DATE March 22, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Tim Flannery discusses his new book "The Weather
Makers" and scientific evidence supporting global warming
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A new book about global warming that has been influential in Australia has
just been published here. It's called "The Weather Makers: How Man is
Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth." My guest is the
author Tim Flannery. Australia, like the US, did not sign the Kyoto treaty on
global warming, but last fall, Australia's environmental minister Ian Campbell
said he agrees with Flannery's book and that the debate on climate change is
over. The Australian government owes it to the public to tell it like it is.
Global warming is a very serious threat to Australia. Tim Flannery is a
scientist and conservationist who contributes to the New York review of books
and the Times' literary supplements. He's the director of the South
Australian Museum in Adelaide and is a professor at the University of
Well, you write in the book that you yourself used to dismiss global warming
as a major problem. What changed your mind?
Mr. TIM FLANNERY (Author, "The Weather Makers"): Oh, my goodness! Well, I
think that what happened to me was that I'd always known about climate change
because I was trained as a paleontologist. And I spent 20 years as a field
biologist in Papua New Guinea studying that marvelous diversity up in the
mountain forests of every island. And I'd seen things there that I now know
were related to climate change but for many years I just had the small
insight. I saw a few dots that I knew were related to climate change but
really hadn't spent the time to understand the big picture. And, in a sense,
I wrote the book to give people the opportunity to develop that big picture
understanding for themselves. That's what we all need to do. We all need to
be personally convinced about what climate change really is, how big a threat
it is, how fast is it moving and what can we do about it? So for me, that
journey took longer than I really would like to admit to. It was 20 years
there where I probably should have been more proactive than I was, and it took
me that long to sit down and start reading signs seriously and come to a
conclusion, which I did actually fairly swiftly, once I started to read the
GROSS: Was there a turning point for you?
Mr. FLANNERY: Yes. There certainly was. In about 2001, the state
government of South Australia asked me to chair an advisory committee to
advise the premier of that state about--that's like the governor--to advise
the premier about issues related to science and sustainability. And I sat
down, started reading those books, you know, and the scientific papers about
climate change. It became clear fairly immediately that this was an enormous
issue, and then I spoke to colleagues and committee members, gained a broader
understanding and, all of a sudden, the penny dropped.
You know, those vanishing outlying grass plains I'd seen in New Guinea 20
years earlier, all of a sudden, took on a new meaning. You know, I could see
that they were symptoms of a very serious illness, a very serious global
problem rather than just a local phenomenon.
GROSS: As a paleontologist, you know the effects that climate change can have
on the development or the extinction of species. Is there any parallel that
you see between the drastic climate change over the past and in the
incremental global warming of today?
Mr. FLANNERY: Probably the best parallel that we have available to us is an
event that occurred 55 million years ago when a vast amount of North Sea gas
was ignited by hot lava and shot to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and put
an enormous parse of greenhouse gas into the environment. And that changed
our planet completely. I mean, all of a sudden, there was rain forest in
Greenland where previously there'd been cooler forests. And the oceans
acidified. You can look at the ocean sediment dated at that time around the
world and see that it's been eaten away quite literally by acid. There's
evidence of massive extinctions. Now that was a very large scale and very
What we're seeing today is a similar increase in greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere, but not to the same volume as yet. In terms of speed, probably a
little bit slower today, but nevertheless, the changes that we're seeing now
in our modern world are on a scale which is very fast and very large compared
with previous climate change, particularly those over the last few million
GROSS: Is it fast because it seems more rapid than in the past but still kind
of slow? What do you mean by fast?
Mr. FLANNERY: Well, if you look at the changes that occurred at the end of
the last ice age, which are probably the best documented of all of the past
prehistoric changes, I know 15,000 years ago, New York, Boston, were covered
by ice, you know. And the shift that occurred in the climate that brought
about the modern climate we enjoy today happened over about 7,000 years. And
over that period, the Earth warmed about five degrees Celsius, which I guess
is around, I don't know, 11 or so degrees Fahrenheit. So comparing that with
the changes that are projected to occur over this century, you know,
scientists are projecting an increasing temperature over this century of about
three to 3.5 degrees on average. So you can see it's not quite as big as that
earlier change, but it's happening about 30 times faster. And when it comes
to climate shift, of course, the rate of change is every bit as important as
the extent of change because species and people and cities and everything else
need time to adjust to new conditions.
