LESLEY HUGHES. Cognitive Dissonance in the Big Dry

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.



John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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4 Responses to LESLEY HUGHES. Cognitive Dissonance in the Big Dry

  1. Avatar Laurie Mills says:

    Carbon Capture and Storage is a con for this simple reason – the mass of carbon dioxide that must be captured stored each day.

    This Wikipedia page reports that Hazelwood Power Station emitted 1.56 tonnes of coal for each megawatt-hour of generation:


    The nearby Yallorn Power Station, using the same brown coal fuel, has a generating power of 1,450 megawatts. If it operates at an average capacity of 1,000 megawatts across a day then it produces 24,000 megawatt hours, multiplied by 1.56 tonnes per megawatt-hour gives 37,440 tonnes of carbon dioxide to capture and store each day.


    To get that into perspective, that’s 1,872 20 tonne trucks EACH DAY. The capture and storage is further complicated by the physic of storage – carbon dioxide becomes a liquid at room temperature at about 5 atmospheres of pressure.

    Yes, it is a fact that carbon dioxide can be captured from the flues of coal-fired power stations. However, it is the logistics of storage that makes it economically and practically infeasible.

    Which is why there are no commercially viable coal-fired power stations employing carbon capture and storage.

    So, members of the COALition and the Coal Lobby, on the feasibility of carbon capture and storage: Please Explain!

    • Avatar David Macilwain says:

      Indeed – the oxymoronic “clean coal” that is still the only lifeline to the dirtiest of the dirty energy industries. It’s important to emphasise just how moronic the idea is: not only are the amounts of carbon dioxide that must be removed from flue gas and compressed and stored inconceivably massive, but the energy required to do this means the burning of at least another 30% of the original fuel.
      The only cases of “successful” CCS are found to be those where CO2 extracted from gas reserves and removed in the process of liquifaction is pumped back into exhausted reservoirs. Even this is fraught and uneconomic, as the operation of the Gorgon – Barrow Island plant demonstrates.

  2. Avatar John O'Callaghan says:

    I am not a member of any party but i am a progressive voter,i reckon these farmers would be better off voting for the Greens than these useless coal lovingNational Party Luddites,and they say 80% of farmers want to seriously address climate change,but on election day they will walk into the CWA or school hall and vote for the bloody Nats!

  3. Avatar Malcolm Crout says:

    An interesting paper. It should also be mentioned that the rate of land clearance of native vegetation for agriculture in Queensland is immense in spatial terms. In the last decade it has exceeded the complete reduction of rainforests in Brazil alone. Even UNESCO has commented on the climate impact of this unbridled clearance, so it’s not just a problem for the coal loving political climate deniers, but the agricultural industry itself. Added to this is the degradation of the water resources by mining and the large scale monoculture of crops such as cotton. It’s stunning that the industry is the one most affected and yet it is adding to the problem itself. Cognitive Dissonance indeed!
    But the problem is one wholly within the control of Australian elected officials who should be brought to account before they allow further damage to our environment. Add to this the logging of forests and city dwellers just shake their collective heads in disbelief. By any measure, Australia has the worst per capita environmental credentials in the world bar none. Shame on us.

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