Renewable energy vs climate sceptics

renewable-energy
Renewable energy – Mount Majura solar farm, ACT (image courtesy Climate Council)

Have you ever noticed, after giving your dog a bath, how it will head straight for the nearest patch of renewable energy? Ours has a favourite sunny spot next to the dining room table where he will happily bask, while our solar-powered camping lamp, calculator and torches are recharging on the window sill.

Free sunshine – what’s not to like? As it happens, we have been preparing our little caravan for a weekend music festival in the bush. The 160 watt portable solar panel slides snugly under the bed. At $159, this has proved to be a worthy investment for our outback and bush music weekend adventures. It means you can keep topping up the caravan’s battery (if the sun is shining) and go to bed early if it’s not.

We are not expecting rain. No-one is expecting rain.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed the winter just past was the hottest since records began in 1910. It was also the 9th driest winter on record. The average maximum temperature was almost 2 degrees above the long-term average.

Meanwhile, Texas is suffering unprecedented flooding courtesy of Hurricane Harvey, the reporting of which has somewhat overshadowed devastating monsoon flooding in South East Asia. So far, in the latter disaster area, 1,200 people have been killed and almost two million children were unable to get to school.

As we ironically say in the privacy of our own home – “Just as well there’s no such thing as climate change, then!”

Now all, some of, or only a small part of these extreme weather events could be ascribed to global warming/climate change, which, 97% of scientists agree, is mostly caused by human activity.

Despite this consensus on behalf of an apparently overwhelming majority of scientists, sceptics disagree. I happened to read that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is set to deliver a speech, “Daring to Doubt,” at an annual climate sceptics group meeting in London on October 9.

You might remember Tony Abbott – his reign as PM at one year and 361 days (cumulative terms), was longer than that of Harold Holt and Billy McMahon, but not by much.  Abbott the Climate Change Sceptic is infamous in some quarters as the man who canned the government-funded Climate Commission as part of a Budget cost-cutting exercise.

The Climate Commission bounced back as the privately-funded Climate Council. A new report by the Climate Council concludes that the individual States are going their own way, with mixed results.

South Australia is a clear leader in the renewable energy field, the stakes raised by the government’s decision to replace ageing coal-fired power stations with a 150 megawatt solar thermal power plant.

FOMM foreshadowed this in 2014, when the SA government was trying to negotiate the future of the coal mine which fed its Port Augusta power stations. Now, after five years of lobbying and debate, the SA government is aiming to invest $650 million in renewable energy.

It hardly seems worth mentioning that 1,900 kilometres away, the Queensland Government, in a contrarian move, remains committed to the country’s largest Greenfield export coal mine. The Carmichael mine, which includes a dedicated railway line to take coal north to Abbott Point, is deeply unpopular among environmental groups because of the potential damage it could cause to the Great Barrier Reef, both by the number of ships traversing the narrow channels, and through coral bleaching as a result of human-induced temperature increases.

On the other hand, Queenslanders’ love affair with domestic solar panels is demonstrated by the fact that  32% of households are covered in 2017. Lobby group Solar Citizens (almost 100,000 members), welcomed last week’s decision by the Queensland Government to increase the regional feed-in tariff (FiT) program. This will allow solar systems up to 30kW to receive 10.1c per kWh – six times more than what was previously agreed.

Solar Citizens has an ambitious target of one million solar roofs by 2020.

“Queenslanders know a sensible idea when they see it – with 520,000 solar homes, our State has the highest rooftop solar uptake in the country,” a spokeswoman said.

However, critics of domestic solar energy say the flaw is that those who can afford to become self-sufficient do so, and those who cannot end up paying disproportionately more for energy.)

This week, the Climate Council presented its annual ‘state of the States’ renewable energy report. CEO Amanda McKenzie said the State survey showed a major step up from last year. All States and Territories (apart from WA), have strong renewable energy or net zero emissions targets. South Australia is building the world’s largest lithium ion battery storage facility, and over 30 large scale wind and solar projects are under construction across Australia in 2017.

“The good news is that many States are surging ahead and doing the heavy lifting for the (Federal) government.”

Last week, the Victorian government flagged new legislation which would increase its renewable energy target to 40% by 2025. There is also an intermediate plan to lift Victoria’s clean energy target to 25% by 2020.

So yes, it does seem as if individual States (and Councils) are setting their own renewable energy policies, in the absence of clear leadership at a national level.

Noosa Mayor Tony Wellington did not miss an opportunity to talk up his region’s commitment to solar panels. Noosa Shire, which de-merged from the larger Sunshine Coast Regional Council (SCRC), claims 9,000 households in Noosa Shire have solar installations, which is better than the State average. Cr Wellington told the Sunshine Coast Daily Noosa’s goal was to be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050.