GROSS: You point out in your book that warming is a slow and incremental
process, but global warming can change climate in jerks, during which the
climate patterns jump from one stable state to another. Can you explain this?
Mr. FLANNERY: Yeah. Look, this is one of the most fascinating things that
we've learned about climate signs, I'd say over the last couple of decades,
you know, that what we see is that the increasing greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere is gradual and the warming therefore is gradual, but that the whole
climate system, which really means the way that the world's climate organizes
itself, or the atmosphere organizes itself, shifts very dramatically in just a
single year. And probably the best documented example of that occurring was
1976 when the entire world's climate changed in just a single year. People in
the States may remember that year. Quite extraordinary winter snowfalls
occurred in some areas and the very mild conditions that occurred farther
north. Around the world, changes that occurred in '76 have remained
permanent. So there was a jump in the way the world's climate system
organized itself. And the same thing happened in '98. And the reasons that
the climate system responds in this way are not very well-understood
scientifically, but what we're beginning to understand is that the atmosphere
itself is telekinetic. Now telekinesis means movement or action at a distance
without a visible means of connection. And the climate system seems to
organize itself telekinetically through pressure waves in the atmosphere, and
once they change, it's very hard for them to change back. And the climate
system seems to work in exactly the same way.
GROSS: Do you think that 2005 represented one of those shifts in climate?
You know, we had more hurricanes in the United States and more severe
hurricanes, and I think 2005, was it the warmest year on record?
Mr. FLANNERY: Yeah, it was either the warmest or the second warmest. I
think there's a tiny bit of debate about that, but nevertheless we're on an
upwards trend. And I don't think 2005 was necessarily what they call a magic
gate year, when the system shifts from one state to another. But what we saw
with hurricane activity in the US was certainly exceptional and very
consistent in fact with what we see globally in terms of these extreme weather
One of the really big surprises that the world is teaching us is that the
computer models that we use to try to understand how the climate system will
change in the future are turning out to be deeply conservative. And modeling
that was done as late as 2004 dealing with hurricane activity was suggesting
just modest increase in hurricane activity in about 2080. But what we see in
the real world is over the last 30 years or so, the amount of energy that's
expended by hurricanes worldwide has increased by 60 percent. So that is a
massive increase. And much more of that energy budget's going to the extreme
weather events, the Category 4 and 5 hurricanes. And just recently in my own
country of Australia, over the last few days, we've seen an exceptional
Category 5 hurricane had a very big impact on northeastern Queensland.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit more about how weather patterns appear to be
Mr. FLANNERY: Yeah, well, what you see, as you start warming the atmosphere,
you just create a more energetic atmosphere, and that happens because as the
air warms, it can hold more water vapor, and water vapor is hurricane fuel,
it's light and heat energy, and it drives many of the phenomenon that we
recognize as where that's from. So, yeah, we get more extreme weather events
such as hurricanes. We also get longer and more severe and hotter droughts.
And the European summer of 2003 was a great example of that, you know, that
was such a warm summer. Statistically, you might expect it to occur once
every 50,000 years, but, you know, those sort of warm summers have just become
increasingly frequent. And, of course, that was a very deadly event. Heat
waves are the greatest killer of people of all extreme weather events.
So those sort of things are on the increase. We're seeing changes in rainfall
patterns, we're seeing certainly declines in snowfall in some areas, and
decline in or a shift in the seasons, I should say. We're getting shorter
winters, often just as cold as ever before, but they're getting a little bit
shorter and quite long autumns.
GROSS: Where I live in Philadelphia, there wasn't a lot of snow this winter,
and knock wood, there won't be much snow in the early spring either. But,
see, I'm saying knock wood. I mean, I like it when it doesn't snow, but on
the other hand, there's a part of me that's always thinking, `Oh-oh, is this a
symptom of global warming? Does this mean trouble?' And do we risk going too
far, if every time winter where we live is a little more mild, we attribute it
to global warming?
Mr. FLANNERY: Yeah. Look, there's a hell of a lot of noise in the world's
climate systems, so the weather's very variable year to year. And it's very
hard to know whether any single event is the result of climate change or
global warming. In fact, it's probably the wrong question to ask, really.
The weather system is so intricate and so, what to say, chaotic in some ways.
