LESLEY HUGHES. Cognitive Dissonance in the Big Dry

Aug 8, 2018

Climate change is worsening the drought now affecting huge swathes of the continent, bringing gut-wrenching misery for farmers and the communities they support. And what have some of the parliamentary representatives of those regions been up to? They have been trying to convince the Japanese to invest in more coal-fired power generation in Australia. 

Drought has now been declared over 99 percent of NSW, and over almost two thirds of Qld. Soil moisture levels are also below or very much below average across the eastern half of Victoria, significant pastoral areas in South Australia, southern coastal Western Australia and the Kimberley. Last July was the second warmest on record for daytime temperatures and the driest since 2002, with overall rainfall only half the average. Australia’s food bowl, the Murray Darling Basin, received about a third of its average rainfall, NSW received about 20 percent, and QLD 30 percent. The outlook for spring is no more optimistic, with below average rainfall predicted for most of eastern Australia, along with above average temperatures.

And all this is happening in a non-El Niño year, but perhaps not for long – the Bureau has indicated there is about a 50 percent chance of an El Niño event developing by late spring.

There remains extraordinary reluctance, bordering on refusal, of many in the government to link the worsening drought conditions to anthropogenic climate change. The Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud, for example, claimed on Q&A this week that such a link was “a big call” and that he does not “give a rats if it’s man-made or not”.

But the science is clear –  warming has contributed to a southward shift in weather fronts from the Southern Ocean, which typically bring rain to southern Australia during winter and spring. As these weather fronts have shifted, rainfall in southern Australia has declined, increasing the risk of drought conditions, including in agricultural heartlands such as the Murray Darling Basin and the Western Australian wheat belt. These regions have also experienced increasing intensity and frequency of hot days and heatwaves over the past 50 years, in turn increasing drought severity. In summary, climate change is likely making drought conditions in southwest and southeast Australia worse.

Sceptics often point to the “droughts and flooding rains” argument – that Australia has always had droughts. But recent analysis by a team at the University of Melbourne indicates that the most severe droughts since the late 1800s, the Federation Drought (1895–1903), the World War II drought (1939–1945) and the Millennium Drought (1996–2010), are without precedent in at least the past 400 years in terms of their concurrent spatial extent.

Looking ahead, CSIRO and the Bureau project that by 2030, winter and spring rainfall could decrease up to about 15 percent across southern Australia. Later in the century, rainfall is projected to decline by 20–30 percent, depending on the greenhouse pollution scenario, with some important regional exceptions. Drying is projected to be most pronounced over southwest WA, with total reductions in autumn and winter precipitation potentially as high as 50 percent by the end of the century. The combined effect of increasing temperatures and declining rainfall mean that without deep and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, there is high confidence that the time spent in drought will increase in coming decades in southern Australia.

These ideas are not new – scientists have been bleating on about climate change increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events for decades now. And it seems everywhere we look, predictions are now observations, whether it be the deadly heatwaves across Africa, the Middle East, the US, Europe, Canada and Japan, or the wildfires ravaging Sweden, Greece and California.

Meanwhile, back home, we have been treated to the recent spectacle of a delegation of politicians to Japan, seeking investment in new coal-fired power stations.  Among the group was the whip-cracking George Christensen, like a latter-day imperial emissary bearing letters from his Emperor, the Minister for Clinging-To-Coal-With-His-Fingernails Matt Canavan. The letters were to be hand-delivered to the heads of Japan Oil, the Gas and Metals National Corporation, and the director of the coal division of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

The Japan trip was funded by the Minerals Council-linked organisation Coal 21, which according to their website, is dedicated to building community confidence in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology. Top of the list of excursions for the pollies was an inspection of the so called High Energy Low Emissions (HELE) Isogo Thermal Power Station in Yokohama, operated by J Power. Isogo has been lauded as the most advanced commercial coal-fired power station in the world.

So how “clean” is this plant? According to the company’s website, by using “ultra-super-critical” (USC) technology that operates at temperatures of 600 – 620oC, Isogo emits 17% less carbon dioxide than it did using the older technology. 17%! Is that the definition of “clean” these days? It’s like hiring someone to clean your house and being satisfied if they vacuum one bedroom and give the kitchen bench a bit of a wipe.

Christensen is keen that the Japanese invest in HELE coal-fired power stations in Collinsville, Mackay, Townsville, and the Burdekin. Together with four other government backbenchers, Tony Pasin, John Williams, Craig Kelly and Ken O’Dowd, he has criticised the latest report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) for having “an ideological worldview” that favours renewables. The electorates represented by three of these lower house members, Dawson (Christensen), Barker (Pasin), and Flynn (O’Dowd) contain substantial rural areas currently drought-declared, and John Williams, a NSW Senator, represents a state that is almost entirely parched.

Setting aside the breathtaking irony of the use of the word “ideological” by this gang of five, it’s remarkable that they have such a poor grasp of simple economics. Bloomberg New Energy Finance research has found the cost of energy from a new HELE coal-fired power station would be more than double that of new wind or solar, with a build time of about 6-8 years. And despite hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars that have been thrown at “clean coal” technology in Australia over the past two decades, no commercially viable project has been developed.

The woefully poor representation of farmers’ interests by the Nationals in particular, at least with respect to climate change impacts, has not been lost on their constituents.  In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, NSW farmer Robert Lee wrote of his astonishment that resistance to climate action was coming from the party purporting to represent rural and regional communities. The Nationals obviously don’t understand the implications of climate change and what it is doing to Australian farmers right now”.

Lee is not the only farmer at the frontline of climate change impacts dissatisfied with his political representation. In 2016, the Farmers for Climate Action Group commissioned a survey of farmers attitudes to climate change and renewables. Ninety percent of the 1300 farmers surveyed indicated their concern about the changing climate, and 88% wanted their political representatives to do more. Eighty percent supported Australia moving towards 100% renewables.

Life on the land in Australia is hard, and climate change is making it harder. Any politician representing a rural or regional electorate who is continuing to pursue the oxymoronic absurdity of “clean coal” and/or attempting to slow the transition to renewables, is actively working against the interests of their principal constituents.

Our farmers and their communities deserve, and should demand, so much more.

Lesley Hughes is Distinguished Professor of Biology at Macquarie University and a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia.



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