Tim Flannery

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Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery.jpg
Tim Flannery at the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists, 2007
Timothy Fridtjof Flannery

(1956-01-28) 28 January 1956 (age 65)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Alma materLa Trobe University
OrganisationClimate Council
University of Melbourne
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies[1]
Known forScientist, explorer and conservationist, and Australian writer on climate change.
Notable work
The Weather Makers
AwardsAustralian of the Year (2007)[2]

Timothy Fridtjof Flannery FAA (born 28 January 1956) is an Australian mammalogist, palaeontologist, environmentalist, conservationist,[3] explorer,[4] and public scientist. He has discovered more than 30 mammal species[5] (including new species of tree kangaroos[6]). He served as the Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission, a Federal Government body providing information on climate change to the Australian public before the Commission was abolished by the Abbott Government as its first act of government. On 23 September 2013, Flannery announced that he would join other sacked commissioners to form the independent Climate Council, that would be funded entirely by the community, and continue to provide independent climate science to the Australian public.

Flannery is a professorial fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne.

Flannery was named Australian Humanist of the Year in 2005,[7] and Australian of the Year in 2007. Until mid-2013 he was a professor at Macquarie University and held the Panasonic Chair in Environmental Sustainability.[8] He was also chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international group of business and other leaders that coordinated a business response to climate change and assisted the Danish government in the lead up to COP 15.[9] In 2015, the Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue recognized Tim Flannery for using dialogue and authentic engagement to build global consensus for action around climate change.[10] His views on shutting down conventional coal-fired power stations for electricity generation in the medium term are frequently cited in the media.


Flannery was raised in a Catholic family in the Melbourne suburb of Sandringham, close to Port Phillip Bay, where he learned to fish and scuba dive and became aware of marine pollution and its effects on living organisms.[11] He completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at La Trobe University[12] in 1977, and then took a change of direction to complete a Master of Science degree in Earth Science at Monash University in 1981.[13] He then left Melbourne for Sydney, enjoying its subtropical climate and species diversity.[14] In 1984, Flannery earned a doctorate at the University of New South Wales in Palaeontology for his work on the evolution of macropods (kangaroos).[15]

Flannery has held various academic positions throughout his career. He spent many years in Adelaide, including a spell as professor at the University of Adelaide, and 7 years as director of the South Australian Museum. He was also principal research scientist at the Australian Museum, during which time he worked to save the bandicoot population on North Head. In 1999 he held the year-long visiting chair of Australian studies at Harvard University.[16] In 2002, Flannery was appointed as chair of South Australia's [Environmental Sustainability Board (South Australia)].[17]

In 2007, Flannery became professor in the Climate Risk Concentration of Research Excellence at Macquarie University. He left Macquarie University in mid-2013. Flannery is also a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, and a Governor of WWF-Australia. He has contributed to over 143 scientific papers.[18][16]

Flannery was an advisor on climate change to South Australian Premier Mike Rann, and was a member of the Queensland Climate Change Council established by the Queensland Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation Andrew McNamara. In February 2011 it was announced that Flannery had been appointed to head the Climate Change Commission established by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to explain climate change and the need for a carbon price to the public.[19]

He owns a house with environmental features at Coba Point on the Hawkesbury River, 40 km (25 mi) north of Sydney, accessible only by boat.[20]

Climate Commission and Climate Council[edit]

On 10 February 2011, Flannery was appointed as the Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission by the Australian Government. The Commission was a panel of leading scientists and business experts whose mandate was to provide an "independent and reliable" source of information for all Australians.[21]

On 19 September 2013, Flannery was sacked from his position as head of the Climate Commission in a phone call from new Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt. "It was a short and courteous conversation," Flannery recalls. "I'm pretty sure that cabinet hadn't been convened when they did it. My very strong recollection is that it was [the Abbott Government's] very first act in government... The website that we'd spent a lot of time building was taken down with absolutely no justification as far as I could see. It was giving basic information that was being used by many, many people—teachers and others—just to gain a better understanding of what climate science was actually about."[22] It was also announced that the Commission would be dismantled and its remit handled by the Department of Environment.[23][24]

By 6 October 2013, Flannery and the other commissioners had launched a new body called the Climate Council. Flannery told ABC News that the organisation stated that it had the same goals as the former Climate Commission, to provide independent information on the science of climate change. Amanda McKenzie was appointed as CEO. Between 24 September and 6 October the new Climate Council had raised $1 million in funding from a public appeal, sufficient to keep the organisation operating for 12 months.[25] The Climate Council continues to exist based on donations from the general public.