Not to be overshadowed, the SCRC opened a 15 megawatt solar farm in July. The SCRC was the first local government in Australia to offset 100% of its electricity consumption with energy from a renewable source.

But what can humble citizens do, as pro-coal lobbyists clash swords with the solar and wind farm warriors? The go-it-alone mentality arises from a failure on the part of our Federal Government to stimulate investment in the renewable sector. Australia has already promised, under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% on 2005 levels by 2030. But Tony Abbott’s call as PM to reduce the renewable energy target (and now he advocates scrapping it altogether), was unhelpful.

Whatever way you judge it, a former PM addressing the Global Warming Policy Foundation is not a good look. The last Australian PM to do so was John Howard in 2013 (when he claimed global warming had stalled and was sceptical about the possibilities of an international agreement on climate change).

There have already been reports in the UK media which seized on old quotes by Mr Abbott referring to climate science as ‘bullshit’ and recycling his coal is ‘good for humanity’ comment. 

As readers will know, we spent a week out at Carnarvon Gorge in July, a time of year when it is common for the temperature to dip below zero at night. We packed accordingly, then spent four nights kicking off the doona and keeping each other awake as the mercury stayed above 15.

It should be cool at night for the Neurum Creek Folk Festival, but I packed my shortie pyjamas, just in case there is such a thing as climate change.

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Cucumbers and the silly season

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Photo by Scott Elias https://flic.kr/p/iAVph

All through my journalism career I tried to take holidays at this time of year – the peak summer period known universally as the ‘silly season’ It’s called that, here and abroad, to describe the sudden drying up of real news stories (or even cleverly disguised fake stories). The media must continue on its 24/7 quest for yarns, but the fare becomes increasingly trivial, short on detail and (gasp) exaggerated.

In Australia, the ‘do not disturb’ sticker can safely be slapped across the calendar between December 23 and January 26. This is when all traditional news sources and their spin doctors head for the beach. Businesses close, parliaments and law courts go into recess. It’s down to emergency services to keep the media fed, and there’s a limit to the amount of mayhem holiday-makers can digest through the festive season.

Smoke but not much fire

Here’s a splendid example of a silly season story, introduced by a breathless headline: “Warwick church struck by lightning”. The fire brigade turned out in numbers to St Mary’s Catholic Church, a Warwick landmark, as did spectators. St Mary’s administrator Kathleen Cuskelly told FOMM the fire was not serious but could have been without the call to emergency services by a witness to the lightning strike. The blaze, which damaged two square metres of ceiling above the side aisle, was extinguished by a lone firefighter who found his way in through a back door.

The church-hit-by-lightning yarn certainly livened up the week for weather-watchers, braced as always for a natural disaster but more often left without a real story.

Mariah Carey’s Times Square technically-flawed performance on New Year’s Eve had the celebrity writers rolling in oily hyperbole. Carey described by maxim.com as the ‘golden-throated chart-topper’ was left on centre stage unable to cope with lip syncing which went awry. Someone played the wrong track, leaving the lesser-crested warbler nonplussed. The Daily Mail (UK) summed it up:

Mariah Carey has stormed off stage after she lashed out during her botched New Year’s Eve performance, after the wrong lip-sync track played.”

That’s a lot of storming and lashing over a relatively tiny tinkle in a teacup. Besides, Mariah sang the hell out of Auld Lang Syne at the start and that’s what counts, right? And she appeared to know all the words.

A few days prior to this earth-trembling news, like so many other heat-stressed people, I was hanging out in the local supermarket, hovering around the deli fridges, a packet of frozen peas clamped to the back of the neck. My mobile chirped and there was a text message: “jar of pickles pls.” Thus challenged, I quickly grabbed a jar, added it to the week’s supply of groceries and headed for the check-out.

The peak summer months, when Europeans and North Americans lock up and head for the beaches, coincides with the cucumber harvest. So their ‘silly season’ is known in many northern countries as ‘cucumber time’.

The ever-useful Wikipedia reveals that in many languages, the name for the silly season references cucumbers (more precisely: gherkins or pickled cucumbers). Examples given include komkommertijd (Dutch), agurketid (Danish) and agurktid (Norwegian, where a piece of news is called agurknytt i.e., “cucumber news”).

There are other examples: the Sommerloch (“summer (news) hole”) in German-speaking countries; la morte-saison (France) and nyhetstorka or news drought, in Sweden.

