When it comes to planning our national – and global – future it appears that science rather than ideology, wishful thinking and intellectual mischief-making has become increasingly the basis in which ordinary people are placing their trust when making judgements about whether or not some proposition or policy is likely to be factually-based.

The evidence for this is probably most evident in the impact of the COVID pandemic in this country and the willingness of most Australians to respond positively to the invitation to receive a vaccination which may keep severe illness or even death at bay.

It has been almost two years since the destructive and disruptive COVID virus invaded Australia.

The massive responses by government, health authorities, industry – and Australians themselves to the one-in-100 years crisis has led most Australians to gain an understanding of the nature of the virus, its tremendously long and indiscriminate reach, and the fact medical science and the health system had responses to mitigate, control and perhaps defeat a mindless but deadly infectious disease.

Over time, through the medium of the mass media, people learned about the virus itself, how it was spread and how individuals and communities could protect themselves.

The agency to do this was generally through the voices and presence of medical leaders and research experts in the fields of epidemiology, virology, medical statisticians, and more.

Many of the previous unknown specialists and researchers gradually became regular and trusted faces across the television screens of the nation. The matter-of-fact information and recommendations, although alarming at times, cut through with the general public.

Suggestions from online mischief-makers, crackpots and barrow-pushing alarmists such as that the virus danger itself was a hoax, that certain billionaires were using vaccines to control the world, that all sorts of off-the-shelf cures (bleach in one case), or prayer alone could stymie the virus crumbled in the face of the factual messages that the global research community was delivering on a daily basis. It is now apparent to most intelligent people that those high profile public figures who are not backed by years of study and research in epidemiology or virology yet assert that their own ‘research’ tells them that they can do without vaccination and urge others to also assert their ‘democratic’ rights are wrong and doing a disservice to the community at large.

One American observer notes that the 720,000 US citizens who have lost their lives due to the virus represent a casualty rate higher than the total American losses in WWI and WWII.

Scientists and the pursuit of fact-based knowledge by people who have devoted a lifetime to their fields now have a much higher standing in the Australian public mind.

Science and scientists are now being treated with greater respect by ordinary Australians – and perhaps the political classes who have tended to prefer ideological purity above the words and recommendations of recognised experts.

The evidence that this is so may be why 76 per cent of all Australians now understand and believe that climate change – and global warming – represent an outcome of environmental and other processes at work on our planet today.

Indicators such as the land, atmosphere and the sea tell scientists that changes are occurring that can adversely affect our climate, our plants and animals and oceans. Such changes, such as rising air temperatures, are continuing and are likely to affect the lives and activities of the generations following ours.

Most of the world’s scientists in climate and environmental fields agree that this is the case and believe that humankind needs to make some fairly immediate changes to mitigate or limit a hotter, more volatile climate future.

Governments around the world have been gradually recognising that the climate issue is real and there are clear international moves to take policy actions that will help limit or wind back the generation of harmful volumes of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere and oceans. The international goal, of course, is ‘Zero Carbon’ by the year 2050.

Some countries have indicated an early willingness to aspire to this goal. The Australian government almost belatedly came to a decision to support the 2050 goal. However, most state governments have already indicated that they are of such a mind and have initiated a variety of policies designed to get to the ‘Zero Carbon’ target.

The apparent problem for many Australian politicians has been that although they will publicly express support for plans to limit or end the continued production of carbon, there has been little in the way of serious policy development to achieve this end.

The flowering of alternative energy generation sources in Australia has, however, been strong in recent decades. Rooftop solar, for example, has been a major success story in this country. Large ‘solar farms’, large-scale battery storage, wind power and hydro-power have increasingly become part of the Australian renewable energy scene.

But, the equation in most politicians’ minds has generally been this: ‘70 per cent of Australia’s energy on-demand is dependent on coal. Australia has plenty of coal.

Why should we suddenly change to renewable forms of energy when nature is so unreliable? (Absence of wind, cloudy days, etc). We need to supply our nation with dispatchable (on demand) electricity, no matter what! Also, coal exports represent a source of wealth for this country.’’

