Tag Archives: Tim Flannery

Alan Finkel’s Getting to Zero

Alan Finkel, Getting to Zero: Australia’s Energy Transition (Quarterly Essay 81, 2021)
– plus correspondence in QE 82

Alan Finkel was Australia’s chief scientist from 2016 to 2020, and among other things he is currently special adviser to the Australian government on low-emissions technologies. So an essay on ‘Australia’s energy transition’ written by him carries a certain weight.

On the face of it, it’s hard to believe that the current Australian government is serious about taking effective action about the climate emergency. It’s not so long since Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament to make puerile mockery of concerns about fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change, and he now conspicuously refuses to commit to a zero-emissions target by any given time. The Minister for Resources is a fervent advocate of the Adani coal mine in Queensland. The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction want to spend vast sums to keep coal-fired generators open. A gas led recovery or a hydrogen valley sound more like amateurish marketing slogans than indicators of any serious policy. So when one of their key advisers writes an essay whose title implies a goal (getting to zero) and a plan (transition) it inspires hope that he will spell out whatever seriousness lies behind the politicians’ sloganeering and obfuscation.

Ian McAuley says in the correspondence in QE 82:

With a little editing – if he replaced his personal anecdotes with the language of bureaucracy, for instance – this essay could serve as the government’s green paper on ‘Australia’s Energy Transition’ – that is, if our government were willing to engage with the public on difficult public policy problems through the traditional green paper/white paper process.

This may be so, but Finkel makes it clear that he has very little to say about politics, policy or politicians. He writes as an engineer: ‘Just as technology has got us into trouble through its propensity to generate carbon dioxide emissions, it is technology that will save us.’ He does acknowledge that technology doesn’t live in a vacuum:

It lives in the policy-driven world of markets, fiscal settings, taxes, government decisions and consumer preferences. This essay is about the technology, not the policies, which are for our democratically elected political leaders to determine. Governments have to balance competing priorities across economic growth, scientific advice and community values.

(page 27)

The essay delivers on that promise. After a very readable outline of the science, it outlines the technological challenges (‘The task is, quite simply, immense’) and the processes already well under way to meet them: the huge uptake in solar energy, progress by way of batteries, hydrogen generation and other means to making wind and solar dependable, electric cars, and so on. He clarifies his modified support for continued use of gas as part of a transition to zero-emissions; he champions hydrogen as the hero of the story. He emphasises that the challenges are huge (‘a mountain to climb’) but is optimistic. He ends with these words:

We can do this, but it will take considerable effort and will take time. So remember: be ambitious; be patient.

(page 97)

I was heartened to read Finkel’s lucid, careful, methodical argument that the challenge of the climate emergency can be met – with difficulty, but successfully, and without significant sacrifice (‘No trade off, no dichotomy. Prosperity and low emissions.’). I was also uneasy. Surely something has to change as well as our technology. There was a herd of elephants in the room. The essay starts with a quote from Buckminster Fuller:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

I imagine the ‘alternative society’ enthusiasts of the 60s and 70s who had Buckminster Fuller as a kind of guru would consider it close to blasphemy to invoke him in this way.


This Quarterly Essay demonstrates the brilliance of the series’ practice of including in each issue extensive correspondence on the previous one. And it confirms me in my practice of postponing my reading of each issue until the next one arrives.

Alan Finkel can be read, roughly, as explaining the government’s position on the transition to a zero-emissions economy. The correspondence in Quarterly Essay 82 is appropriately heavyweight. Starting with Tim Flannery (Finkel ‘tragically fails’ to identify the real problem, which is ‘that unless we take timely action and view cost as a secondary consideration, we seem destined to precipitate a new, dangerous climate that will threaten our global civilisation’), Scott Ludlam (‘This is a fight that won’t be resolved by reasoned argument alone’) and Ross Garnaut (‘Public expenditure on technological development is wasted unless it is accompanied or followed by a carbon price or by regulation mandating its use’), the line-up of scientists, scholars, researchers and activists engage respectfully and forcefully with that position. If Black Inc were to publish the essay with the correspondence in a single volume, it be a useful, and very readable, overview of the state of climate politics in Australia.

A new IPCC report has been published since the essay and responses were written. Who knows what Alan Finkel would write now?

SWF: My Day 2

Thursday morning in Marrickville the air was grey with smoke – someone was burning off. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay, the air was clearer but there was still plenty of grey, this time on people’s heads and faces, though the festival goers aren’t as homogeneously 60+ as on weekdays in previous years.

