For some time now my only exposure to the world has been through five minutes of radio news on Classic FM, plus some TV news at 6 pm (how much I get is affected by our dinner time at this nursing home). But, bit by bit, I’ve been hearing and seeing more. The coming elections in Australia and NSW have rather passed me by, though I have become more impressed than I once was by the Prime Minister’s capacity to speak cogently and apparently without notes.
The issue that has grabbed me most, especially in the last few weeks, has been heat/weather/climate, mostly because it has been a staple element in both kinds of news. And two elements have stood out — extremes, and consequences for the electricity grid. Ole Humlum’s monthly survey of all kinds of weather data from the official sources won’t be out for a few days. But already we know that January was, in global terms, an extremely hot month. What is more, nearly all of it came from one continent — ours. Our hot January pushed North America’s very cold January out of consideration, though North America might score more powerfully for February.
The ABC devoted a lot of time to voiced alarm about our hot weather, and also to the contemporaneous freeze in the USA and Canada, but seemed unable to draw any conclusions about ‘climate change’. Perhaps its news editors felt that drawing conclusions was for the listener/viewer, and there’s something to that. But the ABC gave plenty of time to scary warnings from the self-appointed Climate Council. Listening to the dire alarm made me feel, not for the first time, that those of us who might reasonably style ourselves as ‘climate realists’ need an opposing self-appointed voice pointing out, again and again, that much of the scary stuff is inadequately based on good science. No, I am not proposing to form such a body; I’m too old and too frail. But it needs a leader and a sponsor or two, perhaps through crowd-funding and not via large donations from coal miners or their counterparts.
Throughout the past few weeks we have been urged to do the right thing and not put a strain on the grid — turn things off, make your house warmer, not cooler, and so on. We have so far escaped real blackouts, though it was apparently a close-run thing in Victoria. If you will forgive the mangled metaphor, we are skating on thin ice in terms of hot and cold weather. If we have an unusually cold, still and cloudy winter the same appeals will occur again, and cold weather, really cold weather, is much more costly in terms of human life than is hot weather.
It is well to remember that 85 per cent of our Eastern Grid electricity comes from the burning of fossil fuels, with hydro making up most of the difference. Solar and wind contribute very little, and it is hard to see them ever doing much more in terms of ‘dispatchable’, reliable, cheap electricity. More and more houses are being equipped with solar panels, and that is fine for domestic users, if they have the money and don’t live in an apartment. But the system as a whole absolutely relies on coal, and to a much smaller extent on natural gas and portable fuels like petrol and distillate. So when you hear someone expatiate on how the electric vehicle will help to save the environment, you might quietly suggest that its fuel comes, 85 per cent of it, from fossils.
And I didn’t hear any of this being argued out in what might well be one of the longest election campaigns I can remember. It’s all about how each side will act to reduce the cost of our electricity bills. Mr Shorten says he is going to ramp up the installation of renewables, though how that will make a difference is not clear to me. If any journalist asked him that question, the grab and the reply did not appear in the telecasts I saw. It’s just not do-able. It has to be true that he and the other senior people on the Labor side know this — the arithmetic is simple. If we want to have really reliable, dispatchable electric power then we need to ramp up coal-fired generating power stations. But no-one is proposing this.
Why? And again the arithmetic is pretty simple. Both sides have become trapped in a dilemma, in which a passionate minority outweighs a relatively indifferent majority. I’ve written about this before, so here is a quick summary. Around the world, including the USA and Australia, the proportion of respondents who tell the interviewer that ‘climate change’ is important to them runs at about 7 per cent. That is without any prompting from the interviewer. If you feed the respondent a question about the importance of climate change then you will get much higher numbers saying ‘Oh yes, it’s pretty important’. You would get the same sort of responses about any issue of media consequence, like domestic violence, child abuse or dead fish in the Murray/Darling system.
But those 7 per cent make up most of The Greens, who are well organised and hold some legislative sway. They are supported by well-funded NGOs like the WWF, international agencies that have links to the United Nations, not to mention Australian government departments and agencies for which ‘climate change’ is their reason for existence. Yes, I would like the Prime Minister and his ministers to say a few things straightforwardly, that the Paris Accord is rubbish, that more new coal-fired generators are essential, that fracking is the way to make us more petroleum-resilient, and so on. There would be a tremendous fuss if they did, because that would to go against the orthodoxy, and the electorate has not been prepared for such a contest. The other 93 per cent who aren’t passionate alarmists don’t care enough about the issue to go into battle for the Government. They are interested in jobs, transport, education and their kids’ futures. Not only that, to repeat, they don’t know much about climate change, and think it’s all too hard for them. It isn’t, and our governments have let the electorate down by not setting out, clearly and accessibly, that there are many sides to this issue, and governments have to tread carefully.
Bill Shorten won’t do any more than talk about the issue and the importance of renewables. It’s not a Federal matter, for the most part, anyway. But he will pounce on the Coalition if there is any move to become rational about the electricity problem, dragging all the local, national and international alarmists to his side. So we’ll muddle on, paying more for our power and getting nowhere. If our population goes on increasing as it has done in the last decade — roughly another million people every three years — the strain on the Eastern Grid will produce system failures and blackouts before very long. And then each side will blame the other. We ought to be able to do better than this, but there is no sign that doing better will happen, from either side. Winning in May is what it is all about, and who cares what happens then? Whatever it takeswas the title of former Labor Minister Richardson’s account of his political life. It applies to both of our party groups at the moment.
Add in the many examples of unethical behaviour by our elected representatives, and you can see that the election campaign will not be about some central issues, but another smokes-and-mirrors fest. It is really disheartening. And I haven’t even mentioned the ACT Government’s quite dishonest claim that the ACT is close to, or will arrive at, being one hundred per cent renewable. Ecchh! Remember, when you press the light switch in the ACT, 85 per cent of the electricity comes from fossil fuels…