You know the old saying about the butterflies winging in the Amazon,
fluttering the butterflies' wings starts a hurricane in the Caribbean? Well,
there's some sort of truth to that saying. And what scientists are trying to
tell you by giving you examples like that is that the old ways we think about
cause and effect are probably not the most productive ways to think about the
way the weather system works because they are full of so many positive
feedback loops that takes small initial changes and then amplifies them. That
cause and effect as we often think about it becomes less meaningful.
GROSS: So if there's less snow in Philadelphia this winter, I shouldn't
really make anything out of that?
Mr. FLANNERY: I'd keep my eye on it because I don't know the specifics of
the area where you live, but that may just be normal variability. But what I
certainly notice is that in Sydney, where I spent many years living, the
decline in rainfall there has been prolonged and very sustained, and that is
very clearly tied in terms of theoretical models to what we see in the
changing global system. So it's the longer-term view often that gives you the
key to understanding whether these are meaningful events or not.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Flannery. He's the author
of the new book "The Weather Makers," which is subtitled, "How Man is Changing
the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth." Let's take a short break and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Tim Flannery. He's the author of the new book "The
Weather Makers, How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on
Earth." He lives in Adelaide, Australia, where he's the director of the South
Australia Museum. He's also professor at the University of Adelaide.
You talked about surprising cause and effects in the weather system. Can you
give us some example?
Mr. FLANNERY: Yeah. Look, I think one of the most interesting examples
that's come to light recently came about as a result of the collapse of an ice
shelf in the Antarctic. This ice shelf was about the size of the country of
Luxembourg, over a thousand square miles. And when it collapsed, people
learned a couple of really interesting things. The first was that the
collapse was extremely rapid. It occurred over a couple of weeks. And once
the ice had cleared, people drilled into the sediment under that ice shelf and
found that that ice shelf had been stable for 12,000 years. So such a sudden
collapse was really startling. And then people started looking at the
glaciers that feed into that ice shelf and realized that they had sped up
enormously as a result of the ice-shelf collapse. So there was even more ice
coming into the ocean.
And the other thing that happened when people looked at this situation even
more closely was that they saw that the ice had been reflecting lots and lots
of sunlight directly back into space because ice is bright. That's what it
does, reflects heat and sun's energy back into space so it doesn't warm the
planet. But once that's replaced with dark water, instead of 90 percent of
the energy of the sun getting reflected back to space, you get 90 percent of
it being absorbed by the oceans. And the oceans in that area had increased in
temperature just a tiny bit. I mean, that water was still cold enough to kill
you in a couple of minutes if you're unlucky enough to fall into it. But the
increasing warmth was starting to eat away at the bottom of ice shelves.
And so what we see there is a total change in the system, a very powerful
positive feedback loop, where we're getting more heat energy into the oceans,
which is leading to the destabilization now of other ice shelves in the
Antarctic, and, of course, the glacial flow is bringing yet ever more ice into
the oceans, and so what we learned from that event has forced us really to
advise in a very profound way what we think will happen in terms of sea-level
rise globally as a result of climate change.
GROSS: I guess this is an example of what you mean when you say the most
worrisome symptoms of warming are happening at the poles.
Mr. FLANNERY: Yeah, that is certainly true, and, you know, the symptoms that
you could see from outer space are the ones that are happening at the poles.
You know the fact that the Arctic ice cap is just shrinking so much. You
know, that ice cap has been there for three million or so years, you know.
And that, in a way, again, just at the cutting edge of science we're beginning
to learn, is something that might be unique to this latest warming caused by
I mean, greenhouse gases trap heat most effectively at temperature more
typical of the poles than at the equator, you know. So this warming at the
poles might be something relatively new, and it is, for me, a deeply
disturbing event, you know, to think that we're destabilizing ecosystems that
have been there for millions of years and changing the way our planet looks
from space. It's quite an amazing concept.
GROSS: How does it look different from space?
Mr. FLANNERY: Well, the ice caps, which are so bright, are melting away.
And by the end of this century, quite likely there will be no polar ice cap in
summer. I mean, you can see that from the moon, you can see it from way, way
out into space. So that is a profound change to our planet. It really is.
It's changing the energy balance of that planet. It will mean the destruction
of an ecosystem that has so many unique forms of life in it, you know, polar
bears, narwhals, walrus, seals and a whole lot species that live, of course,
on the tundra around the Arctic Ocean. So they're very, very big-style
And the thing that gets me, Terry, is, I think, why are we doing this? You
know, are we doing this just so that we can drive big cars and just so we
continue to waste electricity? And if so, it seems like some kind of madness.