If I had to name a theme common to the five sessions I attended today, I’d say it was intergenerational respect and co-operation.

At 10 o’clock Zelda la Grange discussed her memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela, steered deftly by veteran interlocutor David Leser.

As an ‘apolitical’ young Afrikaner who absolutely supported apartheid, la Grange accidentally found herself working for President Nelson Mandela, the man she had seen as her people’s greatest enemy. She told us of her first meeting with him in her early 20s: where she had expected hostility she not only  found a warm handclasp and interested questions about her life, but he spoke to her in Aftikaans, the language of the people who had gaoled him for decades. She burst into tears. He put his free hand in her shoulder and said, ‘Relax, you’re overreacting.’

Over the following weeks and then years, she heard more of his story, shed more tears and felt the bubble of white privilege that had kept her world narrow dissolving. She became his private secretary and, as he grew old and frail, his protector. She said he worked on her heart every day. She called him by the Swahili (I think) word for granddad. He rechristened her Zeldiña.

Since his death in 2013, she treasures their great non-romantic love, and sees it as her mission to keep alive his legacy of respect in public life.

Then on to a spectacular queue for Climate: Knowledge and Hope featuring scientists Tim Flannery and Peter Doherty, wrangled by Bianca Nogrady.

Flannery’s most recent book, Atmosphere of Hope, was written last August, when it seemed Paris would lead to good things. It did produce an agreement, but things are less obviously hopeful now, with news of record temperature increases. Doherty’s is The Knowledge Wars, which I gleaned is about current attacks on scientific knowledge on a number of fronts, beginning perhaps with climate change but extending to areas like vaccination.

Faced with the dire reality of climate change, these two men of a certain age remain ebullient. When Nogrady ventured that hope has a passivity to it – we just shrug our shoulders and hope for the best – Flannery apologised to his mainly older audience and said that many young people, scientists and activists, are less prone to despair than their elders, but see the situation as a challenge which they set about vigorously meeting. Doherty echoed that view.

My other heartening take-home from this session was that where The Australian and the rest of the denialist and reactionary Murdoch press have been very influential on the rest of the media, that dominance is now being challenged by The Conversation, a much more reality based publication which presents the work of academics online in readable form. He urged us to subscribe at theconversation.com/au.

1:30-2:30 pm: NSW Premier’s Awards: Meet the Writers: I was initially disappointed that only two of the NSWPLA winners were on the podium with ‘senior judge’ Ross Grayson Bell, but when the two are Magda Szubanski and Alice Pung less is more.

Both women are daughters of immigrant fathers who experienced major traumas in their home countries – Poland under the Nazis and Cambodia under Pol Pot respectively. Both have written about their fathers, Magda in Reckoning, her award-winner, and Alice in her earlier memoir My Father’s Daughter. Though Alice spoke a little about her award-winner, Laurinda, most of the conversation revolved around their points of similarity. In both their families, the traumatic experiences of the parents weren’t passed over in silence to protect the children, but were told, often enough, as funny stories or adventures. Alice in particular now finds herself wondering about the wisdom of advice from teachers not to tell students too much detail about the terrible ordeals described in her books.

Neither writer referred to our current government’s cruelty to asylum seekers and refugees or to Peter Dutton’s recent disparagement of some as ‘illiterate and innumerate’. They didn’t have to. This was pointedly so when someone asked Alice Pung how her mother responded to her memoir: ‘My mother’s illiterate. She said she’ll wait for the movie.’

3:00-4:00 pm: Paul Muldoon talked with David Malouf for a wonderfully loose, lucid hour, about the way a poem is a process of discovery for the poet, and for the reader. Apparently distracted by the sounds outside the cavernous room, Muldoon drew our attention to the rhythmic creaking of the wharf’s posts and a distant pneumatic drill then, as if drawing his ideas from these ambient sounds, talked about the dual activity of the poet – construction worker/ maker/ makar, and explorer/ troubadour/ trovatore. The two poets, like the two scientists and the two daughters earlier, had a wonderful rapport. Each time the conversation threatened to slacken, David Malouf (who had introduced himself here as a reader) asked the poet if he would read to us. The poems he chose for us were ‘Hedgehog‘, written when he was a teenager, and ‘Pelt’ from his most recent book. Interestingly, far from patronising his sixteen-year-old self, Paul Muldoon was in awe of him.

