The politics of ignorance

The party-political games being played over energy policy are beyond a joke.

“Don’t be afraid” was the taunt of the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, as he waved his piece of coal in parliament. PHOTO AAP

“Don’t be afraid” was the taunt of the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, as he waved his piece of coal in federal parliament. PHOTO AAP

The only real story in Cory Bernardi’s inevitable divorce from the Liberals was the timing of his departure, just seven months after Liberal voters gave him a six-year senate term.

Ten weeks into that term Bernardi flew to New York, to represent our parliament at the United Nations for three months, along with Tasmanian Labor senator Lisa Singh. They were meant to get first-hand experience of UN operations, but Bernardi’s blog posts show that his real focus in New York was the election of Donald Trump, which he saw as vindication of his battle against “the advancing tide of the tyrannical progressive agenda”.

One of the things that Bernardi finds most attractive in Trump is an aversion to environmentalism and the science of climate change, which they both see as part of the “green agenda”. For both, fossil energy is king and renewables are the enemy.

So Trump’s win was Bernardi’s trigger to cut and run. But to hear his former party colleagues in parliament last week, from the PM down, doing such a splendid job of undermining renewable energy investment in Australia, you have to wonder why he felt so compelled to leave.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools are now delivering “alternative facts”, repeated so often they become part of the furniture. Genuine information about the world – truth untainted by ideology, personal advancement or financial gain – is getting harder to identify.

The ideologies of Bernardi and others of his kind still inside the Coalition tent have have profoundly affected the thinking and behaviour of the Turnbull government. Nowhere is this more evident than in what passes for its climate and energy policy, which has now descended into farce.

Summer’s worst heatwave didn’t stop government MPs, in their air-conditioned bubble, last week shouting down any mention of the purpose of a strong renewable energy target – helping to cut emissions and limit global warming – while blaming renewables for power cuts and rising prices.

There was no debate of serious questions, like errors by the market operator, suppliers bidding up prices or the extreme heat that led to the South Australian blackouts. This was a fact-free zone, peppered with personal insults and cheap theatre with the obligatory prop, a piece of coal.

Such behaviour is commonplace in our parliament, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. When matters of immense, immediate public importance are treated in this way, it’s hard not to conclude that some in the parliament have an interest in maintaining public ignorance.

Politicians’ attitudes to climate change are doubtless shaped by the culture of the party room and discussions with colleagues, and it’s not always easy to separate manipulator from manipulated. Some people can come to believe myths that they themselves have helped to create.

But climate-energy policy here and elsewhere has been degraded by a determined push to keep the status quo, driven by commercial interests facing disruption, by conservative ideologues like Bernardi, or by Trump-style populists. None has any interest in the free flow of information.

Malcolm Turnbull’s own behaviour during this debacle has left his credibility in tatters. Having once stood for rational climate policy, he has now taken on Bernardi’s robotic denunciation of the only policy position that can bring some stability to the energy market – carbon pricing.

Whether they’re in public or private hands, electricity generators and networks need investment, and investment needs the long-term steadying impact of a carbon price. It isn’t just me saying this; it’s also engineers, economists, energy regulators and the companies themselves.

The network load of the past week will happen again, continuing to reveal deep flaws in the structure and operation of the national energy market. Fixing them will require sound, bipartisan political decisions at a national level, far removed from the mindless brawling we saw last week.

Above all, a functioning democracy requires an informed public, which has to be able to separate wheat from chaff – real, solid information from misinformation and spin, masquerading as fact. That’s a problem for the ages.

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Learning the lessons of Black Tuesday

We have learned a great deal since February 1967, but that doesn’t include how to curb our damaging carbon emissions.

Dr Jim Marwood took this photograph of the remains of Fern Tree Hotel on the afternoon of 7 February 1967.

Dr Jim Marwood took this photograph of the remains of Fern Tree Hotel on the afternoon of 7 February 1967.

This has been as near to perfect a Tasmanian summer as I can imagine. Rain when you need it but not too much, and just enough sun and wind. Not hot enough for some, but hot enough for me.

