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Coal Is The Real Culprit For The SA Storms

The storms show the vulnerability of Australian cities to climate change, not the failures of renewable energy.

29/09/2016 2:21 PM AEST | Updated 29/09/2016 2:34 PM AEST
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Andrew Meares/Fairfax
"The immediate response of our Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was not to acknowledge that climate change was a key factor behind one of the most ferocious storms in South Australia’s history -– but rather the State’s renewable energy was to blame."

As South Australian emergency workers seek to restore order to a state battered by extreme weather and an energy system unable to cope, plunging 70000 people into darkness, we need to ask why the Australian government isn't better prepared to deal with the type of extreme weather climate scientists have been warning of for years.

But the immediate response of our Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was not to acknowledge that climate change was a key factor behind one of the most ferocious storms in South Australia's history -– but rather the State's renewable energy was to blame. "[Windpower] wasn't working too well last night, because they had blackout," My Joyce told the ABC.

The Deputy Prime Minister would blame the death of Elvis Presley on renewable energy if it helped competitors in the big polluting fossil fuel industries.

In reality, even if South Australia was powered entirely from coal, rather than 40 percent by renewable energy, as it currently is, this blackout would still have happened. As SA Premier Jay Weatherill said: "This was a weather event, not a renewable energy event... You have got these essentially ignorant remarks being made by Barnaby Joyce because he hates wind farms and he decided to play politics with a crisis."

The Premier is right. If anything, the SA storms show the vulnerability of Australian cities to climate change. Australia's energy and water infrastructure is concentrated in South east Australia. It's where most Australians live. This concentration has many benefits but it also means our concentrated, centralised systems are more vulnerable to extreme weather.

What would have happened if the storms that hit SA had of whacked NSW or Victoria? It was only by dumb luck that Melbourne was spared the storms this time round –- but climate predictions tell us that more frequent and severe storms are likely. If nothing else, the SA storm on September 28th tells us we are simply not prepared.

To take a longer view on the problems behind increasing extreme weather events, as we must, we need to grasp the reality that Australians are also dependent on natural infrastructure like forests and rivers to provide freshwater to cities. Built infrastructure are connected to natural infrastructure. When a river that supplies a city with water runs dry, people go thirsty. It's that simple.

Yet, as it stands, the Australian government has no national conservation policy to support the management of critical natural infrastructure such as those found in the Great Dividing Range. Our national environment law is outdated and ignores these issues.

The federal government has a clear leadership role in mitigating the climate pollution, and leading a coordinated response to the extreme and deadly weather that a warming planet to inflict on communities. Currently, the federal government is AWOL on both challenges.

It is Attorney General George Brandis who is has ultimate responsibility for ensuring a whole of federal government response to critical national infrastructure is in place and resilient to climate change –- but thus far there is scant evidence that he has even considered the scope of that responsibility.

In fact, the last national critical infrastructure resilience strategy completed in 2015 does not mention climate change or consider natural infrastructure to be "critical".

We have the same problem with Australia's National Electricity Market, which works to objectives that pay no attention to climate change and do not place any priority on transitioning to clean, renewable energy system.

The Turnbull Government can fix that by working with state governments on a sensible national plan to transition away from coal to clean energy at the next COAG energy ministers meeting in December 2016.

Meanwhile, every month brings news of weather records being broken -– and 2016 is on track to be the hottest year on record and monthly temperatures reveal a remarkable global streak of record-warm months.

Our atmosphere is warming while governments and big polluters fail to cut greenhouse gas pollution. This warming is bringing more extreme weather as we have just witnessed in South Australia, directly threatening the environment and infrastructure that people depend on.

No, Barnaby Joyce, the problem isn't renewable energy — it's coal. Australia's reliance on coal for electricity is fuelling climate change, which means more extreme heat, more flooding and more storms as the atmosphere warms.

The Turnbull Government has the ultimate responsibility to lead the efforts to create clean, smart cities and restore our natural landscapes to cut pollution and help communities and nature cope with worsening extreme weather. It's about time they started.

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