A pattern is emerging in which Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott chooses to ignore the prominent signs that climate change is severely impacting Australia and instead focus on rapidly extracting more fossil fuels from the ground. In December, his environmental minister, Greg Hunt, approved a massive coal mine in northeastern Australia that will produce up to 40 million tons of coal a year and emit as much CO2 as a small European country. Abbott has also denied any link between harmful bushfires and a changing climate — evidenced by Australia experiencing its hottest year on record in 2013.
During an especially dry start to the summer season this year a nasty spate of bushfires broke out around Sydney. After brushing off the idea that climate change could have anything to do with it, Abbott said “fire is part of the Australian experience … it has been since humans were on this continent.”
Now, amidst another round of smothering heatwaves and deadly bushfires, Abbott is focusing on a different element: wind. However, unlike with fires, he’s taking a more critical eye towards this eternal staple of Australian history.
Last week Abbott floated revisiting the possibility that wind farms might have a negative impact on health, suggesting that that National Health and Medical Research Council hadn’t looked into the subject in a while. The timing on this seems very odd, considering the NHMRC reviewed the issue in 2010, and in 2012 started another review, with the results scheduled for public consultation early this year.
According to the NHMRC website, possible impacts of wind farms on human health include audible and inaudible noise, shadow flicker and electromagnetic radiation.
“There have been no less than 19 reviews of the evidence on wind farms and health published since 2002,” Renew Economy reported regarding Abbott’s recent statements. “All have concluded that while sometimes a minority of people exposed report adverse health effects from living near turbines, there is no good evidence that these effects are directly attributable to the turbines.”
So why is Abbott calling for this redoubled effort to find negative health impacts associated with wind farms when it seems like ignoring climate change is the real danger? The recent weather has been so hot that thousands of bats are dropping dead from trees and kangaroos are struggling to stay upright. Even Australia’s native eucalyptus, around as long as fires have been burning them, are struggling with survival under the long-term stress of climate change. And it’s not just mother nature’s creations that are suffering — iPods don’t work under such conditions either.
Meanwhile, Australia has one of the lowest costs of wind energy anywhere, with the Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics recently saying that wind power is now competitive with fossil fuel plants. In fact, recent studies have found that Australia could have a 100 percent renewable electricity grid by 2040 and all the country would have to do is slightly increase solar and wind power deployment.
The main impediment to this at the moment would appear to be the Australian government itself, and Abbott’s anti-climate, anti-clean energy agenda. Abbott has already invested serious political capital in dismantling Australia’s internationally leading carbon emissions scheme. In November he cut the budget for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which funds renewable energy projects and research. Then last week he announced that the Australian Cleantech Competition would be renamed the Australian Technologies Competition — so it would appear even uttering words like climate or clean energy isn’t in the cards anymore.
Abbott has also recently indicated that he will likely weaken or scrap the country’s mandated target for producing 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020, saying that “lower power prices are the government’s primary goal.”
A recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that Australia was second among advanced nations in terms of greenhouse gas emissions intensity per GDP. It also found that of the 34 nations included in the study only Chile, Mexico, Korea and Turkey increased their emissions more than Australia in the last 23 years.
Australia has been bestowed with an abundance of coal, gas, wind and sun. In recent decades the government has invested heavily in extracting and exporting the fossil fuel elements to fuel economic growth; but with renewable energy price-competitive, readily available, and climate friendly, it’s hard to see the argument against transitioning other than that the vested interests want business-as-usual to continue. However the harsh reality is that the climate will not continue as business-as-usual, especially if reduced greenhouse gas emissions aren’t achieved soon.