GROSS: Is there a tipping point with the ice where we've gone too far and
it's too late to turn back?
Mr. FLANNERY: Look, a tipping point certainly does exist, as far as the
melting of the ice caps goes. No one knows where that tipping point is but
what we do know now from looking at this shrinking Arctic ice cap and the
collapse of ice shelves around Antarctica, that we must be getting somewhat
close to it. So, you know, it's another very good argument for taking actions
sooner rather than later in terms of climate change.
GROSS: You did a lot of travel for your book on global warming. Can you tell
us about one of the stops along the way where you saw things that were of
great concern to you?
Mr. FLANNERY: Yes, well, certainly when I did my tour around Australia, you
know, I stopped in coastal Queensland and talked to people there, and you
know, the people are now building an enormous port so that Australia can
export yet more coal to the rest of the world, which will exacerbate this
problem. You know, 40 percent of the world's CO2 emissions come from burning
coal, and Australia's the biggest coal exporter. And they're just offshore
from where that port was being built. We have the Great Barrier Reef, where
the corals are dying because the water's just getting too warm for them.
You know, we've had catastrophic kills of coral now, virtually every year
since 1998, and this year saw another period of massive coral death. And on
the mountains just behind where I was speaking, some of Australia's most
ancient rain-forest diversity was under threat from that same warming, you
know, where every year, you know, we get more extreme weather events, drier
dry seasons. We have the warmer lower tropical jungle creeping up from below,
squeezing those precious, ancient cool forest relics higher and higher up the
And here again, off this year that same coast, you know, that the same warm
water that killed the corals brought this massive Category 5 cyclone right
into the middle of northeastern Queensland. So that area to me encompassed it
all. In one small area, you could see the processes going on from corals to
the very dismal effect.
GROSS: Your book was written before Hurricane Katrina. But you have an
afterword that you wrote after the hurricane, in which you address it a little
bit. Seems to me a lot of scientists who believe that the planet is warming.
A lot of those same scientists are still reluctant to say for certain whether
Hurricane Katrina is an after-effect of global warming, you know. How much
evidence do you think that there is whether there is any connection or not?
Mr. FLANNERY: Well, there is a connection, but the trouble with looking at
any single weather event is that there is a highly complex system with a fair
degree of randomness built into them, so whether Hurricane Katrina passed 200
miles from New Orleans and was a Category 3 or a Category 5 or whether it was
a direct hit on the city, all has a pretty big element of random chance and
luck in it, you know, so the damage that was caused by the hurricane, you
know, no one can say is a result of climate change. But what we can say is
that the total energy budget for hurricanes like Katrina have increased
dramatically over the last 30 years, they've increased by 60 percent.
So the chances of having these big, big hurricanes a lot and also more of that
energy budget is going to the most destructive of all hurricanes, the big
Category 4s and 5s. And we are seeing an increase in those very destructive
weather events over the last 30 years. And that will just continue. I mean,
the more we warm the atmosphere, the more water vapors can be absorbed by the
atmosphere, and water vapors is hurricane fuel, you know. So that's where the
link is. It's not any single event. You know, no one can say that Katrina
hitting New Orleans was God taking revenge for damaging the world's climate
system, but what we can say is that that sort of event is ever more likely the
more we pollute our atmosphere with these greenhouse gases.
GROSS: Tim Flannery is the author of the "The Weather Makers." He'll be back
in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, soprano saxophone before Coltrane. Kevin Whitehead reviews
a new anthology of Sidney Bechet recordings. Also critic-at-large John Powers
reviews two new documentaries. One about politics, the other about the
ecosystem. And we continue our conversation about global warming with
scientist Tim Flannery.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross, back with scientist and conservationist Tim Flannery. His
new book about global warming is called "The Weather Makers: How Man is
Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth." Flannery is a
professor at the University of Adelaide and director of the South Australia
You write a little bit in the book about how airplanes may be affecting the
climate, and as an example, you point to September 11th, and you say in a
couple of days the planes were grounded in the United States after September
11th. Temperatures rose by a couple of degrees. That would seem to me, like,
something that was completely unconnected, but what is the connection
scientists think might exist?
Mr. FLANNERY: Well, the connection really comes through this unique theory
of global dimming and what people think is that a number of things are
happening in the atmosphere that are masking the effects of climate change.