That wasn’t the case in early 1967. After a good spring, the rain stopped altogether and the heat came down from mainland Australia. I wasn’t bothered because I was young. But then, exactly 50 years ago today, the wind came, and we lost our youth.

The fires that devastated southern Tasmania that day are seared into the memories of all who experienced them. For some the memories were traumatic, and for some they remain so.

Over summer I’ve been privileged to be part of a group putting together an exhibit about the Fern Tree community’s 1967 fire experience, in the course of which people who were on the mountain that day recounted their stories of terror and courage and blind luck, good and bad.

Dominating the Fern Tree story is the experience of fire refugees who, early in the afternoon of Black Tuesday, gathered at the community’s only open space, in front of the Fern Tree Hotel, a large two-storey timber structure that had stood for 65 years.

As fire closed in on all sides and smoke turned day into night, some 200 people prepared to die. They all survived because a wind change allowed rescue trucks to carry them away from the burning hotel in a terrifying, unforgettable journey through burning bush to Hobart.

Working in the Mercury’s Macquarie Street building that afternoon, I had no such experience. It was only in stages, over that evening and the days following, that I realised the scale of devastation, including the death of my father’s sister as her Derwent Valley farmhouse burned around her.

We have since found out much more. Roger Wettenhall’s 1975 book, Bushfire Disaster, revealed losses worth $40 million (nearly $1 billion today), including over 1300 homes. Most shocking, there were many deaths; recent studies have brought the number killed to 64.

An important trigger for this disaster was over 100 fires burning that morning in southern Tasmania, including in the hills behind Hobart – far beyond the capacity of the available 200-odd men and 20 vehicles to extinguish even in still conditions.

Add to that the state of nature. Dry bush was made all the more flammable by a hot northerly airstream caused by a stationary high-pressure system over the Tasman Sea. That was predicted the previous day by the Bureau of Meteorology, which warned of “high to extreme” fire danger.

The map issued by the Hobart Weather Bureau the day before the 1967 fires showed barely a hint of the devastating weather to come.

The map issued by the Hobart Weather Bureau the day before the 1967 fires showed barely a hint of the devastating weather to come.

But the official forecast overlooked the potential impact of a low-pressure system forming on a front to the south-west. That brought much stronger winds than forecast and much hotter conditions – a Hobart maximum of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39C), well above the forecast 88F (31C).

To this day, Tasmania’s highly-variable weather remains hard to predict. Just last Monday, BOM’s forecast included high winds and high fire danger caused by an approaching cold front. Winds and temperature that day turned out to be moderate, accompanied by a little rain.

But whereas the forecast for Black Tuesday 1967 missed some danger signs, last Monday’s did not. BOM is well aware that if a fire weather forecast is in error, better that it be on the side of caution.

In 1967 computers and satellites were just beginning to be used as forecasting tools, and forecasts for Tasmania had to make do with just 20-odd observations across the entire Southern Ocean. Today they draw on thousands of automated observations over land and sea.

The result is that forecasting accuracy has increased many times – very high for one or two days ahead with a reasonable chance of getting it right a week ahead. That alone gives today’s fire and emergency services a distinct edge over their 1967 predecessors.

Fire-fighting capacity state-wide has increased tenfold, from 500 men using about 45 appliances and 23 separate, very flaky command and control systems to over 5000 fire-fighters (male and female) using over 450 appliances and a single, far more reliable control platform.

This is comforting, but Victoria’s 2009 disaster and Dunalley’s experience four years ago show the futility of imagining we can control nature. Climate change is bringing longer summers, hotter days and wilder winds. Devastating bushfire will figure in our future as well as our past.

Fire services understand that, because they see it happening year on year. They are now more prepared than they’ve ever been to fight it, but without a concerted local, national and global effort to curb greenhouse emissions, the battle will be a losing one.

Fern Tree Under Fire, a display about Black Tuesday on Mt Wellington (Fern Tree Community Centre, 8 Stephenson Place) has its final day today, opening from 10 am to 6 pm. Entry is free.