The Climate Council is now Australia's leading climate change communications organisation. It provides authoritative, expert advice to the Australian public on climate change and solutions based on the most up-to-date science available. [26] Flannery is the Chief Councillor for the Climate Council, and in this role is a regular media commentator, speaker at events, and co-author of reports on climate science and energy. [27]

Scientific contributions[edit]


Flannery's early research concerned the evolution of mammals in Australasia. As part of his doctoral studies, he described 29 new fossil kangaroo species including 11 new genera and three new subfamilies. In the 1990s, Flannery published The Mammals Of New Guinea (Cornell Press) and Prehistoric Mammals Of Australia and New Guinea (Johns Hopkins Press), the most comprehensive reference works on the subjects. Through the 1990s, Flannery surveyed the mammals of Melanesia—discovering 29 new species—and took a leading role in conservation efforts in the region.[28]

The specific name of the greater monkey-faced bat (Pteralopex flanneryi), described in 2005, honours Flannery.[29]

Flannery's work prompted Sir David Attenborough to describe him as being "in the league of the all-time great explorers like Dr David Livingstone".[30]


In 1980, Flannery discovered dinosaur fossils on the southern coast of Victoria and in 1985 had a role in the ground-breaking discovery of Cretaceous mammal fossils in Australia. This latter find extended the Australian mammal fossil record back 80 million years. During the 1980s, Flannery described most of the known Pleistocene megafaunal species in New Guinea as well as the fossil record of the phalangerids, a family of possums.[28]

Work on population and land use[edit]

In 1994, Flannery published The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People.

The synopsis of the work regards three waves of human migration in these regions. These waves of people Flannery describes as "future eaters". The first wave was the migration to Australia and New Guinea from Southeast Asia approximately 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. The second was Polynesian migration to New Zealand and surrounding islands 800 to 3,500 years ago.[31] The third and final wave Flannery describes is European colonisation at the end of the 18th century.

Flannery describes the evolution of the first wave of future-eaters:

Sixty thousand or more years ago human technology was developing at what we would consider to be an imperceptible pace. Yet it was fast enough to give the first Australasians complete mastery over the ‘new lands’. Freed from the ecological constraints of their homeland and armed with weapons honed in the relentless arms race of Eurasia, the colonisers of the ‘new lands’ were poised to become the world’s first future eaters.[32]

While the book continues to be controversial in some of its hypotheses, it is a call to arms to preserve the Australasian natural heritage.

Flannery argues the hypothesis that at current population growth rate levels, Australasia is living beyond its population-carrying capacity, to the extent that its biological stability has been damaged. European colonisation of Australia and New Caledonia brought its own artefacts and ways suitable in the 'old world', and yet struggle to adapt its "culture to biological reality".[33][non-primary source needed] This reality is evident in Australia, where unpredictable climate combined with a lack of natural life giving resources have created a flora and fauna that have adapted over millennia to be extraordinarily efficient in the consumption of energy.[34][non-primary source needed]

The Future Eaters enjoyed strong sales and critical acclaim. Redmond O'Hanlon, a Times Literary Supplement correspondent said that "Flannery tells his beautiful story in plain language, science popularising at its antipodean best". Fellow activist David Suzuki praised Flannery's "powerful insight into our current destructive path". Some experts disagreed with Flannery's thesis, however, concerned that his broad-based approach, ranging across multiple disciplines, ignored counter-evidence and was overly simplistic.[35]

The Future Eaters was made into a documentary series for ABC Television and was republished in late 2013.

Views on environmental issues[edit]

Climate change[edit]

In May 2004 Flannery said, in light of the city's water crisis, that, "I think there is a fair chance Perth will be the 21st century's first ghost metropolis".,[36] a warning reiterated in 2007.[37] In April 2005, he said, "water is going to be in short supply across the eastern states".[38] In June 2005 warning that "the ongoing drought could leave Sydney's dams dry in just two years".[39][40] Water security remains a major issue across eastern Australia.