And one of the most important of those is these aircraft contrails. So
whenever you see aircraft go over head, they leave a vapor trail. And that
vapor trail can turn into cirrus clouds and that cirrus cloud reflects the
sunlight back into space. It stops it from heating the surface of the planet.
So therefore it's acting as a cooling agent. And September the 11th, you
know, for all its horrific tragedy, offered this independent experiment to
climatologists that was absolutely a unique opportunity to see what the world
was like, and particularly the Northern Hemisphere, without aircraft, without
air travel. And the results really were astonishing, actually quite
convincing, that the impact of contrails on the world's climate is actually
quite profound. I should say a couple of degrees over North America.
GROSS: So you think that planes are actually masking or might be masking the
effects of global warming?
Mr. FLANNERY: That's right. I mean, one of the things that mystifies
climate scientists is why with the massive amount of carbon dioxide that we're
putting into the atmosphere now we're not seeing more warming. And part of
the reason for that seems to be that jet aircraft and their contrails are
masking that effect. But also that particulate pollution and sulfur dioxide
pollution from burning coal is contributing to that masking effect as well.
So one of the great concerns we've got is that as people develop cleaner
fuels, particularly in China, places like that, we shall see more of a runaway
warming. So, you know, as we learn about this climate system, we realize
we've got a significant job ahead of us to coordinate our activities
internationally to make sure we can avoid the worst effects of climate change.
GROSS: I'm sorry. What you said just sounds so counterintuitive. If China
develops cleaner fuel, we will more quickly see the effects of global warming?
Mr. FLANNERY: That's right because China burns horrifically dirty coal at
the moment. If you look at China from space, you see that its cities are
black. They're just about the only cities that are black when you look at
them from space. And a lot of that is sulfur dioxide and particulate
pollution from burning these very foul, dirty coal. Once China starts
cleaning up its coal, and it will do that for health reasons--I mean, many,
many Chinese die every year from lung diseases as a result of that pollution.
We shall start to see more warming because that sulfur dioxide, those terrible
brown smogs that typify China, will start to clear up, and we'll see more of
the sunlight reaching the Earth's surface and turning into heat energy.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Flannery. He's the author
of the new book "The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What
It Means for Life on Earth."
Now you say in your book that President Bush has said he wants to be more
certain that global warming really exists before proceeding with any, you
know, policy changes. And you talk a little bit about the role of certainly
vs. the role of hypothesis in science. And I'd like to ask you to address
Mr. FLANNERY: Yeah, well, what George Bush actually says he wants more
certainty in the projections, you know, the computer models, about what will
happen, how much the Earth will warm as a result of a certain amount of CO2 in
the atmosphere. And, unfortunately, that's one of the things science can't
deliver. None of us have crystal balls. We can't predict the future with any
precision. But what we can say is that all of the modeling done suggests that
there will be a certain degree of warming, you know, somewhere between two and
11 degrees. And science is unanimous as well that two degrees is a very
substantial amount of warming. After all, the surface temperature of our
planet before the industrial revolution was only 13.7 degrees. So the
proportionate increase of two degrees on top of that is quite large. You
know, if you or I suffered a proportionate increase of temperature of that
scale, we'd be dead. So it's significant.
So, regardless of the uncertainty, the one thing we can say that the computer
models agree that, you know, we have to actually start cutting back on our CO2
emissions. Now I must say, I know this recently listening to the Bush
administration and others, there's a bit of a softening in their line about
climate change, and I must say that cannot come too soon because the United
States at the moment is being left behind in the race to capitalize on the new
intellectual property that will drive the new energy economy. And that, I
think would be a tragedy for this country.
GROSS: What do you mean? You mean because it's not being funded with federal
Mr. FLANNERY: Well, look, in the 1970s, the US was a world leader in wind
and...(unintelligible)...you know, solar panel technology. That advantage now
is being taken, that lead, by places like Japan, Denmark, the United Kingdom
and Germany. So, you know, we know that we can't go on as we are. We cannot
continue burning greenhouse gases as we are and hope to have a stable future.
The world has recognized that. Now Australia, the US, Monaco and
Liechtenstein, sort of the coalition of the unequal or something--I don't know
what they are--are the only Kyoto renegades, the only countries that haven't
recognized that, and you can see how we're being left behind. You can see
that we're not making investments in the areas that will lead to the
development of this new low emissions technology and low emissions economy.
