired by Janet Wilson

This was my penultimate session at what has been a scintillating and immensely exciting Auckland Writers Festival. For the ideas discussed, the questions asked (though mainly by the chairs) and the people met.three_col_Russell_Brown

The moot for this discussion, which involved Russell Brown (aka the editor of Public Address, pictured left), Jolisa Gracewood (aka @nzdodo) and Simon Wilson (editor of Metro), was ‘is long-form writing dying in New Zealand because all of the writers have gone to the echo chamber that is twitter?’

Simon Wilson began the discussion by talking about his editorial in Metro in 2013 which raised some hackles and made some feathers fly, called ‘Stop Tweeting and Do some work.’ He made his argument, stating that twitter can be such a time-suck that it stops you doing a) what you ought to be doing and b) what you want to be doing, and cited the black hole of twitter debates. He made the point that print media is dying, because young people don’t have the attention span. Later on he noted a study of online behaviour which proves that people’s attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 5 seconds when deciding what to read.

It is, as Simon Wilson states, hard to get people to pay something to read something; no matter your interest, you can get good, and professional writing free, on your phone. Simon sees Twitter as good for spreading truths, but notes that not only is this not the only way to do so, we have to fight for writing, to keep it. He says, to encourage people back to media, “long form writing needs to become intensely entertaining, and by the best writers.” And it’s not that he doesn’t think writers should tweet – but he thinks that they should write. The challenge is this: twitter is easy, writing is hard. More writers need to choose hard.

Russell Brown runs Public Address, New Zealand’s most popular long form blog, which is helped by voluntary subscriptions, rather than web advertising. He believes writing on the internet has been a boon for the written word. Before 1995, nobody who wasn’t a professional was writing for an audience – the internet obliges you to write, and sharpens your communication skills. “Twitter suits people who can write well,” he said, “It is not easy to be cohesive and relevant in 140 characters.”

The heart of the dilemma for people who write is: if you want to make a living out of your writing, you must be in print. And to write for a publication is to stick to their word limits, and be paid what they pay. A lot of publications won’t publish long-form writing – a column is 6-800 words; while the internet is infinite. Russell says the best paying freelance long-form gig in town is writing for the NZ Drug foundation’s magazine – they pay 80c a word; but they aren’t trying to make money from it.

wilson_simonSimon (right) mainly uses freelancers, and says that long-form writing in particular has to be sharp. The hook has to be in the first paragraph, if it isn’t, he will push the piece aside for one that is. At the comment from Russell that we are all suffering now a degree of ADD, due to the plethora of digital options, Jolisa argues that this has all happened before – while the likes of Oscar Wilde didn’t have twitter, they had coffee shops, parties, pamphleting.

Russell finds that on his blog Public Address, it is possible to keep people on the page: just have long pages. While 350 words is said to be optimal for blogs, long form is certainly possible, and certainly desirable tackling topics like those that Public Address does.

Russell points out that just because something has appeared on the internet, it is not valueless. Likewise, if it has appeared in print, it is good to repeat it digitally, as Metro does with some of their columns. Russell believes that Metro does in the right way.

The panel agreed on the whole that the standard of columns at the moment in NZ is gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlanderpoor, and Jolisa (added that a lot of magazines and papers in New Zealand don’t sound like NZ. She asked, why are we not putting bloggers into magazines? There are great voices online, she says, and this is why around 50% of Tell You What was sourced online. At the chair’s question about whether twitter starts the creative process, Jolisa says maybe, but it depends on who you follow. Simon Wilson adds that being clever on twitter may give you the ability to do other things, the dopamine hit from a twitter success gives you enough joy of recognition to stop you wanting to write longer forms.

Simon says that good non-fiction writing has literary qualities, and that people haven’t giving up writing and reading, but it needs to remain commercially viable. Alongside this is public funding – Pantograph Punch, for instance, is funded by Creative NZ.

This session gave me a lot of food for thought. I run twitter and facebook accounts on behalf of Booksellers NZ, as well as our website and this blog. Twitter for me, is a way to connect with the wider world, and find long pieces that I may otherwise not be aware of. It acts as a catalyst to further reading. And this was a very good discussion to attend as my experience of the festival drew to a close.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