4:30-5:30 pm: Tammy and Lesley Williams, Murri mother and daughter who collaborated on the book Not Just Black and White, were brilliant. Lesley led a successful campaign to reclaim wages withheld by the Queensland government from Aboriginal workers last century. She wanted to write a book about it but was daunted by the task as she’d left school at the end of primary school, and also had trouble believing anyone would be interested. Tammy, then a teenager in school, now a successful barrister and Queensland’s Commissioner for Children, helped with both problems. She taped her mother’s spoken account and transcribed it. Just as importantly, she constantly reassured her mother that the story was worth telling. This book tells their story in the form of a conversation.

In question time a young woman thanked the writers because, even though her grandmother had received only $4000 in acknowledgement of a lifetime’s work, the payment made a huge difference.

I had a personal connection too, but not one I wanted to inflict on that gathering. As a white child in north Queensland in the 1950s I was completely unaware that most Aboriginal people were living ‘under the Act’. I don’t know if the Aboriginal couple who worked for my parents, the man with my father on the farm and the woman with my mother a day a week in the house, were subject to the same covert exploitation as Lesley Williams discovered. My ignorance  is given extra point as their names were Charlie and Pearl Williams (always Mr and Mrs Williams to us kids). I’m ashamed, but hugely grateful to these Williamses for their generosity and valour in putting the story out here for all of us. I’ve bought the book.

End of my Festival day. [Wipes sweat from brow]

A full day at the SWF

My yesterday was entirely devoted to the Sydney Writers Festival, and I had a great time, starting out at Walsh Bay, where my choices seemed to keep me away from the monster queues.

10 : 00 Poetry on the Harbour: Adam Aitken, Judith Beveridge and Kim Cheng Boey, with Ivor (‘I know they’re good poets because I published them’) Indyk in the chair.
In general I prefer to hear poets read their own work over having actors deliver sonorous, deeply felt renditions, because actors’ performances tend to narrow the range of possible readings. And I prefer poets’ readings that avoid the incantatory (though I’m delighted by the over the top bits of Yeats and Tennyson I’ve heard). All the same, all three of these poets read their work with such modesty and introspection that I longed for just a touch of the rock star, just a hint that they might be able to hold us in the palm of their hands and wring our withers.

It was an excellent reading nonetheless. Adam Aitken read his ‘Pol Pot in Paris’, and a poem taken from his father’s letters (introduced with, ‘I love my father, but he had colonial attitudes’) got actual laughs. Judith Beveridge began with an anecdote from Robert Creeley: at a school reading a child asked him, ‘Mr Creeley, was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself?’ Among the poems that JB had made up herself was a lovely piece about a man washing himself at the railway station tap just outside Delhi. Of the extraordinarily cosmopolitan Kim Cheng Boey’s poems, I particularly liked ‘Stamps’, in which the poet converses with his little daughter.

11 : 30 First Nation Stories: Richard Van Camp and Boori Monty Pryor herded ‘like cats’ by Anita Heiss.
In introducing his poets, Ivor Indyk mentioned university positions and awards. In this session, Anita Heiss talked about which Indigenous Nations/mobs people came from, including herself. Both Richard and Boori perform and tell stories in schools. Richard gave us what I took to be one of his schools performances; Boori talked about his. Both men were very funny, and Boori gets the Me Fail I Fly nomination for the most charming man on the planet. Yet with all the humour and charm he managed to put some hard truths. ‘This is the only country in the world,’ he said, ‘that mines a culture and sells it off to the world but doesn’t want to know about the people who produce it.’ He told of a group of preschool teachers who asked him for advice on how to tell Aboriginal stories to their charges. ‘Do you know about the 1967 Referendum? The Gurindji campaign? The reserves?’ he asked (though he probably named different specifics). ‘You won’t be able to tell the stories until you know about the fight to keep them alive.’

13 : 00 The Politics of Storytelling: Mike Daisey and William Yang, chaired by Annette Shum Wah.
I’m told Mike Daisy’s story was shattering, but I went to sleep during the loud, bombastic opening section of his monologue, which I guess was meant to be the warm-up (a baby cried, presumably at the sheer loudness, and was incorporated into the rant, to the delight of the fans in front of me but adding to my need to absent myself). William Yang showed a number of slides, and it was reassuring to see that his style worked just as well when taken out of the tightly controlled environment of his shows. The discussion was interesting – Annette asked about their provocativeness (William’s photos can be a bit rude, and Mike uses four-letter words, hardly confronting in Sydney I would have thought, but he did mention a show where a big bloc of the audience stood up and walked out – it’s on YouTube and his response is wonderful). William said that when he first did his shows he was part of an angry community. Now he might put in an occasional naughty photo out of impishness. These were such different men, yet their mutual appreciation was lovely to behold.