It's so vital to our future.
You know, when--people in the US are talking about things like hydrogen
economy, which I just quite frankly don't think is going to eventuate, and
talk about geosequestration, which really means we can continue using coal as
we are and hope to somehow bury the emissions again. And these are options
that are way, way out there. You know, where the big advances are happening
is in renewables and in nuclear energy. But, you know, wind power, for
example. You know that industry's growing by 20 percent a year, massive
levels of growth, you know. So I just think that we have to move forward to
development of these new technologies and capitalize as much as we can on the
intellectual property because that's going to be the future.
GROSS: Nuclear power is not usually the favorite source of alternative energy
proponents. Why did you mention nuclear power? What are some of the changes
Mr. FLANNERY: Well, we have now seen it in China, the failure of the Chinese
to develop a significant sector of their economy driven by gas. The price of
natural gas has now just risen too high for them to be able to access it on
the open market. And a lot of the infrastructure they've built is lying idle
or underutilized. So they're falling back on coal, and that is a catastrophe
for the entire planet.
One of the few options available to economies, growing economies like China
and India, is the nuclear option. Now, look, I've been an environmentalist
all my life and have protested against nuclear energy and against uranium
mining in Australia. But I must say now I simply do not see an alternative to
development of nuclear power in those new growing economies. The need for
electricity is just so vast, and there are so few options available to them,
that nuclear power seems to me essential for the development. And, of course,
they're developing some really interesting new technologies. This year China
will open the world's first pebble bed nuclear reactor which is a 300-megawatt
station, so not a terribly large power station, but its subcritical. It can't
blow up or explode, seems to be very safe. It's innovative, it's efficient,
and I think, you know, it's a great thing for the country.
GROSS: What would you like to see the United States do in terms of preventing
further global warming?
Mr. FLANNERY: You know, what I'd love to see, I would love to see the United
States return to the enormous energy and optimism and dynamism that
characterized the country in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, you know. And to see
American industry and enterprise take up this challenge and start to invent a
new future for itself, you know. To get deeply involved in this new energy
future, to use its natural assets which are that optimism and dynamism in this
great capitalist society that's developed here. To start addressing the
problem, not being stuck as part of the problem, but start seeing itself as
part of the solution because, as I said, change is inevitable. The US could
be an enormous force for good in the world in terms of developing these new
low-emissions technologies that are required and start getting them into the
marketplace. No one knows how to do it better than the US.
GROSS: Has the Australian government been resistant to scientific findings
about global warming?
Mr. FLANNERY: Extraordinarily so, and if you think you've got it bad in the
US, then I advise you to come and visit Australia. You know, in my country,
we're the world's largest coal exporter, we've got the world's heaviest
dependency on coal for generating electricity. You know, we're per capita the
world's worst polluter. And there's a lot of people making a lot of money
from those industries. So, you know, when my book came out, I was just
relentlessly attacked and as has everyone else who's spoken out, and often
nasty personal attacks, not just, you know, attacks on the science or whatever
And so that's been dismaying for me because again my country's suffering, so
evidently suffering the impacts of climate change. I mean, with the
destruction of the Barrier Reef, you know, having every capital city virtually
in Australia now with some sort of water crisis relating back to these big
shifts in rainfall that we're seeing around the planet. Again, that was what
drove me to write the book, you know. It's, I suppose, a sense of patriotism
in a way but also a global concern. But, you know, we need to get beyond this
issue, this stupidity of arguing whether climate change exists or not and
start moving on the solutions.
GROSS: As we said earlier, you were initially skeptical about global warming
and you are no longer a skeptic. You believe it's happening and you believe
that it's a very urgent issue. Have you made any personal changes in your
life now that you believe that global warming is happening and that we need to
do everything we can to reverse the trend?