Media analysts have speculated that people employed as public relations consultants or media advisors in private enterprise and government now outnumber real journalists by five to one. The highly-paid spin doctors take January off and go to the beach. So their carefully crafted “news” releases, sanitised, scrutinised and signed off on by at least 10 people slow to a trickle then stop.

Meanwhile, the skeleton squads left holding the news forts have to forage for items to fill the ironically larger news holes (in the newspaper business advertising also takes a holiday). So the only thing a reporter or a news crew can do is follow the fire engine. On arrival, take emotive video of the cat stuck up a gum tree and hope (though only deep within their craven souls) that the rescuer in the cherry-picker might take a nasty tumble from a great height. The video editor can lip-sync it later and the presenter can do the nodding I-was-really-there-honest footage later. Back to you in the studio, Brian.

Bob Hawke lobbies for nuclear waste (again)

Perhaps the most egregious silly season story thus far was the reporting of comments made at a Woodford Festival talk by former PM Bob Hawke. Mr Hawke said Australia should embrace nuclear power and become a country where the world can store its nuclear waste. Mr Hawke has said this before, many times, but most news reports lacked this kind of background.

Warming up for Woodford, perhaps, Mr Hawke trotted out the nuclear waste trope at Sydney University late last year.

In 2013 he singled out South Australia, a vast and sparsely populated state, as best suited to (underground) storage of nuclear waste.

At Woodford 2016, the 87-year-old former politician employed much the same rhetoric he used when floating the idea in September 2005:

“Australia has the geologically safest places in the world for the storage of waste,” he then told the 7.30 Report’s Mark Bannerman.

“What Australia should do, in my judgement, as an act of economic sanity and environmental responsibility, is say we will take the world’s nuclear waste.”

Then Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley sharply responded to the comments by Hawke (who retired from politics in 1992):

“Bob is a respected father figure in the Labor Party, but that’s well outside the platform.”

In 1999, foreign company Pangea Resources tabled a specific proposal to build an underground radioactive nuclear waste storage facility in central Australia. South Australia and Western Australia swiftly responded by passing nuclear storage prohibition acts. Nick Minchin, Federal Resources minister at the time, said an emphatic ‘no’ and Pangea, a consortium of Swiss and British firms, folded up its tent.

Industry website www.nei.org estimates that the nuclear industry has generated about 76,430 tonnes of used fuel over the past 40 years. Most nuclear plants recycle used fuel, which will ‘eventually’ be permanently stored as high-level radioactive waste. US Congress made a pledge in 1982 to build such a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the proposal has been ensnared in political wrangling since and was shelved by Barack Obama in 2010. Bloomberg reported in November, however, that a Trump White House would make the permanent dump site a priority.

Finland and Sweden are meanwhile working towards the first permanent radioactive waste sites in the world, the first of which could be operational by 2023.

But as then Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told the 7.30 Report in 2005 (and little has changed):

“There are a lot of politics in this. Now, right at the moment, we can’t even get agreement on where to put a nuclear repository for Australia’s waste, let alone a repository for the world’s waste.”

Mark Bannerman closed his 2005 report with this apt quote from a Northern Territory woman:

“If it’s safe, take it down to the Lodge, put it under Kirribilli House. I think they’ve got a hide.”

 

Trump, Clinton and the third candidate

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Aussie tourist poses outside Trump World Tower, Manhattan. Photo by Laurel Wilson

Who, except Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, would want to be leader of a nation today? The manic, 24/7 pressure of life in the top job makes old men (and women) out of youthful candidates in no time. At home, we saw the pressure tell in quick succession on Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and now Malcolm Turnbull, who no longer resembles the debonair bon vivant who aspired to high political station. In the US, Barack Obama’s eight years in the job is etched into his face.

Yet the aspirant leaders keep coming. Hillary wants the top job, even though she saw what it did to her husband, not to mention Monica Lewinsky, these days engaged in anti-bullying campaigns.

Donald Trump wants to make America great again (though no-one has yet proven when the US was ever great). Former Australian PM Tony Abbott was cited (from afar), telling high-ranking people overseas he planned to make a leadership comeback. Whether he did or didn’t say this, on his return, Abbott and Turnbull clashed jousting sticks in the House, prompting gasps and gossip amongst Canberra lobbyists.

Who’d be a world leader? US presidents get asked to make awful decisions, to wit Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in 1945, killing between 130,000 and 226,000 people. Harry didn’t drop the bombs, but it was his head that nodded when the generals asked him if they should.

Even Australian Prime Ministers are asked to make unpalatable decisions which may come back to haunt future generations. Bob Menzies bowed to pressure from Great Britain, who wanted to test atomic bombs in Australia’s western desert. After all, they could hardly do it in Manchester or Liverpool. People would have complained.