16 : 00 David Wessel, Meet Paul Keating with George Megalogenis.
Note to anyone doing this kind of gig: it really really helps if you read up on the person you’re appearing with and can refer approvingly to his work. Both these men did that and it was a great leavening to what could have been a dry conversation about economics. David Wessell (economic editor of the Wall Street Journal, was able to drop a number of Keating’s famous phrases into his presentation (‘The recession we had to have’, ‘A shiver looking for a spine to run up’, etc). Wessell explained the causes of the GFC memorably as resulting from two false assumptions in the US: that house prices would never fall, and that extraordinary financial innovations spread risk in such a way as to diminish it to the point of negligibility. Keating, equally memorably described chinese reserves as a great cloud full of water and electricity floating over the world, and Alan Greenspan building a copper pipe up into the sky to draw down the water. He also talked about Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece as having a big one-off party made possible by converting to the Euro and suddenly enjoying German interest rates. Right now we’re seeing the morning-after crash. Questions were probably intelligent, but were well above my head.

18 : 00 Have We All Been Conned?: An Emergency Town Meeting: Bill McKibben, Ross Garnaut and Clive Hamilton, with Tim Flannery as participating Chair, discussing the politics and science of climate change.
A case of false labelling. Of course, we all knew it was a Writers Festival event and not a political rally, so it was no surprise that it was, as my son described them, four bald men in glasses talking to an appreciative audience about the current state of affairs. No one was really concerned to plug his own book – it was, as Tim Flannery, said, a bit of a dream team.

Was Copenhagen a success or failure? Too soon to tell, but it has meant that developing countries are now taking on climate change rather than waiting for the developing countries to do their bit first.

How come Australia is the biggest laggard in climate change action, yet it has the most to lose? Ross Garnaut spoke with transparent obliqueness of lack of political leadership. Bill McKibben, I think it was, first mentioned Kevin Rudd by name. Clive Hamilton sunk the boot: Kevin Rudd thinks science is a lobby group, and he’s a manager not a leader.

What about the Greens’ rejection of the CPRS? A lamentable strategic error, seemed to be the consensus, rather than a grievous failure of principle as we have seen from federal Labor. Bill McKibben said wise words here. Coming from afar, he said, he had the luxury of responding without knowing or needing to know the details, but what we have to remember is that any victory, however small, is to be celebrated, and any victory, however large, is only a step forward. This is a struggle that will continue for our lifetimes and beyond.

Perhaps the grimmest note of the evening was the statement from, I think, Bill McKibben, that our challenge now is no longer to prevent climate change but to take action to deal with the new world we now live in.

In question time we reaped the consequences of the false advertising. Person after person took the microphone to tell us what they thought about the subject. One woman, from an outfit called A Hundred Percent Renewable, had even brought a banner, which she trailed after her disconsolately as she left the microphone, having failed to get a taker to hold up its other end.

And I’m off to another full day today.

Dinner at the Art Gallery

I love the Premier’s Literary Awards dinner. It’s a night when writers who aren’t Neil Gaiman get to be stars: all these people who spend much of their lives tapping away in the quiet of their rooms emerge into the limelight and a chosen ten or so get to stand up at the podium and say something witty or profound or incoherent and shake a politician’s hand to great applause. I was going to say it was like a literary Oscars, but it’s more of an anti-Oscars: a celebration of the inward, the thoughtful, the critical, the gentle, the impassioned and the incisive.

Tonight was the fourth time I’ve been to the dinner. This year it moved down the road from the Strangers Room in Parliament House to ‘The Grand Court’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It’s a pleasant space, and there wasn’t the hurry to get us out by 10 pm that marked the event at its old venue.

The address was given by Neil Armfield, not himself known as a writer, but a director in the theatre and now in film. I subscribe to the Belvoir Street Theatre, his home, and love his work in spite of being goaded to sarcasm by his penchant for having at least one male actor take off all his clothes, or at least urinate on stage, in every play – though come to think of it, no one disrobed in Waiting for Godot or anything I’ve seen since, so perhaps that signature motif is in the past, at least on stage (Heath Ledger drops his daks in Candy). Anyhow, tonight he spoke with tremendous passion and humour, starting with the moment on an Aer Lingus flight when he realised the plane seats were covered with elegantly written quotes from Irish writers: ‘Oh to live in a country …’ he started before being interrupted by applause.

