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May 08th 2018 print

Michael Kile

Kelp, Flannery’s Latest Brainwave

Apparently, if humanity would only listen, the planet could be saved from the ravages of global warming if we were to cultivate seaweed and then consign it to the ocean depths. It's the latest grand scheme from the man who promoted 'hot rocks' salvation

seaweed manTwo indefatigable disciples of Jeremiah for the price of a few cheers is a bargain in any language, but especially when the dialect of choice is climate babble. So it was at the earthy 2018 WOMADelaide’s carbon-neutral Planet Talks, where one of those warmist specimens, a resurgent Tim Flannery, revealed his latest eco-bright idea: salvation by seaweed.

Climate babble, n., 1. Silly or sincere speech about the climate and its effects, esp. the use of words or phrases designed to alarm, give an impression of authenticity, knowledge, precision, etc., such as: becoming obvious, not inconsistent with, in all likelihood, almost inevitable, not a moment to lose, carbon-negative technology, gut feeling, robust, runaway, tipping point, etc. 2. Climate-babbler: a person skilled in the art of climate babble. Syn., driveller, haruspex, snake oil salesperson. E.g.: “A decade ago climate experts were deeply worried; now they are terrified, tearful, traumatised and shaking in their sneakers.”

ABC Science Show’s legendary presenter, self-described “Methuselah” Robyn Williams was the other carbonphobic, teamed up for a fascinating “live” conversation with 60-year-old Flannery; mammalogist, palaeontologist, activist, explorer, discoverer of the greater monkey-faced bat, Pteralopex flanneryi, and author. His latest tome is Sunlight and Seaweed and it was assiduously promoted in their chat, all 51 minutes of which can be heard here.

Williams and Flannery go back a long way. The latter was a director of the South Australian Museum for seven years, from 1999. Williams, now a bequest ambassador for the Australian Museum Trust, was its president for eight years from 1986 and retains the title President Emeritus. It must be very nice to have friends with a taxpayer-funded national broadcaster at their disposal when you are trying to flog a book that presents seaweed as the salvation of mankind.

Be that as it may, Williams spent time at the beginning explaining as best he could how it was a person whose first degree was in literature and the arts became a naturalist, then morphed from director of a state museum into a national-treasure climate change guru.

Flannery: I am truly pleased to be in South Australia because this state is not only leading Australia but also the world in many ways as we address climate change. (Applause.) From the outside, the state looks as if it has been going at light-speed towards a future we all want to get to. Today, on many occasions wind is producing fifty per cent of your electricity and is a major export. (2.30min.) You have also in the last few months put in the world’s largest grid-connected lithium battery – amazing to see that happen – so once again congratulations. I want to take my hat off to you guys. You are showing the rest of the world how to do it. If the rest of the world was doing what you’re doing, we would have the biggest part of the climate problem a very long way to being solved. (Applause).

This will be news to many, including science writer, false-fact finder and domestic energy grid critic, Joanne Nova. On 25January this year the South Australian government demolished the Playford B Plant smoke stack, one its cheapest base-load electricity generators, in an “ideological anti-coal quest.”

Nova: For about $8 million a year over three years, they could have kept some coal power going and wouldn’t have needed to spend $400 million on emergency diesel generators they don’t want to use, and over $100 million on a battery that can supply 4% of the state for one hour. They also would’ve paid less than $120 million for two days of electricity last week. On the upside, they can feel good and pretend to be “world leaders”. Virtue signalling is expensive, eh? (Nova, 25 January, 2018, here)

The bizarre episode eerily resembled a twenty-first century cargo cult: build more spinning towers (or whatever) to honour the gods of renewable energy, blow up or close what Flannery and Williams described as “unfashionable” or “dinosaur” industries, and Great Flying Pig energy will flow to an appliance near you. All it will cost to fund the biggest boondoggle in history is faith in Gaia’s high priests — and a hundred billion dollars a year (the cargo) paid into the Green Climate Fund for a very long time

Patrols of the Australian Government venturing into the “uncontrolled” central highlands of New Guinea in 1946 found the primitive people there swept up in a wave of religious excitement. Prophecy was being fulfilled: The arrival of the Whites [RE] was the sign that the end of the world was at hand. The natives proceeded to butcher all of their pigs-animals that were not only a principal source of subsistence but also symbols of social status and ritual pre-eminence in their culture. They killed these valued animals in expression of the belief that after three days of darkness “Great Pigs” would appear from the sky. (Scientific American, May, 1959)

With regard to the looming atmospheric anarchy, Flannery was on the same page as UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa. At the roll-out of a new report on April 30, she said it was “the single biggest threat to life, security and prosperity on Earth”, and presumably to the global bureaucracy whose credibility – and funding – depends on maintaining the fear, if not rage. But would a mere “gender action plan” increase female participation “in responding to global warming”? One hopes so. Poor Gaia would welcome a dramatic decline in anthropogenic population growth.

The world, however, was way behind South Australia in the self-immolation game. So it really must pull its collective finger out now.

