Not much to love about a sunburnt country.
The sun shone down with a malicious grin. Its glow partly filtered by smoke from the fires out west, it sat up there as a radiating gold ball reminding us, in case we had forgotten, that it is the hottest thing in our part of the universe. In that reminder is a warning that just as the sun gives life to our planet, it can as readily take it away.
Friday 17 January was the end of a four day record heatwave with Melbourne reaching maximum temperatures from 41 to 44 degrees.
This was happening as Jill and I were enjoying a seaside holiday at the south of Melbourne’s bay on the Mornington Peninsula where her mother lives, where the family has a beachfront boatshed (see earlier blog) and the average maximums were up to eight degrees cooler.
We had a small taste of what was coming on the Wednesday, when cigarette thrown from a car ignited a grassfire on a nearby hilltop which jumped a freeway and destroyed a local restaurant. Some people watched it from the beach as dispassionately and detached as if they were watching TV news about the Syrian civil war. Others ignored it completely, too engrossed with the pleasures of what they had come for: swimming, drinking or blasting around on jetskis.
By the third day of the heatwave, dry thunderstorms had speared tens of thousands of lightning strikes to set off dozens of fires in our state Victoria, and neighbouring South Australia. Whole towns were evacuated, one life has been lost, enormous resources are once again deployed and the economy will be slugged.
Despite this sort of thing happening almost every summer now and in some bad fire years hundreds of lives are lost, Australians last year took a step to demonstrate our contempt for those who blame these events on climate change caused by humans- we elected the conservative national government led by a prime minister, Tony Abbott, famously quoted in a past declaration that he believed climate change science was “crap.”
People holidaying down here might have been inclined to agree, a week or so earlier there was a string of non beach days including one with an icy wild afternoon blast, that blew boats along the beach and turned the water to foam.
The prime minister does however do volunteer fire fighting in his own Sydney electorate and in last year’s Sydney fires he was filmed for the news, driving a fire truck in a baseball cap- Australia’s answer to that other action man leader, Vladimir Putin.
Before retiring I was a journalist and in 1988 one of the first in Australia to write about climate change. I remember what the scientists predicted, couched as it was in equivocal scientific jargon. Most of what they predicted then appears to be happening. But there is in this country a well funded clique of climate change deniers, some of whom hide behind semi-scientific credits. It is an echo of how the tobacco lobby acted before they had to move into developing countries to make a profit.
In 1999 as evironment reporter for Melbourne’s Age newspaper, I wrote a piece a decade after climate change was first discussed, quoting some of our top scientists. The story said their predictions appeared to have been largely right from the start. A complaint was lodged to Australia’s media watchdog, the Press Council on the grounds I had not quoted any climate change critics (or denialists as I prefer to call them). I won the case, but it was difficult to find out the real identity of who had made the complaint.
It looked like the case was brought by a guy who worked as a researcher in Western Australia, on coal technology, but it had all the signs of being generated out of that reactionary-towards-everything, Melbourne based right wing lobby group, the Institute of Public Affairs. I think they supported the tobacco industry in the past.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the other side particularly The Australian Greens have all the answers. That party in particular reminds me of the ”thou shalt not” prophets from the wilderness in the old testament. They do not have a grip on what will be politically acceptable in this country.
Although Abbott has recently modified his anti-climate change vitriol, one of his most high profile acts since elected had been to try to repeal the carbon tax introduced by the previous Labor government that survived with Green support. This is despite Australia having one of the lowest carbon dioxide reducing targets in the developed world. Our enviable prosperity and lifestyle is largely underpinned by our export of rocks, most notoriously coal. This is convenient because the emissions from its burning are on the emissions tab of the countries where it is burnt, mostly China, Japan and India, not where it is mined.
According to a report by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, in 2009-2010, Australia exported 293 million tonnes of black coal mostly for electricity generation, and in the same year just 10,000 tonnes of uranium. Embedded in the environmental cost of both of these minerals is the amount of carbon dioxide used in transporting them from the mines to the power stations. On rough figures the exports of our coal needed 30,000 times more energy to transport it than the 10,000 tonnes of uranium. Those same figures showed that uranium generated twice as much electricity (with virtually no greenhouse gas) as did the massive pile of coal.
So as one of the world’s largest per head emitters of CO2 and probably one of the largest outright, if your count in our exported coal, we are also enjoy with one of the world’s largest home supplies of uranium, yet we don’t have a single nuclear power station. The reason is because Australians don’t want to face what they perceive as the nuclear risk. It is a risk that is more phobic than real. Even including Chernobyl, there have been comparatively few deaths resulting from nuclear power station accidents. Everyone is now quoting the disaster at Fukushima, but there are no known deaths there. Apart from those killed in bushfires, about 400 die from heat stress related illness in our city alone each summer. Yet it is going to get hotter.
We are quite willing to use electricity, installing home air-conditioners at an increasing rate, along with anything else that has a plug attached. And we are happy to do so burning coal or putting our faith in some alternative energy. Solar panels probably do reduce the demand, but in terms of the energy needed they are the equivalent of a fart in a thunderstorm.
All this and the government we have just elected is also cutting back alternstive energy incentives anyway.
So what can we do? Like a lot of people we throw up our hands, consider buying an air conditioner and enjoy the beach.
Here’s to hedonism!