One hundred percent renewable energy to power Australia? It sounds like a pipedream—unless you were in the audience at the Bermagui Institute Dinner at Il Passagio on 21 September to hear Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering at the Australian National University, speak about pumped hydro energy storage.
NSW Environmental Defenders Office CEO Sue Higginson paints a picture of EDO lawyers, haggard and caffeinated, racing between their office on Clarence Street and the Land and Environment Court on Macquarie Street, chasing “mining companies with the deepest pockets you can imagine” and “lawyers who lodge Notices of Motion at 1 am”.
It’s comical until you realise the gravity of the work. The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) concentrates its resources on the cases that other lawyers don’t take on. Important public interest cases. Cases where there’ll be a lasting or permanent impact on the environment, where governments haven’t followed the law. Blowing the whistle, holding governments to account.
It was pretty clear to scientists in the 1990s that man-made carbon emissions were causing climate change—it had started with the Industrial Revolution. Two plans of action were mooted. Plan A: reduce emissions (mitigation). Plan B: adapt to the changes. But we weren’t going to need Plan B, were we? The fix was clear, and there was plenty of time …
Dr Helen Caldicott, anti-nuclear activist, humanist, physician, returned to Bermagui on 10 February during a week when South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was preparing to deliver its “Tentative Findings”. Dr Caldicott was speaking at the Bermagui Institute dinner; her topic was “Nuclear South Australia”.
The speaker shared anecdotes from her forty years of campaigning, detailed the hazards to human health and the environment presented by the nuclear industry, and advanced three main points: one, that the recent search for a site to store radioactive waste from Australia’s only nuclear reactor is premised on a lie; two, that Premier Jay Weatherill’s pursuit of a nuclear industry for SA is unnecessary and dangerous; and three, that public education and the democratic process are the only means by which nuclear expansion can be curtailed.
Upon hearing that the planet had warmed by one degree Celsius, a conservative politician said that he could get on a plane in Melbourne and get off in Sydney an hour later and find the temperature higher by a comfortable six degrees, so what’s the problem?
In fact, a global rise of one degree has increased the incidence of extremely hot days in southeast Australia by a factor of ten. It’s because temperatures, like most natural phenomena, arrange themselves along Bell curves. And a shift to the right of just one degree has massive ramifications, not at the height of the curve but at that very low, very sensitive-to-change high end. If it seems that bushfires are starting earlier in the season and becoming more frequent lately, that explains why.
The world’s sluggish response to climate change is a mystery to many. After all, overwhelming evidence of a problem usually results in mitigation of the problem. Witness the global response when scientists suggested in the 1990s that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) might be busting a hole in the ozone layer, leading to high rates of skin cancer, amongst other consequences. The reaction was swift; CFCs were banned from aerosol cans. In America, consumers voluntarily switched away from aerosol sprays, resulting in a 50% loss in sales even before legislation was enforced.
It was an unseasonably balmy night at the Bermagui Hotel. The speaker was Ken Henry and the subject “The Economics of Climate Change”. We’d all been congratulating the Bermagui Institute’s Jack Miller on his orchestration of the China-US emissions reduction deal just in time to create a dramatic backdrop for the talk, when Henry told us, “it won’t make any difference” to Australian government policy on climate change action.
The restaurant in the Bermagui Hotel is buzzing as I enter at 6pm on Thursday 3 April for the Bermagui Institute Public Dinner. Such is the interest in tonight’s speaker, the Institute has raised its booking limit, and still I meet a couple of ticketless friends hanging hopefully by the door.
Dr Mark Diesendorf is Associate Professor and Deputy Director at the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of NSW, and formerly a principal research scientist at CSIRO. He is the author of Sustainable Energy Solutions (UNSW Press) and an expert in renewable energy.
It’s hard to spot, but there’s a path into the bush in the far corner of the Quaama Cemetery. As you pass the main cluster of graves – the smart new granite of the Colemans, the Conways with their river rocks and shells, the green trellis over Pato Taylor – you may see it. Enter the scrubby remnant forest here and continue down along the path, deeper under the trees. It’s cooler in here. The light is dappled, filtering through the canopy. You can hear bellbirds’ chimes, the occasional whipbird, the zim-zippery wagtails’ calls.
There are nine wombats on the road between Bega and Bemboka. Nine dead wombats. And it’s not even a bad season, a dry season, when what little rain we get runs off the roads and pools in the ditches beside them, creating green oases in a land of brown. Those oases bring the wombats to the roadsides in drought. But this time we’ve had plenty of rain, and still they come to the road. There they die bad deaths: deaths bouncing off bumpers, deaths crushed under wheels, deaths dragged by undercarriages until they’re just stains on the bitumen.
My friends Vicki and John hit a kangaroo once, on the Tanami Track, in the Tanami Desert. Didn’t kill it. But they got out and had a look, and it was clearly injured. No WIRES in the Tanami. They made a decision; who knows if it was the right one. What would you do? They decided to finish what they’d started.