Mr. FLANNERY: Yeah, look, I certainly did, Terry. I must admit that while I
was writing the book for about 12 months, I'd wake up feeling pretty depressed
each morning to go on and continue researching it. And it's only when I came
to trying to understand what the solutions are that I started to feel much,
much more optimistic, and I thought the first thing's for me to put my own
house in order, which I literally did by covering the roof in solar panels and
making sure that I was generating my electricity from the sun. And that's
been a wonderful experiment. I've enjoyed it hugely. I'm thinner than I was
before because I use hand tools now to do my tinkering rather than power
tools. And we've bought a whole series of energy appliances that are just
much more efficient. And, yeah, there's been a cost involved with that, but
I'll never have a power bill again, you know. The solar panels I bought have
a 25-year guarantee, and I'll still be producing energy after 40 years most
likely. So that was pretty easy. And I figured if I can do it, anyone can do
GROSS: Well, Tim Flannery, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. FLANNERY: Well, thank you. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Tim Flannery is the author of "The Weather Makers." You can find an
excerpt on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, our critic-at-large John Powers reviews two new documentaries: one
about politics; the other about the ecosystem. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Film critic John Powers reviews documentaries "Our Brand
is Crisis" and "Darwin's Nightmare," both about globalization
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review of two award-winning
documentaries currently playing in theaters. "Our Brand Is Crisis" won the
top prize from the International Documentary Association, and "Darwin's
Nightmare" was nominated this year for an Academy Award. Although one is
about an election and the other about a lake, our critic-at-large John Powers
says they both show how complicated globalization can be.
Mr. JOHN POWERS: There may be no better symbol of globalization than the
airplane, which lets us speed from continent to continent but takes us so far
above the Earth it's hard to see what's actually going on down there. As it
happens, two fascinating new documentaries begin by showing us the world from
an airplane. They remind us how tricky life can be when you land.
Set during the 2002 presidential election in Bolivia, Rachel Boynton's "Our
Brand Is Crisis" treats globalization by focusing on a new kind of export,
American-style campaign consulting. Boynton follows the high-powered liberal
consulting firm of GCS, the C, by the way is James Carville, which jets into
La Paz to promote the candidacy of one Gonzales Sanchez de Lozada, who's known
as Goni. This former president wants his old job back, even though most
Bolivians dislike him for his elitist condescension and for letting foreign
investors buy up the national assets.
Boynton doesn't portray these consultants as easy villains. The GCS team
really believe that it's helping Bolivia. It sincerely thinks Goni the best
candidate, not least because he shares many ideas with Bill Clinton. And so
to help him win, they use all the usual tricks: focus groups, slick
commercials, smear campaigns. They teach Goni to hammer away at Bolivia's
so-called crisis. They want to make this his brand a strategy that's
painfully familiar. I don't know about you, but every day I get something in
the mail from both left and right asking for money to avert some crisis:
liberal judges, arsenic in our water. You see, crisis is everybody's brand.
Here GCS consultant Jeffrey Rossner talks about their strategy.
(Soundbite from "Our Brand Is Crisis")
Mr. JEFFREY ROSSNER: Before we got there, the slogan that they were using,
and by using I mean, like, writing all over the walls everywhere, OK. First
time I went to La Paz, I saw Goni, you know, as the solution. That did not
test very well at all. The solution, well, no. They thought he was the
problem at that point in time. They hardly thought he was the solution. Now,
you can't make a claim to voters that they don't believe.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. ROSSNER: You know, if we can achieve the position where Goni is the one
saying, `Yes, it can be done.'
Man: (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. ROSSNER: Offering specifics of how it can be done in a credible way, I
think we can move people to our vision, to Goni's vision. So, see, here's the
thing. It's part of a much bigger manifestation of message that we're trying
to, you know, put out there in the course of the campaign and, I mean,
hopefully, we'll be effective.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. POWERS: Against the odds, Goni wins over several rivals, getting only 22
percent of the vote. From the moment he takes office, everything boomerangs.
Eventually, Goni's chased from the country by that 78 percent of the
population that opposed him all along. Despite their good intentions, the
American consultants have helped elect a man whose presidency became a crisis.
Today, Bolivia is led by Evo Morales, who Rossner thought a dangerous populist
But if that seems a dismal irony, an even deadlier import lies at the heart of
Hubert Sauper's "Darwin's Nightmare," which opens with a jet flying over Lake
Victoria in Tanzania. It's a beautiful shot, but things turn ugly on terra
firma. You see, Victoria was once a thriving lake, but in the 1950s, it was
getting overfished. So the British colonial government released a new
species, the Nile Perch, into its waters. The idea was well-intended. But
this enormous fish turned out to be a scifi-worthy predator. It devoured all
the other fish and destroyed the lake's ecological balance. Put simply, the
Nile Perch is a Darwinian nightmare, the survivor whose fitness utterly ruined
the whole system, including the human one.
