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July 27th 2012 print

Tom Quirk

Climate Commission in Melbourne

Storey Hall was an appropriate place for over three hundred people to face six Climate Commissioners as it has the look and feel of a space that was shifted from Luna Park.


The Climate Commissioners held a Conversation in Melbourne with the interested public on Tuesday night, 24 July, in Storey Hall at RMIT.


Storey Hall was an appropriate place for over three hundred people to face six Commissioners as it has the look and feel of a space that was shifted from Luna Park. Of the six commissioners, three out of the four males had beards, Tim Flannery, Will Steffen and Roger Beale. The less hirsute was Gerry Heuston coming from the corporate world of Beyond Petroleum! The two lady commissioners were Lesley Hughes and Veena Sahajwalla. 

Years ago Private Eye defined an environmental disaster as a man with a beard on television and an environmental catastrophe as a number of men with beards on television. After attending the “Conversation” that is as good a piece of evidence for climate catastrophe as anything that was said in the meeting. 

The meeting started with Tim Flannery stating that it was not the role of the Commission to do the Government’s work on climate change and they did not intrude on policy issues. The four page handout found on every seat in the hall urged us to talk to the wider community on the need for action and provided contact information for environmental groups! 

Flannery then introduced Will Steffen to talk briefly on the science of climate change. Steffen gave a very good talk for nine-year olds with slides showing rising air and sea temperatures and how computer models demonstrated that the cause of the temperature rise was fossil fuel emissions. He then handed over to Lesley Hughes who pinned the blame for the Victorian bushfires firmly on climate change and excused the recent rainfall as an accidental benefit of La Ninas. She then showed how her grand-children might have to live on a planet with a five degree increase in global temperature. This is the sort of change people experience in moving from Melbourne to the Gold Coast! So we would not have to travel north. 

After these demonstrations of impending catastrophe Flannery returned to explain the next step for Australia was into the bright future of new technology and business development. This tour d’horizon was so broad brush that there were no paint strokes. Without detail you might well ask what insights into renewable technology are to be had from Climate Commissioners but no one asked that question. 

Flannery started by stating that the costs of solar panels made in China had fallen seventy percent in a year. He did not mention the collapse of solar panel makers in the United States and Europe. In some areas – not specified – solar panel electricity was now cost competitive. Victoria had abundant sunlight. In fact by my calculation if we covered half the state with solar panels and batteries underneath for the night time supply we would have no need of our present electricity generators but possibly half the population would have moved elsewhere. Wind was plentiful in the state but no mention of intermittent performance of wind farms. Finally solar thermal would come to the rescue delivering power “twenty four/seven”. The reality might be nearer to the George W Bush definition of twenty four days in the month, seven months a year! 

At this point the conversation commenced as the Commissioners invited questions from the audience. The moderator for this was Tracey Curro, sometime Communications Manager for Sustainability Victoria. She managed the questions from the floor with some skill, limiting the statements and encouraging the questions. 

The questions started with “how do we prepare our children for the predicted future”? Then to some applause a future Green Party Senate candidate asked when would we stop exporting coal? Roger Beale answered by explaining that we were exporting coal for the benefit of others as they lifted their living standards. The answer was not well received and led to the next obvious question of how do we reduce our fossil fuel emissions by 2020? Then someone asked were the Commissioners speaking to the converted. This provoked an interesting reply that may be this was the case but then the converted should go out to the mass of people and convert them. 

A change of direction brought up the issue of reduced rainfall in Victoria so where do we grow our crops. Lesley Hughes replied that farmers were a resilient group and new strains of cereals would surely come to their rescue (but don’t mention GM). Then we returned to how to change Big Business, Roger Beale replied by market forces or regulation. Presumably the market forces were carbon pricing or taxes but he did think it would be better to have one consistent approach rather than a RET here and a handout there. What was needed was certainty in policy. 

The two most interesting questions came at the end. 

Someone asked about nuclear power. Gerry Hueston replied that it would be the answer for some countries but not for Australia given the present politics. Flannery finished this with an incisive economic analysis that with solar panel costs falling by seventy percent who would commit to building a multi-billion dollar power plant that would need the certainty of twenty or more years of operation to give an economic return? (Andrew Bolt has reported that Flannery was all for nuclear power just a few years ago.) 

The inevitable question then came as the Commissioners were asked why were they concentrating their attention on us rather than Mother-Earth? Flannery replied that he had worked for twenty years with New Guinea tribes who had real respect for their environment and the spirits of the earth. Perhaps we could learn something from them. 

The meeting ended at this point but it had all the flavour of a revivalist group but of course this was inner Melbourne and north of the Yarra. Back in March 2007 a little known writer, William York, had a poem “Flannery of the Overflow” published in the IPA Review. On 24 July this year Flannery lived up to this sobriquet