Slowly but surely, after a lifetime of noise from leaders about man’s conquest of nature, our nation is coming to see how absurd that all is.
So long as natural forces followed roughly predictable patterns we could always pretend we had things under control, but those patterns are gone. Last week at the scene of yet another Queensland wind and rain disaster, prime minister Anthony Albanese repeated science’s message that climate change is making natural disasters “more frequent and more intense”.
As someone who grew up in the part of her state now reeling after getting a “normal” months’ worth of rainfall over just hours, Victorian premier Jacinta Allan found it “troubling” that Rochester, near Bendigo, had been hit by three flooding events within 11 years that records indicated should be expected no more than once in a century.
Pity the Bureau of Meteorology, struggling to explain all this during an El Nino period that it had predicted would bring a hot, dry summer to eastern Australia. Heavy rain does happen during El Nino events, argued emergency management minister Murray Watt, but with little conviction.
Solar farms are less contentious in sparsely peopled Australia, but when ACEN Australia proposed 100 wind turbines on Robbins Island in northwest Tasmania – in the migratory path of the orange-bellied parrot – the Environment Protection Authority ordered that it would have to shut down for five months every year.
ACEN won its appeal against that provision last November – a “pragmatic” decision, said premier Jeremy Rockliff – but a local environmental group is appealing to the Supreme Court with the argument that there are just a handful of the critically endangered parrots but plenty of alternative sites for wind farms.
The appeal’s chances of success aside, it does have a point about alternatives. Offshore wind is a key component of Australia’s ambitious emissions reduction target, and energy minister Chris Bowen is spruiking development prospects in six priority areas.
One of the biggest of these in area and offering by far the greatest potential output is off our own coast between Burnie and Bridport, in windy, shallow Bass Strait. If it goes ahead massive turbines mounted on anchored floating platforms will do their stuff out of sight of land and well to the east of the orange-bellied parrot’s flight path.
Two other priority areas, off the NSW coast north and south of Sydney, have caught the attention of anti-wind farm activists, who are planning a massive Canberra rally. Their argument is that these “wind factories” threaten coastal ecosystems, interfere with animal migration patterns and even cause whales to die.
Former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce said approvingly that the “Reckless Renewables Rally” will bring together hosts of anti-windfarmers: “Instead of them all jumping up and down in different places, they will all jump up and down together on the first day back in Canberra, and these are angry people.”
Most people who say that offshore wind turbines will damage marine life are probably not readers of this column, but for what it’s worth, aside from turbines’ impact on birds science has found no basis for their arguments. It would be nice to think that they all care deeply about marine life, but it’s plain as day that for most of them the motivation to protest is politics, pure and simple.
Yet we should always be open to the possibility – even the likelihood – that not everything is beneficial about solar and wind farms, battery storage, electric and other clean-energy vehicles, and other new-age technologies. The negatives attached to clean energy, as well as the good things, need to be exposed and given space.
And so it has been since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution – in fact way back to when curious humans first experimented with their physical environment in order to benefit from it. Transforming minerals into metals gave rise to alchemy, which in turn persuaded many people – including even the great physicist Isaac Newton – that you could create new elements, notably gold, from base metals.
Human curiosity and invention has delivered wondrous things, not least a knowledge of human physiology that has dramatically reduced crippling disease and premature death. We can harness nature, and as we have seen we can change it, but it is the height of folly to imagine we can ever conquer it.