Flannery: Just how far we are behind is shown by the raw figures that dictate the extent of climate change. On 4 March 2018, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was 410 parts per million. It is rising at an unprecedented rate. And the rate of warming being driven by it is rising at about one hundred times faster than at any other period in geological history. So we are facing very severe problems in coming decades unless we pull out all stops…We are entering what I would call the acute stage of the climate problem. But we haven’t seen mass systemic change yet on the scale almost certainly to come…Maybe we can start improving things by the 2040s, but only if we pull our finger out now. We’ve just missed the chance to get in early and solve the problem. So we not only must cut emissions from all human sources as fast as we can, but we also have to develop carbon-negative technology that will remove [carbon dioxide] gas from the air to minimize future impacts from runaway climate change.”

Carbon capitalists please note: there are some big opportunities still to be grasped. One of the largest is a “carbon-negative technology” that South Australia is, according to Flannery, uniquely positioned to take up: seaweed. (11.50min.). Help is at hand, in the form of kelp sequestered in the deep ocean.

Flannery: If we can grow seaweed in areas where we can get some of the crop into the deep ocean, we’re on a winner. We can sequester lots and lots of carbon dioxide. South Australia has the cold nutrient-rich water and a marine topography uniquely suited to sequestration. Most of the seaweed in the deep oceans seems to get there through submarine canyons. One of the largest and deepest is right here off Kangaroo Island; four kilometers deep and a superhighway for taking kelp down there and out of the system, along with all the carbon that’s in it. What you need now is investment. You people and your vote has never been more important. (13.0min.)

On one subject, however, there was deafening silence: geothermal energy, hot rocks and the ill-fated Geodynamics saga. Yet a decade ago it occupied the place of kelp today in Flannery’s  and, indeed, the national Labor government’s enthusiasms. It all seemed as easy as baking apple pie.

An extract from an ABC PM interview with him on 9 February 2007 (here):

ABC: Geothermal energy is still in it’s infancy in Australia, with experimental sites in South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, but none as yet connected to Australia’s electricity grid.

One of the industry’s greatest proponents is Australian of the Year, Dr Tim Flannery, who told ABC’s Lateline program that the electricity source is one of Australia’s most reliable options for reducing carbon [dioxide] emissions.

Flannery: There are hot rocks in South Australia that potentially have enough embedded energy in them to run the Australian economy for the best part of a century.
Now, they’re not being fully exploited yet but the technology to extract that energy and turn it into electricity is relatively straightforward.

And the rest is history. The ASX-listed geothermal company changed its name in late 2016 to ReNu Energy. It would focus instead on solar PV, battery storage and hybrid energy, leaving the Cooper Basin to the roos and dingbats. But Flannery is still Flannery. (here)

As for question time, if there were climate deniers in the WOMADelaide audience they kept quiet, presumably to avoid becoming victims of a lynch mob. Williams, however, asked a valid one, given comments like this in cyberspace:

My wife and I have decided that every inch of rain that we measure in the rain gauge will now be called a Flannery, in honour of the great scientist and former Australian of the Year. It’s catching on. The whole neighbourhood is now using it. We had 87mm last week, almost three Flanneries. There is now a sign at the local shop and the owner calls them Flanneries too. We are determined never to forget him. (John, listener, Talking Lifestyle radio, 1 March, 2012)

Here is the exchange:

Williams: Do you get put off by being attacked for the hundredth time in the papers?

Flannery: God, I’ve got the skin of a rhinoceros by now. It’s like a game of rugby, right? We’ve got possession of the ball. We’re running for the try line. We’ve made some steps forward. Every bugger on the other side is going to be using every tactic – legal and illegal – to trip you up before you get there. So we’ve just got to keep pushing. Don’t worry about them. Just watch the ball and the game. (Applause). (28min.)

Williams: Why do you think it’s coming from certain forces? Can you guess?

Flannery: Look, old men don’t like losing power. (Applause.) I’m an old man myself. But what it comes down to, Robyn, is that people don’t like change. If you’ve done very well under the old system you like change even less. There’s a lot of ego there as well. People who have built fossil fuel industries, their ego [and shareholder money] is tied up in that old world.

Question (audience): Is it a last ditch effort for these fossil fuel type projects?

Flannery: My gut feeling is it’s a last ditch effort. If we look at oil and gas exploration in the Gulf and Bight, my guess is there would be a number of years of exploration there. The old dinosaur industries are making a bet that their oil and gas will be worth extracting a decade on. My gut feeling is that’s wrong. We’re in a state of great transition. The dinosaur’s been shot in the head, but its tail is still moving.”

Question (audience): When you talk about the impact at the top, the power grab that we see going on from the political characters such as Trump, Putin, and people behind the big fossil fuel and chemical companies; and you talk about character traits such as narcissism, ego, power-grabbing, it suggests to me a predatory nature – a parallel with the recent phenomenon of #MeToo. In the same way I think there’s a hug need to expose these people, even though they may say they are elected and so on. I think there’s a level of exposure that needs to happen. So do you think we need a social media grab that goes out to say this is no longer acceptable? It is a persistent violation. When will it stop? (Applause.)   (47min.)

