No place to hide: Jim Flynn on climate change

by Jenny Nicholls / 08 March, 2017

An easy, explosive read on climate change.

“I feel as if  I am living in a lunatic asylum,” sighs the 82-year-old professor. Jim Flynn – emeritus professor of politics at the University of Otago, honorary doctor of science, a bemedalled fellow of the New Zealand academic stratosphere – is no stranger to roiling scholarly clashes, to upending card tables, to pressing intellectual eject buttons. He lost two jobs, he tells me – in the civil rights-era American South – defending human rights now considered laughably basic.

“I was sacked for defending Martin Luther King!” he tells me jovially.

Now he has another fight on his hands – just as epic, just as hopeful, but just as intractable. It began when he decided to get his head around climate change. “I was assailed by contradictory opinions that ranged from nightmare scenarios to reassurance, and had no idea of whether I should relax or be alarmed. This was intolerable.”

He was, like any of us, initially almost overwhelmed by the amount of material he needed to wade through. “Good people do not know where to start to educate themselves,” says the professor, who likes these words. “Good people.”

But gilt-edged academic credentials gave him an advantage denied to most. “I have some academic clout. I could approach scientists at Oxford, at NASA, without looking like a screwball.”

Although the resulting book took him a couple of years to research and write, it’s succinct – a mere 85 pages. It can be digested in an afternoon. No Place to Hide: Climate Change – a short introduction for New Zealanders distills volumes of material, leaving text plain enough for anyone to understand and incendiary enough to shock. It is the very opposite of dull. There is the sense of a colossal mental meatgrinder at work, sorting, analysing, rejecting, redefining.

As Flynn worked on his book, dread seems to have risen in him like the tides he predicts in chapter five. “I became more horrified, doing the book, than I expected. The situation is more dire than I thought.” Yet this is no polemic. Flynn is too courteous, too rigorous, too measured for that. “I don’t like doomsayers.”

He begins with a history of the Earth’s climate. There are a few simple graphs, including “Figure 10. Atmospheric CO2 and Antarctic temperature over 800,000 years.” To me, this graph is the first really appalling thing in his book – two sick heartbeats rising and falling in almost perfect tandem. Figure 10 is what you’ll email to the uncle you always end up next to at Christmas dinner who insists atmospheric carbon is unrelated to rising temperatures. That it isn’t our fault.

But it’s at Chapter Five: Predictions when I find my morning takeaway coffee cup crumpling in my hand. There are several scenarios in this chapter. All of them are bad.

Flynn suspects the sea will rise by at least eight metres by 2100, and temperatures by around four degrees. And this is just the beginning. Warming will be, by then, impossible to reverse. Napier, Hastings, Blenheim and much of Invercargill, the low-lying neighbourhoods of Christchurch, Timaru and Dunedin, half of Nelson and a third of Auckland would be underwater.

In terms of climate, the South Island will be more like the North Island is today, and the North Island more like Fiji, he says, although there is yet no adequate projection, let alone plan, for a temperature rise this high in New Zealand.

If a tropical climate sounds nice, it’s worth reflecting on the downside of being the most attractive chunk of real estate this side of Peru, surrounded by the populations of mega-climate losers like Australia.

By 2350, if the current rate of big-three glacier melt keeps up, all three (in Greenland and Antarctica) will be gone. The sea will have risen by 70m.

Flynn thinks there is a way out, but it involves climate engineering. And there are sceptics for that, too. “There is no long-term solution without the use of clean energy,” he writes. “However... it is too far away to prevent things happening in the meantime that are irreversible. Before this, we must do something to buy time until clean energy comes to our rescue.”

Flynn could be forgiven for wanting to devote his eighth decade to doing the things he enjoys, like writing books about philosophy. But he is, instead, campaigning for urgent investment in high-tech climate engineering. (Of several options, he for now favours a fleet of ships creating sea spray to make clouds more reflective.)

“We are buying our good lives at the price of denying good lives to others. Climate change is an intellectual challenge, but it is also a test of human solidarity.” Or, as he told North & South: “I just want to say to the good people, ‘Pull up your socks!’”               



This was published in the February 2017 issue of North & South.

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