In September 2005 Flannery said, "There are hot rocks in South Australia that potentially have enough embedded energy in them to run Australia's economy for the best part of a century".[41][42] Also for the Cooper Basin, he proposed the establishment of a fully sustainable city where, "hundreds of thousands of people would live", utilising these geothermal energy reserves. He named the city, "Geothermia".[43][44] Subsequently, in 2007, an exploration company was established. The company expected to raise at least $11.5m on the Australian Stock Exchange.[45] Flannery took up shares in the company.[46] In 2010, the Federal Government provided the company with another $90m for the development work.[47] In August 2016, the geothermal energy project closed as it was not financially viable.[48][49]

In October 2006 Flannery quoted a US Navy study stating that, there may be, "no Arctic icecap in Summer in the next five to 15 years. He also quoted NASA's Professor James Hansen, "arguably the world authority on climate change" who said, "we have just a decade to avert a 25-metre rise of the sea".[50] In February 2007, as he explained how increased soil evaporation impacts on runoff, he said "even the [existing amount of] rain that falls isn't actually going to fill our dams and our river systems" [51] and in June 2007, he said that, "Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane, water supplies are so low they need desalinated water urgently, possibly in as little as 18 months".[52]

Flannery has long spoken out about the impacts of climate change in Australia and internationally. In 2019 Flannery said, "Sadly, I've been aware of [the urgency to act] for a long time. We have to reduce emissions as hard and fast as possible... The speed and scale of impacts have been something that is really shocking." He contined to warn people that, "People are shocked, but they should be angry...The consequences will grow year by year, and stuff we were warning people about 20 years ago is now coming to fruition and is impossible to deny, unless you are wilfully blind."[53]

Carbon emissions[edit]

In The Weather Makers: The History & Future Impact of Climate Change, Flannery outlined the science behind anthropogenic climate change. "With great scientific advances being made every month, this book is necessarily incomplete," Flannery writes, but "That should not, however, be used as an excuse for inaction. We know enough to act wisely."

Concepts outlined in the book include:

  • that a failure to act on climate change may eventually force the creation of a global carbon dictatorship, which he calls the "Earth Commission for Thermostatic Control", to regulate carbon use across all industries and nations—a level of governmental intrusion that Flannery describes as "very undesirable";[54] and
  • the establishment of "Geothermia"[43]—a new city at the NSW-South Australia-Queensland border—to take advantage of the location's abundance of natural gas reserves, geothermal and solar energy. Flannery argues that such a city could be completely energy self-sufficient, and would be a model for future city development worldwide. Of the city project, Flannery told The Bulletin that "I know it's radical but we have no choice".

The book won international acclaim. Bill Bryson concluded that "It would be hard to imagine a better or more important book." The Weather Makers was honoured in 2006 as 'Book of the Year' at the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards.[55]

Flannery's work in raising the profile of environmental issues was key to his being named Australian of the Year in 2007.[56] Awarding the prize, former Prime Minister John Howard said that the scientist "has encouraged Australians into new ways of thinking about our environmental history and future ecological challenges."[57]

That said, Howard—along with many others—remains unconvinced as to Flannery's proposed solutions. Flannery joined calls for the cessation/reduction of conventional coal-fired power generation in Australia in the medium term, the source of most of the nation's electricity. Flannery claims that conventional coal burning will lose its social license to operate, as has asbestos.[58]

Tim Flannery speaking at the Peoples Climate March in Melbourne, September 2014

In response to the introduction of proposed clean coal technology, Flannery has stated: "Globally there has got to be some areas where clean coal will work out, so I think there will always be a coal export industry [for Australia] ... Locally in Australia because of particular geological issues and because of the competition from cleaner and cheaper energy alternatives, I'm not 100 per cent sure clean coal is going to work out for our domestic market."[59]

In 2006 Flannery was in support of nuclear power as a possible solution for reducing Australia's carbon emissions;[60][61] however, in 2007 changed his position against it.[62] In May 2007 he told a business gathering in Sydney that while nuclear energy does have a role elsewhere in the world, Australia's abundance of renewable resources rule out the need for nuclear power in the near term. He does, however, feel that Australia should and will have to supply its uranium to those other countries that do not have access to renewables like Australia does.[63]

In May 2008 Flannery created controversy by suggesting that sulphur could be dispersed into the atmosphere to help block the sun leading to global dimming, in order to counteract the effects of global warming.[64]

In August 2017 Flannery hosted an episode of ABC Catalyst investigating how carefully managed seaweed growth could contribute to combating climate change via the sequestration of atmospheric carbon to the ocean floor. This explored the details of the book he published in July 2017, 'Sunlight and Seaweed: An Argument for How to Feed, Power and Clean Up the World'. In January 2018 Flannery appeared on the ABC's Science program exploring whether humans are becoming a new 'Mass Extinction Event', in addition to outlining the '5 Things You Need to Know About Climate Change'.