Some impressions of this seldom-scrutinised period in our history are captured in Collisions, an 18-minute multimedia film by Lynette Wallworth. The Monthly’s Quentin Sprague reviewed the ‘immersive’ film which premiered in Adelaide and is playing as a ‘virtual reality experience’ at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image until mid-January. Nyarra Nyarri Morgan, a young man in the 1950s when he witnessed the mushroom cloud above the desert, recalls its impact: “the surrounding waterholes boiled and kangaroos fell to the ground under a drifting blanket of ash.”  Later, when people became sick after eating the fallen kangaroos, they mused: “What god would do such a thing.”

Harry Truman recalls approving the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a biography written by his daughter, Margaret Truman, Harry’s decision to over-rule the general who believed the Japanese would surrender under the onslaught of conventional bombs, was aimed at saving Japanese and American lives. Almost 80,000 died after the firebombing of Tokyo, part of a planned programme of incendiary bombing.

“It was not an easy decision to make,” Truman said. “I did not like the weapon. But I had no qualms if in the long run millions of lives could be saved.”

After a successful testing in New Mexico, Truman approved the bombing of four targets – Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki

Given the history, you do wonder about people like Donald Trump, a self-described multi-billionaire who has no material need, apparently, to live in the White House. There are bigger and better mansions and easier jobs than making America great again, or even for the first time.

Why would he want to be the one with the power to pick up the red telephone? There is no guarantee either that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t pick up the red phone.

The media is making much of the Clinton-v-Trump clash, mostly ignoring a third candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld. Johnson and Weld say they have a master plan to sneak the presidency from under the noses of Trump and Clinton.

The Washington Times reported on Monday the pair say they can change history and win the election through a combination of quirky political circumstances, voting variables and polling inaccuracies. Polling data shows Johnson and Weld have greater support in 20 states than the margin between the Republican and the Democrat, neither of whom will find it easy to snare the necessary 270 votes. One or two states could determine the outcome.

Former Republican adviser Bill Whalen agrees there is a scenario where neither Hilary Clinton nor Donald Trump wins the presidency. He told ABC Radio’s Eleanor Hall on Wednesday much hinged on the outcome in Utah, where candidate Evan McMullen has snared enough votes to win that state. It could be that the House of Representatives will decide who is best suited to the Oval Office: Trump could be deemed ‘unsuitable’ and Clinton’s election risky, as it could spark a constitutional crisis if a Federal investigation finds against her. Enter stage left, Evan McMullen, an inscrutable former CIA operative who has a theoretical chance at the White House.

Here is yet another reason to cite The Simpsons. “Citizen Kang(season 8), still rules as the best piss-take of the two-party political system. Homer is abducted by aliens Kang and Kodos who demand he takes them to his leader. When Homer explains about the (1996) election, the aliens kidnap presidential candidates Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, placing them in suspended animation and assuming their forms through “bio-duplication.” The one-eyed aliens plan to ensure one of them will become the next leader succeeds, despite their alienating habits of walking hand in hand, drooling green slime and talking in robotic voices (“Klin-ton”). Kang is subsequently elected, enslaving humanity into building a giant ray gun, to be aimed at an un-specified planet:

Meanwhile, the global media obsession with Trump vs Clinton, which promises to continue until January, provides perfect cover for our conniving government, which seems intent on homogenising the arts and making sure people who tried to get to Australia by boat go (somewhere else), and never return. Comedian Lucy Valentine suggested they should make this law retrospective to 1788.

Of lesser significance, maybe, but mean-spirited nevertheless, Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced cuts to student loan funding for 57 creative arts diploma courses including circus, screen acting, stained glass, art therapy and jewellery. Additionally, the government capped loans for creative diplomas to $10,000 compared to $15,000 for agriculture and engineering.

Birmingham said the changes were made to focus on courses which would ‘benefit Australia economically in the 21st century’.

“Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments, or provide “lifestyle” choices, but don’t lead to work.”

Predictably, this decision brought forth a torrent of commentary on social media, ranging from reasoned debate to outright vitriol.

This issue, however, has slipped behind the international smokescreen which is the US presidential election campaign; a litany of (alleged) lies and counter-lies, insults and counter insults, accusations of defamation and one lawyer’s letter, published in the New York Times, which is very much worth reading.

If Donald Trump does not win the election, he has promised to sue everyone who has accused him of behaviour unbecoming of a US presidential candidate. It will be a long list.

He should probably just go back to building high-rise towers, hotels and golf courses and making money. He claims to be pretty good at that.