Renfrey Clarke

First there was climate denial. But the mocking laughter of the informed public – along with the indignation of the scientists – finally reached the energy-company boardrooms.

So now instead we get the non sequitur. That’s Latin for “it doesn’t follow”. Rather than lying outright, the fossil-fuel chiefs make nakedly contradictory statements and count on us not to notice.

Outside the city of Port Augusta in South Australia, the firm Alinta Energy runs the ageing brown coal-fired Northern power station. Environmentalists and local campaigners want the plant replaced with state-of-the-art solar power generation. But Alinta would rather solar power were used to pre-heat water for the existing plant, which would then stay in operation for further decades.

Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at Manchester University, said on October 29 last year: “Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.”

Anderson is one of Britain’s most eminent climate scientists. He is also deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Tyndall Centre senior research fellow and Manchester University reader Alice Bows-Larkin was more blunt in a November interview: “We need bottom-up and top-down action. We need change at all levels.”

For anyone who knows the science, it’s settled — fossil fuels need to be banished fast from our energy mix. But how do we achieve it? Can we rely on renewable sources such as wind and solar? Or must humanity turn to nuclear power?

That’s a controversy that has bubbled away for years among people who all accept the dangers of global warming. Now, from the energy sector in China, there’s hard new evidence bearing on this debate.

The experience in China shows that as a way of quickly replacing greenhouse-polluting fuels, renewable energy wins against nuclear, hands down.

“It’s move over Olympic Dam with a massive shale oil find confirmed for Linc Energy in South Australia, which sent its share price into orbit,” the ABC’s The Business said on January 29, exulting at a big discovery of unconventional oil and gas near the remote town of Coober Pedy, 800 kilometres north-west of Adelaide.

As the fossil fuel lobby tells it, natural gas — in chemical terms, almost all methane — is clean and green. Burn it in a modern power plant, and per unit of electricity produced, only about half as much carbon dioxide is sent up the exhaust stack compared to good-quality coal.

That’s like saying you’re making progress if you get off heroin onto amphetamines. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Even if the sums worked the way the gas corporations suggest, a wholesale switch to gas would put off climate disaster only by a few decades.

In Port Pirie, an industrial centre 220 kilometres north of Adelaide in South Australia, more than half of two-year-olds suffer from lead poisoning at a level consistent with later behavioural problems and loss of learning ability. The problem is more than twice as bad as anywhere else in Australia, including such lead-polluted cities as Mt Isa and Broken Hill.

Australian gas company Santos have recently commenced commercial drilling for shale gas in the Cooper Basin in Moomba, South Australia. Like coal seam gas, shale gas is a form of unconventional gas that requires "fracking" to release it.

The Climate Emergency Action Network (CLEAN) held a protest on December 14 in front of Christmas shoppers in Adelaide's Rundle Mall, before marching to Santos HQ. Their message to the SA state government was: "No to unconventional gas - Yes to renewables".

The text below is a speech given at the protest by CLEAN activist Gemma Weedall.

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Nuclear fission is an innately dangerous process – and the nuclear industry’s record of handling the dangers has been well short of perfect. Traditionally, that’s been enough for the environment movement to reject nuclear energy.

Climate change, though, subjects this established position to an important challenge. The final death toll from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, by some estimates, could reach hundreds of thousands. But a full-scale climate disaster could kill most of humanity − thousands of millions of people.

The rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin are dying. While average inflows decline due to climate change, extractions for irrigation remain at environmentally damaging levels.

But the plan for management of the basin’s water resources drawn up by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), due to be adopted by federal parliament later this year, ignores fundamental problems.

Unscientific and politically-driven, the plan needs to be torn up, and the tasks of saving what can be saved of the rivers, their ecosystems and their human communities addressed afresh.

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