Last year I had the unexpected and scary honour of being seated next to Ruby Langford Ginibi, ‘a national treasure and an icon of the survival and power of Aboriginal people’, who won the Special Award. This year I was flanked by people I know.

My predictions, unsurprisingly, were largely incorrect: I picked only two of the winners, though one of them won two prizes. I haven’t read any of the winning books, and very very little of the poetry of the Special Award recipient, of whom more later.

  • Tim Flannery won the Gleebooks Prize and the Book of the Year Award for The Weather Makers, which I had tipped to win a different prize. Tim moved straight to the microphone and delivered an urgent reminder of the importance of climate change. Since the book was published, he said, new research has indicated that things are even worse: a study soon to be published calculates that the northern polar ice cap will melt in the summer by the year 2016. We are blighting our children’s future for our own comfort, and there are alternatives to hand. Called back to the podium without warning to receive his second prize at the end of the evening, and clearly unprepared, he leaned into the mike and said – no time wasted in thank-yous or by-your-leaves – ‘Go out and buy a solar panel.’
  • Kate Grenville’s The Secret River won the Community Relations Commission Award and the Christina Stead Prize for fiction. She said in her second speech that she had expected to be attacked because of the book, which explores some uncomfortable Australian history, based on her own forebears’ story. She was so frightened, she said, that she took her name out of the phone book. But instead of attack she finds that people are hungry for what the book has to offer.
  • The UTS award for New Writing – Fiction was won by Stephen Lang, An Accidental Terrorist.
  • Script Writing Award was won by Chris Lilley, We Can Be Heroes, who gets the prize for shortest acceptance speech ever. He didn’t say much more than ‘Thank you’. Bob Debus, Minister for the Arts, who was handing out the prizes, bemusedly muttered, ‘Terrific,’ and moved on to the next winner.
  • Play Award was won by Tommy Murphy, Strangers In Between. ‘We’d love to do your play,’ the director of the Griffin Theatre had said to him, ‘if only it was better.’ They worked on it and it obviously got better.
  • Prize for Literary Scholarship was won by Terry Collits, Postcolonial Conrad: Paradoxes of Empire (as tipped by me). He gave a very funny speech, in which he spoke about ‘pollies’ and ended by suggesting that John Howard might consider ‘The Life of Mr Polly’ as a possible title for an autobiography.
  • Patricia Wrightson Prize won by Kieren Meehan, In the Monkey Forest.
  • Ethel Turner Prize for young people’s literature won by Ursula Dubosarsky, Theodora’s Gift. She thanked the Premier, the Minister and the government for the award, for the words about the importance of children’s literature with which the Premier had opened the evening, and then went on to thank the government and all the governments of New South Wales for the last 90 years for creating and sustaining The School Magazine, an institution readers of this blog will know is dear to my heart. This was my Stendhalismo moment.
  • Kenneth Slessor Prize was won by Jaya Savige, a young man from Brisbane with his hair tied back in a rough bun, for Latecomers. He thanked his mother – ‘Writing this book was one of the things I promised her I’d do’ – and ‘Ken’, who turned out to be Kenneth Slessor. He then did a lovely recitation of Slessor’s ‘South Country‘.
  • Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction was won by Jacob G. Rosenberg for East of Time, a memoir which he described as a festival of ideas and people.

The Special Award went to Rosemary Dobson, who had to be helped up onto the podium, and looked terribly frail. She too read us a poem, ‘Museum’, which ends:

What then to do?

Learn still; take, reject,
Choose, use, create,
Put past to present purpose. Make.

No fewer than seven people thanked their editors by name. You find this ordinary, I find it lovely. (Slessor is obviously on my mind.) Tim Flannery also thanked his two principal researchers, his poorly paid children.

All the usual suspects were there, by which I mean most of the shortlisted writers, a number of publishers and agents, eminent politicians who know how to read (not a huge number of those), previous judges (of which I am one), booksellers, bloggers (though I only know of three counting me), shadows and perhaps a stalker or two. As usual I left soon after the speeches were over, but I did have fun doing a bit of catching up, garnering gossip, chatting, congratulating, commiserating. I bought two books, sadly not including the Terry Collits book, a fairly slender hardback priced at $170 odd: academic publishing ain’t cheap.