Posted in carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate system, community action, education, forest science, fossil fuels, human behaviour, social and personal issues, Tasmanian politics, trees, wildfire | Leave a comment

Huonville High hits the jackpot in Abu Dhabi

This southern Tasmanian school has long had a dream to be a beacon for a better world. Now it’s getting reward for its effort.

Toby Thorpe (left) and Zephryn Fox at work on a renewable energy project. PHOTO ABC

Toby Thorpe and Zephryn Fox at work on a renewable energy project. PHOTO ABC

For years, Huonville High under its former principal, Alison Grant, sought to become a beacon for learning about the environment, the climate and our carbon footprint.

I first became aware of that dream in May 2009, when teacher David Brown invited me to talk to his students about man-made climate change and its implications for their school and community.

Last winter I had the chance to see how things had developed at an “energy futures think tank” organised by environmental educator Nel Smit and led by Huonville High students Toby Thorpe and Zephryn Fox, at the Education Department’s Sustainability Learning Centre at Mt Nelson. A discussion led by expert outsiders ranged across solar energy, batteries and electric cars, inventing things, biofuels, energy auditing and the energy-efficient home.

Of my many encounters with students over the years, this one ranked as one of the best, because the students themselves were driving it. My take-home message was that anything seems possible when young people are given the chance to take a leading role.

Changing the direction of society takes time, work and resources. Huonville High put in the hard yards over many years, but at the time of that seminar it still lacked the resources needed to really make its community sit up and take notice.

But this month, when schools are supposed to be in summer hibernation, Huonville hit the jackpot.

Toby Thorpe (second from left) with other Oceania candidates for the Zayed prize. PHOTO Geoff Williamson

Toby Thorpe with other Oceania candidates for the Zayed prize, in Abu Dhabi. PHOTO Geoff Williamson

In Abu Dhabi, on behalf of his school, Toby was presented with the Oceania award for the Zayed Future Energy Prize for Global High Schools by the city’s Crown Prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed. There were four other winners, schools in Ireland, Bolivia, Kenya and Bali.

The annual Zayed prize, celebrating innovation, vision and leadership in renewable energy and sustainability, pays tribute to the former president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, who championed environmental stewardship.

The prize provides Huonville High with $US100,000, or a little over $130,000 Australian. That level of funding is rare or unprecedented in Australia for a single public school, opening up prospects that the school could previously only dream about.

The school’s solar array produces 2.5 per cent of its energy needs; Zayed funding will raise that to 60 per cent. A disused campus building will be made into a “Zayed Energy Hub” showcasing solar PV, battery storage, insulation, low-carbon lighting and heating and smart energy management.

The prize complements the school’s existing effort in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as a pilot school for EnergyWise, a TasNetworks-Greening Australia program producing resources and curriculum materials, which gets under way this year.

Besides transforming the school, says Toby Thorpe, the prize offers opportunities for students and the broader community to learn about renewable energy. His new principal, Geoff Williamson, sees his school contributing to “a global blueprint” for schools offering renewable energy studies.

These are worthy and eminently achievable aims. Huonville is in a growing cohort of schools, households and communities who see the future value of distributed renewable energy. A total of 27.4 million solar panels now grace Australian roofs, more than one for every single citizen.

But cutting back our uncontrolled carbon emissions demands a whole-of-society, whole-of-economy response that this country has barely begun to address. Compared to that, one grant of $130,000 to one school in the Huon Valley is chickenfeed.

Energy minister Matthew Groom congratulated the school, but he, his government and their federal counterparts should be considering the level of resources required to make a difference community-wide, and come up with something more than our present, pathetically inadequate climate response.

Every journey starts with a step. I’m glad the minister was pleased at this step because it suggests he sees value in what the school is doing, and gives a glimmer of hope that he will come to see why this kind of effort is needed on a much larger scale.

The Zayed prize will enable Huonville High to show its community how good energy management can work for everyone. If a smidgin of that awareness could filter through to people with influence in the wider world we might start to get somewhere.

Posted in Australian politics, batteries, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, community action, education, energy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, energy research, renewable energy, science, science teaching, social and personal issues, solar, Tasmanian politics, wind | Leave a comment