During the devastating Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20, Flannery frequently appeared in the media [65] [66] [67] to discuss the links between climate change and the unprecedented bushfires, stating, "I am absolutley certain that [the bushfires are] climate change caused."[68]

Sustainable whaling[edit]

When, in the concluding chapters of The Future Eaters (1994), Flannery discusses how to "utilise our few renewable resources in the least destructive way", he remarks that

A far better situation for conservation in Australia would result from a policy which allows exploitation of all of our biotic heritage, provided that it all be done in a sustainable manner. ... [I]f it is possible to harvest for example, 10 mountain pygmy-possums (Burramys parvus) or 10 southern right whales (Balaena glacialis) per year, why should we not do it? ... Is it more moral to kill and consume a whale, without cost to the environment, than to live as a vegetarian in Australia, destroying seven kilograms of irreplaceable soil, ... for each kilogram of bread we consume?[69]

In late 2007, Flannery suggested that the Japanese whaling involving the relatively common minke whale may be sustainable:

In terms of sustainability, you can't be sure that the Japanese whaling is entirely unsustainable... It's hard to imagine that the whaling would lead to a new decline in population [...][70]

This raised concerns among some environmental groups such as Greenpeace,[71][72] fearing it could add fuel to the Japanese wish of continuing its annual cull. In contrast to his stance on the minke whale quota, Flannery has expressed relief over the dumping of the quota of the rarer humpback whale,[70] and further was worried how whales were slaughtered, wishing them to be "killed as humanely as possible".[73] Flannery suggested that krill and other small crustaceans, the primary food source for many large whales and an essential part of the marine food chain, were of greater concern than the Japanese whaling.[73]

Species acclimatisation[edit]

The Chacoan peccary can be brought from Paraguay to North America, to replace the extinct flat-headed peccary.

In The Future Eaters, Flannery was critical of the European settlers introducing non-native wild animals into Australia's ecosystem. At the same time, he suggested that if one wanted to reproduce, in some parts of Australia, the ecosystems that existed there around 60,000 years ago (before the arrival of the humans on the continent), it may be necessary to introduce into Australia, in a thoughtful and careful way, some non-native species that would be the closest substitutes to the continent's lost megafauna. In particular, the Komodo dragon can be brought into Australia as a replacement for its extinct relative, Megalania, "the largest goanna of all time". The Tasmanian devil could also be allowed to re-settle the mainland Australia from its Tasmanian refuge area.[74]

In The Eternal Frontier, Flannery made a proposal for what later became nicknamed "Pleistocene rewilding": restoring the ecosystems that existed in North America before the arrival of the Clovis people and the concomitant disappearance of the North American Pleistocene megafauna 13,000 years ago. He wonders if, in addition to the wolves that have been already re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park, ambush predators, such as jaguars and lions should be reintroduced there as well, in order to bring the number of elk under control. Furthermore, the closest extant relatives of the species that became extinct around the Clovis period could be introduced to North America's nature reserves as well. In particular, the Indian and African elephants could substitute, respectively, for the mammoth and the mastodon; the Chacoan peccary, for its extinct cousin the flat-headed peccary (Platygonus compressus). Llamas and panthers, which still survive outside of the US, should too be brought back to that country.[75]


Flannery has achieved prominence through his environmental activism. His advocacy on two issues in particular, population levels and carbon emissions, culminated in being named Australian of the Year (2007) at a time when environmental issues were becoming prominent in Australian public debate.[citation needed]

He is a member of the World Future Council.[citation needed]


In 2009, Flannery joined the project "Soldiers of Peace", a move against all wars and for a global peace.[76][77]

In July 2018 he played a role in the Kwaio Reconciliation programme in the Solomon Islands, which put an end to a 91-year-old cycle of killings that stemmed from the murders in 1927 of British Colonial officers Bell and Gillies by Kwaio leader Basiana and his followers.[citation needed]