Flannery: I’ve been waiting for it! #MeToo looked so powerful. But it’s just one form of predation on the rest of society. Unless we act to protect our own interests, they will remain in power. We need to act in concert in a way that goes beyond voting – the representational system is broken – to something else. So I agree with you.

The South Australian election was held a week after the talk, on March 17, 2018. The result was clear in a few hours (here). Kelp dreaming, storage batteries, RE evangelism and #MeToo mania were unable to save the day.

Sixteen years of Labor government ended, Steven Marshall became the Liberal Premier and Nick Xenophon left the political stage. Gaia giveth, but Gaia can taketh away too.

Michael Kile reviewed Tim Flannery’s book, Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope, in the April 2011 edition of Quadrant. He also discussed species resurrection (mammoths) with him over a glass of Watershed 2007 Shades shiraz merlot cabernet at the Perth International Arts Festival opening night/book launch party that year.

Comments [5]

  1. en passant says:

    How can you stand the job of listening to these greenfools seriously pontificating on how many ‘Flim-Fannery’s’ can fit into a CO2 molecule. Surely it would be much more fun going to a real kindy and listening to the opinions of 3-year-olds? And more constructive.

  2. Jody says:

    Robin Williams’ uncritical discussion with Tim (Flim) Flannery is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the ABC. This is the same man, after all, whose partner is Jonica Newby of the dodgy ‘Quantum” episode which argued that medication to reduce cholesterol couldn’t stop heart attacks. These rent-seekers are really modern-day narcissists where opinion masks as fact. They’re going to love somebody like Flannery who confirms their own ideologies, prejudices and opinions. Time to pull the plug on these neo-Marxist ingenues.

  3. wstarck says:

    Global harvesting of all marine plants is a $12 billion industry producing about 30 million tonns per year. If all of it were dumped in the deep sea it would amount to only about 0.1% of global GHG emissions at a cost of billions of dollars to produce but with no financial return. And, this is the kind of academic thinking that get you labeled a denialist if you dare to question it.

    • Jacob Jonker says:

      Take it one step further. Harvest algae and such like in fresh water and marine plants, such as kelp and seaweed in seawater, for human consumption, and use the human waste to bring back some life into the depleted soils. I remember reading about a soil scientist calculting how many tonnes, or tons, of topsoil were lost for every tonne/ton of grain produced. This was about the Darling Downs, I think, but is applicable to most soils, depending on whether they are farmed in a proper manner or essentially mined, as most farmers in the new world have done. Even now, in Holland, for instance, one can see soil erosion on sandy soils with some types of cropping. The loss of the sandy soil is no big deal. It blows away and settles somewhere further on, but the little organic content in the soil simply burns up, oxidises in the drying wind. The solution is to cover the arable fields with slurry at certain times of the year, when it may legally be spread, and taking into account the type of crop, say, sugar- or fodder beet. So the slurry is spread and the methane and other gasses are quickly passed into the atmosphere, to be taken up elsewhere by plant life. Temporarily increasing the level of nitrous oxides and CO2 in the air, I suppose. Plant more trees? I do my share.
      The loss of organic matter in soils due to farming and general land clearing is quite considerable in our day and age, say, since the industrial revolution, but man-induced desertification is apparently as old as agricultural itself.

      • Jacob Jonker says:

        Correction: I meant to say “nitrogen oxides”. Of nitrous oxide there is only one, apparently. Where would we be without the internet, or a library full of books. Chemistry was never my forte. Anyway, laughing gas; Of course, since artificial manures, fertiliser, the farmers have upped production per acre/ha enormously, especially the sand “farmers” in Holland, who, since the advent of slurry have been literally laughing all the way to the bank. Every so often they would get caught with too much debt and a glut of pigs/chickens/eggs in the market. But, CAP came to the rescue. The EU common agricultural policy. Meant, I thought, originally to stop efficient farmers and those with deep pockets or borrowing ability to buy up everyone else and amalgate holdings to turn a historico-cultural lndscape so beloved of tourists and romantics into a desert, it turned out to be a pork barreling exercise to grease the wheels of the European federation projet( I thought it was a French project. What is German for project?). Anyway, the sand farmers in Holland were and are good when it comes to animal husbandry and political lobbying. 10 thousand pigs on a smallholding of 20 or 25 acres, or 20 thousand pigs, 50 thousand chickens, a hundred milkers, that kind of thing. The slurry would be spread over the sand and washed in with spray irrigation-water pumped up from below, as the ditches are soon dry, or indeed, on sandy soils, mostly dry, especially in summer. The groundwater would already be rich iwth nutrients from the slurries washed down earlier. This went on for decades. Even on bright sunny drying days the slurry would be spread as the tanks would be full and had to be emptied regularly. Normally, the grass would burn off in no time at all, but the irrigation spraying would wash the slurry down quickly enough. In due course, regulation put a legal stop to most of this waste, and the impost on Council who had to purify the groundwater before pushing it through the pipes, mixed with water from the Rhine and sewerage water, to reticulate it as drinking water. The regulations soon became an extra burden on the real farmers in the north and west of the Netherlands.
        Ah well, breaking the rules is now so well established due to corruptive subsidies and exponentially growing red tape, some day it will blow up.