Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Thirty Year Warning

By Ian Lowe

CSIRO predicted the increasing severity of cyclones 30 years ago.

The severe flooding in eastern Australia caused by Cyclone Debbie and its aftermath, and the more recent storm damage in New Zealand, are just the latest in a whole series of extreme weather events. Being asked by a journalist if they were related to climate change sent me back to scan the book produced after the first national conference on climate change, Greenhouse 87: Planning for Climate Change. Prof Graeme Pearman edited the book, which included peer-reviewed presentations to the conference.

At the time, the cyclones that hit northern Australia were usually graded as category 2, with an occasional category 3 event like Cyclone Tracey, which devastated Darwin. The late Prof K.P. Stark of James Cook University said in his conference paper that if the modelling then being done by the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Science was correct, increasing sea surface temperatures would inevitably result in more severe cyclones. Because the central pressure of tropical storms is directly related to the temperature of the ocean where those events develop, he argued that we could see category 4 or possibly even category 5 cyclones hit the Queensland coast by the 2030s. This would cause much more direct property damage from the stronger winds as well as more coastal flooding from the greater storm surges.

Stark’s analysis was attacked vigorously by the tourism industry, which accused him of spreading alarm on the basis of uncertain and speculative science. But Debbie was only the latest in a whole series of category 4 or category 5 cyclones to hit the Queensland coast in recent years. And the stronger cyclonic events crossing the Western Australian coast have produced a new phenomenon in South Australia, central Australia and the western areas of NSW, Queensland and Victoria: heavy summer rainfall. We are already seeing significant impacts of climate change, demonstrating that adaptation strategies are not just urgently needed, but overdue.

The key conclusion of a symposium convened by the Energy Change Institute of the Australian National University was that Australia needs a bipartisan national energy policy that aims to deliver low-carbon, reliable and cost-effective power. This makes sense as a response to global climate change. The fact that energy has become a political football precludes the long-term planning that is needed when power supply systems have lifetimes ranging from 30–50 years. Who will invest if the rules might change again next year?

The meeting was held to review the report of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. Given that agenda, several of the participants it attracted still think that nuclear power makes sense for Australia, even though the Royal Commission didn’t support that possibility in South Australia.

If anything, the South Australian inquiry could be accused of being generous to the case for nuclear power. It used what was estimated in 2016 to be the likely cost of four new reactors being built in the USA by Westinghouse. However, the 2007 UMPNER review warned that construction costs in Australia would probably be higher than in countries with an established nuclear power industry.

Since the Royal Commission reported, Westinghouse has filed for bankruptcy in New York, citing cost over-runs on the power stations estimated at nearly A$15 billion. The financial analysis by Bloomberg was that Westinghouse had gambled its future on nuclear power, and lost. But supporters of nuclear energy still see it as having a role in a low-carbon future, so they found common cause with those who favour expanding renewables.

The symposium spent a lot of time considering the Royal Commission’s recommendation that South Australia should move into storing radioactive waste from other countries. That proposal now has an uncertain future after the citizens’ jury convened by the State government did not support the idea.

There were many supporters of the possible project at the symposium, as well as more cautious voices. Storing nuclear waste would be illegal under South Australian legislation passed in 2000. The symposium generally supported the Royal Commission’s view that the law should be repealed to allow “an orderly, detailed and thorough analysis and discussion” of the proposal. However, opponents believe analysis discredits the proposal.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.