Renfrey Clarke

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.

If you are thinking of challenging a mining development in the courts, be prepared to go through the financial wringer. You might think you have an open-and-shut case, that the federal government has shirked its responsibilities under environmental legislation. But if the finding goes against you, the government and the mining industry will see you bankrupt.

Whatever BHP Billiton wants to expand operations at its huge Olympic Dam copper, gold and uranium mine, Australian authorities are almost frantic to give it. Clear violations of environment laws are not even being allowed to stand in the way.

But where governments have shirked their responsibilities, eco-activists have stepped up to defend the environment. On April 3 and 4 a federal court in Adelaide heard a challenge to the mine expansion. A ruling is expected in coming weeks.

I remember Grong Grong; my aunt and uncle had a store there in the 1960s. Floods are not common in this stretch of the NSW Riverina, but they happen in odd years when the Murrumbidgee River further south rises and breaks its banks.

For runoff from the often-parched paddocks around Grong Grong to cause flooding is almost unheard of.

“I’ve come to believe that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.”

With climate change, humanity basically doesn’t get any second chances. For a recognisable climate to be preserved, net global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak within the next decade, then decline to zero by around mid-century. It’s a tight call, so we have to get things right first time. If we delay, the laws of physics will not be kind.

“A White House investigation … uncovered a culture of complacency, cost-cutting and systemic failures and companies unprepared to deal with accidents and consequences.”

That was how ABC News on January 18 summed up the findings of the US inquiry into last year’s disaster at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

The explosion caused 11 deaths, and unleashed the worst accidental marine oil spill in history. About 4.9 million barrels of oil escaped over nearly three months before the well was capped.

When the right-wing press isn’t hacking the voicemail of murdered teenagers, much of its energy goes to denouncing “green extremists”. You know, the ones who’d destroy our economy just to claw back a few tonnes of greenhouse emissions.

So what would Rupert Murdoch, Andrew Bolt and their whole tribe prefer be done, in practice and in the near term, to stop global warming? Let’s be honest — nothing.

Cutting emissions, they implicitly argue, will inevitably cost more than if society lets carbon polluters get on with what they do best.

When you’re the world’s biggest resource corporation, and aim to gouge high profits for the next century from the world’s largest mine, you probably won’t care to let environmental considerations block your path.

Add in a state government frantic to get investment dollars flowing, and the outlook for threatened species in the vicinity could be grim.

BHP Billiton is due to decide early next year whether to spend an estimated $20 billion on a massive expansion of its Olympic Dam copper, gold and uranium mine near Roxby Downs, 560 kilometres north of Adelaide.

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