Tim Flannery: No counsel of despair

Chief Councillor of the Australian Climate Council, Professor Tim Flannery, talked to a packed first-day ICA audience about the true scale of the world’s climate problem.

While sobering, his speech was not a counsel of despair, as Professor Flannery called for global cooperation – and for actuaries to play their part.

In a bracing opening to his speech, Professor Flannery reminded the audience that one-third of the greenhouse gases ever emitted were released into the atmosphere over the past 15 years.

It was, he said, “a very, very large increase in a very short time. And there are consequences we’ll grapple to deal with.”

Professor Tim Flannery presenting at ICA2023.

According to Professor Flannery, the scale of the problem is now truly apparent to most – with climate change and its effects part of our lived experience, whether through floods, droughts, fire or other extreme weather events. And it’s going to get worse almost regardless of what we do. The lagged effect of previous emissions is a key issue – it takes 20 years for CO2 to reach its ‘full warming potential’.

What does this mean for us all?

According to the former palaeontologist (he once dug up a tree kangaroo fossil that was four million years old), weather conditions we consider extreme today will become the norm in the 2030s. We’re in danger of reaching key environmental tipping points – including the loss of mountain glaciers and the slowing of ocean currents with severe effects on global weather patterns and ocean productivity.

Sea level rises will become a much bigger issue than they are today as ice sheets melt and the complex climatic system changes.

Just how bad could it get in human terms? Professor Flannery believes that if temperatures get out of control and reach two degrees above the pre-industrial average by 2100, then 94% of Shanghai will be under water. That’s a potential population of nearly 30 million forced into extraordinary adaption – via bunding, construction of new sea walls and more.

No counsel of despair

Yet this litany of challenging projections is no counsel of despair (an “expression of hopelessness or resignation”). Whilst we need to be realistic and every fraction of a degree makes a difference, there are grounds for hope. Professor Flannery believes we are now making strides on mitigation in Australia, on course to transform the electricity system and take fossil fuels out of the system by the early 2030s.

While Australia today is already investing in adaptation, he believes the big questions are around where to best spend that adaptation budget to minimise the costs and the most adverse impacts.

In one telling metaphor, Professor Flannery equated our approach to the climate change issue to that of Australia’s Covid response.

“First, we focused on slowing down infection and sparing the hospital system. That meant shutting down flights from China, paying the economic costs and restricting personal liberties in the hope that we can stop the problem from getting bigger. That’s the sort of approach we need now.”

“There will be costs, but that’s because the consequences and costs in the future will be far higher.” 

Professor Tim Flannery participating in the Q&A portion of his presentation that was chaired by Actuaries Institute CEO, Elayne Grace.

He continued the analogy, calling for a vaccine for climate change and identifying that vaccine as the ability to get carbon out of the air and to build out a clean energy system.

It won’t be easy. According to his calculations, for Australia to punch above its weight and cut emissions by 75% this decade would require:

  • A doubling of solar installations
  • A tripling of wind installations
  • A sixfold increase in clean energy generation by 2050
  • A 24 times increase in transmission capacity and a 20 times increase in electricity storage capacity.


According to Professor Flannery, these goals are not impossible.

“But they will be expensive and require unprecedented political and structural change and co-operation at a global level.”

Science that saves

Science, of course, is a huge part of the solution. There is a slew of examples where new technologies are making unthought of progress possible. Decarbonising the food cycle will be easier because some companies are producing quality protein in vats using bacteria. That’s protein available to us that’s independent of the climate system.

Similarly, there are projects using seaweed to efficiently draw CO2 out of the atmosphere. Professor Flannery also outlined the potential of silicate rocks like olivine. One kilo of olivine spread on the soil can draw 1.5 kilos of CO2 out of the atmosphere and enhance crop production.

A voice of hope and a role for actuaries  

In Professor Flannery’s most telling image, he described the multifaceted problem of climate change as a threat that needs to be dealt with as a whole, “like a body where the temperature of every organ is rising.”

He sees a role for actuaries in this era-defining cause. “No one can see the whole solution, but actuaries who understand data and think about things deeply can play a leading role in achieving what needs to be done.”

LTR: Rade Musulin, Jacki Johnson, Natalie Hurtado, Professor Tim Flannery and Elayne Grace.

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