These days, the whole lake is devoted to huge fish factories that turn the
perch into small filets, which are then jetted off to Europe. Seen from the
air, by visiting dignitaries from the European Union or by slippery Tanzanian
politicians from the capital, this could be judged a triumphantly thriving
business. The big shots say that without the perch export, the locals would
have no jobs. They're not wrong, but there is one huge problem. Virtually
all the Africans around the lake live lives of staggering misery as fishermen,
fish gutters, prostitutes and homeless kids. They can't afford to buy the
perch filets, and so in a breathtaking scene, Sauper shows us what they do
eat: maggot-infested perch carcasses that a truck has dropped off in the mud.
And what flies in on those jets that take away the fish? European made
armaments to be sold in Africa. This is the other Darwinian nightmare. In
today's global economy, Western nations are the fittest while poor places like
Tanzania and Bolivia struggle just to keep alive.
Near the end of "Our Brand Is Crisis," Goni, who began the film flying over
the Bolivian countryside, is now living outside Washington, DC. And he talks
about what's blinkered in the image of jet-set consultants like Rossner and
Carville. They get fixated on appearances, images and marketing. And they
lose sight of the fact that the world is a big, dense complicated place.
Listen to his rueful words. I was briefly reminded of the great line by
novelist Philip K. Dick: Reality is that which, when you stop believing in
it, doesn't go away.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new anthology of Sidney
Bechet recordings. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "Mosaic Select," a new
Sidney Bechet anthology
TERRY GROSS, host:
These days, hundreds of jazz musicians play the soprano saxophone, the small
straight model John Coltrane made popular, but in the early decades of jazz,
the soprano was associated mostly with one musician, world traveler Sidney
Bechet. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new Bechet anthology.
(Soundable from Sidney Bechet song)
Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: In what may be the most famous review a jazz musician
ever got, in 1919, Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet praised Sidney Bechet for
his perfectly formed blues. `They were,' he wrote, `admirable equally for
their richness of invention, their force of accent and their daring novelty in
unexpected turns. Their form is gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and
pitiless ending.' Exactly. Bechet's tone was unmistakable. His heavy pulsing
tremolo and vibrato made every note push at you like a force of nature. "The
Lazy Chatter of Silence" recalls something his admirer, Steve Lacey, once told
him. `You can learn about saxophone attack from a duck.'
(Soundbite from "The Lazy Chatter of Silence")
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Sidney Bechet from a three-CD minibox of the same name in the
mail order, "Mosaic Select" series. It's a grab bag of worthy, rare and some
not-so-rare sides cut between 1923 and 1947. In that time, Bechet went from
being a jazz pioneer to a conservator of glorious traditions without altering
his style. He started out on clarinet, but by 1920 had found his voice on the
soprano sax, which has a similar range with a louder shout. That made Bechet
the first great jazz saxophonist with a supple zippy sense of swing that set
him apart from ragtime-oriented early jazzers he'd grown up around in New
Orleans. Once in a great while, he was teamed with the only horn player
strong enough to butt heads with him, fellow New Orleanian Louis Armstrong on
coronet. Neither held back. Here's Armstrong and Bechet back to back on
"Texas Moaner Blues."
(Soundbite from "Texas Moaner Blues")
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Not bad for 1924. Because Bechet spent much of his time in
Europe, he didn't record so much in the 1920s but there's a full disc of '20s
stuff in this new reissue, mostly Sidney backing classic blues singers. The
'30s were slow for him, what with swing music making New Orleans jazz sound
old hat. But the "Mosaic Box" includes a lovely odd-ball session from 1938
with baritone saxophonist Ernie Caceres and early electric guitarist Leonard
Ware. This is "Chant in the Night."
(Soundbite from "Chant in the Night")
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Sidney Bechet finally got his due in the 1940s when New
Orleans jazz made a big comeback. His chops were still in great shape. His
sound so strong and his rhythm so assured, no wobbly band could deflect him.
This is sort of where we came in. The first couple of numbers we heard were
from 1947. Bechet spent his final years as a working celebrity in France. By
the time he died in 1959, the instrument he'd had pretty much to himself, the
soprano sax, was making its own comeback, thanks to modernists like Steve
Lacey, Lucky Thompson and John Coltrane. They had their work cut out for
them. Who was going to sound grander on soprano than Bechet?
(Soundbite from jazz song)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed a new
anthology of recordings by soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet on the "Mosaic
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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