“I hope I haven’t scared my kids too much!”: Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning. Photo: James Alcock/supplied.

Ahead of moderating an event at the Antidote festival, author and journalist Paddy Manning speaks to Gary Nunn about climate change, News Corp and how writers make ends meet. 

Paddy Manning is feeling terrified.

The journalist and author of five books, including last year’s Body Count: How Climate Change is Killing Us, is reflecting on the recent, long anticipated UN report on climate change, the most comprehensive ever released. 

The landmark study, released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), finds that temperatures could rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial times within a decade, increasing the likelihood of extreme heatwaves, droughts, fires and flooding.

“It makes me feel terrified for my kids and the world they’re going to have to live in,” Manning tells the Sentinel. 

The Sydney-based writer has sons aged 18 and 20. “I’ve probably scared them, to be honest!” he says about his climate change reportage. “I just hope I haven’t scared them too much.”

It’s not just climate change he writes about – his diverse and versatile book subjects range from Malcolm Turnbull to The Greens. 

Today, we’re discussing climate change because Manning will moderate an upcoming (online) event at the Antidote festival run by the Sydney Opera House: Racing to the End of the World, featuring acclaimed environmental writer and New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert.

With the release of the IPCC’s new report, the timing is prescient.

“This terror isn’t a new feeling,” Manning says. “I’ve had it since 2008, when I read Climate Code Red, which scared the bejeezus out of me.

“For at least 20 years, we’ve been having this debate and facing off accusations of alarmism,” he continues. “Now the UN itself is sounding the alarm in the most unequivocal terms: it’s beyond urgent that we take action.”

Solutions

Manning describes the “desperate” race to net zero by 2050 as only part of the solution. “We’re going to need to find ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere as well; we’ve now entered a new era,” he says. “The distinction between artificial and natural has been eroded. There’s nothing completely natural left. Nothing uncontaminated by us.”

Earth, he says, has enjoyed 10,000 years of almost unprecedented climate stability, which has seen civilisations flourish around the world. But we shouldn’t necessarily see this as the norm.

Temperatures could hit a tipping point and might rise or fall plus or minus eight degrees in the space of a decade. As per the title of Kolbert’s February, 2021 book, we might end up with a sky that turns white. “Imagine what that’d do to food production. Imagine what that means for humanity,” he says.

Paddy Manning will moderate the Racing to the End of the World talk by Elizabeth Kolbert (pictured) at the 2021 Antidote festival, which will be live-streamed this year due to Covid-19. Photo: Nicholas Whitman/supplied.

What this means for Australia

Australia’s Black Summer’ of 2019-20 “should’ve been a wake up event”, Manning says, but it got buried by the pandemic.

He says the two crises are intrinsically linked: “With deforestation, overpopulation and overconsumption, we’re driving animals and humans closer together, causing zoonosis. The health of humanity is linked to the health of the animal world.”

The fires raging in California, Greece and Turkey are, he says, similarly scary. And it’s a mistake to call this the new normal: “This is only the beginning. It’ll only get worse till we stop putting emissions into the atmosphere and learn how to draw CO2 back out. We don’t even know how to do that yet,” he says. “We’ve solved the energy problem technically and commercially with cheaper renewables – now we need to get on and solve those other problems.”

He starts to rattle off increasingly disturbing facts with his erudite knowledge on the subject – the World Health Organisation (WHO) forecasts hundreds of thousands of deaths from 2030 onwards due to warming, the likelihood of more extreme weather events and diseases relating to them and the need for urgent, drastic and innovative action.

This is where Australia really lags politically. “I’m interested in the disconnect between Australia’s steadfastly denialist policy framework, led by people like Scott Morrison, Barnaby Joyce and Angus Taylor, who are hellbent on exporting as much coal and subsidising as much fossil fuel as they possibly can – and the UN’s recent warning in the starkest terms,” he says.

I ask him if Labor lost the last election partly because voters rejected their climate change action plan, but he lays more of the blame on Clive Palmer’s $80m advertising spend, “spreading misinformation and fear of job losses in Queensland” where, according to many accounts, the federal election was won for the Coalition.

He doesn’t believe the Morrison Government will be rewarded at the next ballot box: “It’s a government completely out of touch with contemporary Australia and stuck on the past” Manning says. “We’re at the bottom of the OECD in vaccination rates and more than half of Australia is in lockdown, doing untold economic damage. We’ve had the black summer, the Brittany Higgins scandal and revelations of rampant sexual harassment.”

Is there any good news?!

“The big lesson I drew from Body Count is Australians do pull together in a crisis – even if there’s a massive failure of political leadership,” he says. “We look out for each other at a community level.”

News Corp

In addition to his ongoing work on the subject of climate change, Manning, who has previously worked for The Australian, is about to embark on a doctorate at Macquarie University, on the history of News Corp, in addition to currently writing a biography of Lachlan Murdoch (the book’s working title is Sly Fox).

“There are umpteen biographies of Rupert but not a history of News Corp,” Manning says on the unique selling point of his forthcoming work.

I ask him if he shares the surprised optimism of Tim Burrowes, who recently told me he feels, for the first time in three decades, that journalism is looking better than it did before in terms of funding.

“I do feel like we’re turning a corner,” Manning says. “There’s explosive growth and interest in podcasts for example. And the survival of legacy mastheads generating payment from paywalls.”

Manning also teaches journalism at UTS. “You can see young journos coming through and finding job opportunities – for 20 years it felt like the ceiling was coming down relentlessly upon us.” 

However, he points out that it’s not all roses: Australia’s media is dominated like no other media market in the world by one company: News Corp, which isn’t healthy for democracy.

As someone who has spent 20 years in journalism, Manning is no stranger to redundancy and the need to establish a profile career to fund himself to keep writing books.

How does he keep going in the writing industry, which has largely been gutted of funds? “I personally have to juggle three or four different jobs at any one time to make ends meet: teaching, writing, freelancing, part time work,” he says.

Now writing his sixth book, why does he keep doing it? “I swear to god this is my last book!” he says. “I keep doing it because I’m curious, I still want to learn, I love research and love talking to people.

“I always hope there’s an audience out there who I can bring on a journey and they can learn with me.”

The Racing to the End of the World talk by Elizabeth Kolbert, moderated by Paddy Manning, is part of the 2021 Antidote festival. It will live streamed online and available from 11am Sunday, 5 September, 2021. For tickets (from $15) and further information, visit www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/Antidote/2021/racing-to-the-end-of-the-world.html

Gary Nunn is the editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. He can be followed on Twitter at @GaryNunn1.