Well, it is clear that the sudden closure of all Australia’s coal-fired power stations on one day and hoping for the best by relying on renewables to pick up the slack for domestic and industry needs for every day thereafter is nonsense.

The trouble is that few politicians have explored the options for a non-carbon future. Indeed, a transitionary period to new forms will take some years, but such a transition may be possible. It will require comprehensive planning and determined policy actions, but there are ways forward. Science and modern engineering can be utilised to set us on the right road.

The combination of science, industry and clever investors may have the solutions that escape the politicians. Many large industries and canny
investors are already demonstrating that they cannot wait for government action.

The recent announcement by Dr Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest about his plan to establish a $1 billion manufacturing plant at Aldoga, west of Gladstone, Queensland, to manufacture ‘green energy’ infrastructure and equipment — including electrolysers, cabling and wind turbines — to create ‘green hydrogen’, has shown how innovative pathfinders are showing the way forward.

The new plant is part of an ambitious Australia-wide project to build a plant capable of producing vast quantities of hydrogen by splitting water into its components – oxygen and hydrogen. Bulk hydrogen is an easily exportable energy product. According to the ebullient Twiggy Forrest, the hydrogen revolution could be worth $US 12 trillion by 2050.

Mass-produced hydrogen will become an energy feedstock for continuous electrical power generation. The by-product of burning hydrogen is, of course, water.

The problem of generating sufficient energy to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen can be solved in a number of ways but one of them is by utilising the free power of the sun.

The former Chief Scientist of Australia, Professor Alan Finkel, has been a long-time supporter of the generation of hydrogen by utilising the power of the sun. Australia, he says, has immense areas which could house vast solar arrays capable of providing the power needed.

Recently, on a visit to Newcastle, Professor Finkel praised the hydrogen energy research programs underway at Newcastle University and expressed his high interest in the efforts by several Newcastle industries to be part of the hydrogen energy revolution.

It appears that Dr Forrest may well have the solution for producing the infrastructure such a huge, integrated hydrogen power generation system would require.

Dr Forrest may represent the class of visionary large industrial investors which is now evident around the globe. The presence of such business people who are prepared to invest in the future may well provide the imaginative spur that some Australian federal politicians need to set suitable policy frameworks in place to foster the industries this country – and the world – will require if we are to prosper for the remainder of this century.

The transition to a new hydrogen-based economy cannot happen overnight. Let’s say it will take a decade.

That decade should have already started. In fact, it has. But it is likely that the transition period away from coal will need some backup in terms of power reliability.

There are no magic wands.

Professor Richard Bolt (adjunct professor of energy transformation at Swinburne University, Victoria) has defended the view that natural gas (which still only occupies a small part of the Australian energy generation mix) will be required “to keep the lights on” during the transition phase because it offers a guarantee of power certainty during any switch to the energy generation forms we call ‘renewables’.

The view that we need natural gas to bridge the gap during the ending of coal-based power generation would seem to support a case for the operation of Narrabri’s CSG fields for the transition period.

Of course, there are genuine concerns in the mining and power generation fields that job losses and economic hardship will face some regions. It’s all very well for city-based environmentalists to cry that ‘tourism jobs can replace coal industry jobs’ but better and more sensitive responses will need to apply to the question of jobs in affected areas.

This issue is being handled by a number of overseas coal-producing regions and there is evidence that Australia has handled such situations in the past reasonably well.

The closure of the BHP steelworks (2300 direct jobs lost) and the resultant programs to find new jobs in the region and beyond offers one such example which provides some good guidelines for regions and governments.

However, it is worth remembering that the sudden loss of Namoi Valley Electricity headquarters in Narrabri cost Narrabri about 100 jobs.

The loss of the Narrabri-based employer was probably equivalent in scale to the loss of BHP in Newcastle yet the state and other employment programs was not on the same scale in Narrabri. The town and district did, however, manage to cope with such a setback and has come back bigger and stronger.

The lessons of major economic transition must not be forgotten, and governments, local, state and federal, must establish functional and sensible programs to reap the rewards of a new, safer era of power generation.

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