  • Flannery, Timothy (1990). Mammals of New Guinea. Carina, Qld.: Robert Brown & Associates.
  • Flannery, Tim Fridtjof (1994). The Future Eaters: an ecological history of the Australasian lands and people. Reed Books.
  • Tim Flannery (1994), Possums of the World : Monograph of the Phalangeroidea (ISBN 0-646-14389-1).
  • Flannery, Timothy (1995). Mammals of New Guinea (New ed.). Chatswood, NSW: Reed/Australian Museum.
  • Tim Flannery (1995), Mammals of the South-West Pacific & Moluccan Islands (ISBN 0-7301-0417-6).
  • Tim Flannery, Roger Martin and Alexandra Szalay. (1996) Tree Kangaroos: A Curious Natural History.
  • Tim Flannery (1998), Throwim Way Leg: An Adventure (ISBN 1-876485-19-1).
  • Tim Flannery (2001), The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples (ISBN 0-8021-3888-8).
  • John A. Long, Michael Archer, Tim Flannery and Suzanne Hand (2002), Prehistoric Mammals of Australia and New Guinea: One Hundred Million Years of Evolution, Johns Hopkins Press (ISBN 978-0-801872-23-5).
  • Tim Flannery & Peter Schouten (2001), A Gap in Nature (ISBN 1-876485-77-9).
  • Tim Flannery & Peter Schouten (2004), Astonishing Animals (ISBN 1-920885-21-8).
  • Tim Flannery (2005), Country: A Continent, a Scientist & a Kangaroo (ISBN 1-920885-76-5).
  • Tim Flannery (2005), The Weather Makers: The History & Future Impact of Climate Change (ISBN 1-920885-84-6).
  • Tim Flannery (2007), Chasing Kangaroos: A Continent, a Scientist, and a Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Creature (ISBN 978-0-8021-1852-3).
  • Tim Flannery (2009), Now or Never: A sustainable future for Australia? (ISBN 978-1-86395-429-7).[80]
  • Tim Flannery (2009), Now or Never: Why we need to act now for a sustainable future (ISBN 978-1-55468-604-9).[81]
  • Tim Flannery (2010), Here on Earth, ISBN 978-1-921656-66-8[82]
  • Tim Flannery (2011), Among the Islands: Adventures in the Pacific (ISBN 978-1-921758-75-1).
  • Tim Flannery (2015), Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press (ISBN 978-0802124067).[83] Published in the United Kingdom with the title Atmosphere of Hope: Solutions to the Climate Crisis, Penguin Books (ISBN 9780141981048).
  • Tim Flannery (2017), Sunlight and Seaweed: An Argument for How to Feed, Power and Clean Up the World
  • Tim Flannery (2018), Europe: A Natural History, Text Publishing, ISBN 9781925603941
  • Tim Flannery (2019), Life: Selected Writings, Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922268297
  • Tim Flannery (2020), The Climate Cure: Solving the Climate Emergency in the Era of COVID-19, Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922330352
As editor

Book reviews[edit]

Year Review article Work(s) reviewed
2007 Flannery, Tim (28 June 2007). "We're living on corn!". The New York Review of Books. 54 (11): 26–28. PMID 17595729.
2019 Flannery, Tim (7–20 March 2019). "Our twisted DNA". The New York Review of Books. 66 (4): 38–39.
  • Zimmer, Carl. She has her mother's laugh : the powers, perversions, and potential of heredity. Dutton.
2020 "The First Mean Streets", The New York Review of Books, vol. LXVII, no. no. 4 (12 March 2020), pp. 31–32
  • Monica L. Smith, Cities: The First 6,000 Years, Viking, 2019
  • James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale University Press, 2017

Tim Flannery, "In the Soup" (review of Michael Marshall, The Genesis Quest: The Geniuses and Eccentrics on a Journey to Uncover the Origins of Life on Earth, University of Chicago Press, 360 pp.), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXVII, no. 19 (3 December 2020), pp. 37–38.

Television series[edit]

  • Two Men in a Tinnie (2006) with John Doyle
  • Two in the Top End (2008) with John Doyle
  • Two on the Great Divide (2012) with John Doyle
  • Two Men in China (2014) with John Doyle


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