The shock of the new should not be confused with a new kind of shock

Wednesday 25 January 2012

The summer holidays provide an opportunity for many of us in our largely urbanised population to revisit rural landscapes as we travel to visit relatives, go camping or engage in that Aussie summer favourite, a trip to the beach. The encroachment of urban developments and industrial structures on previously bucolic rural vistas comes as a shock as we pass remembered landscapes suddenly altered by the telltale signs of human existence. A new housing estate, factory, freeway, rail line, mine or power station; all change our natural environment in fundamental and inescapably distinct ways. We may wistfully recall a sleepier, untouched time and place; but the change is quickly forgotten as we pass, and its impact fades until the next visit. For those who inhabit changing landscapes however, the changes can disrupt one's sense of place and sense of identity, and can lead to feelings sometimes associated with grief and loss. As our steadily growing human population leaves its mark across the globe, with seven billion of us now sprawling out across seven continents, there are few places on Earth now left untouched. This is having dramatic impacts on the natural environment, but are changes people largely accept because of the benefits those developments bring to human society (and the trappings of Western lifestyles many of us have come to expect): high speed Internet, road transport infrastructure commensurate with our predilection for cars, and reliable electricity and water supplies. Much of this infrastructure development occurs infrequently, being big ticket items so costly that governments shy away from them, and substantial investments therefore only take place every decade or so. In Australia this has left us with much ageing and inadequate infrastructure, particularly in the energy and transport sectors. We are likely to see significant changes in terms of infrastructure development to address this in coming decades. As the planning and development of this new infrastructure takes place, it will be important to keep in perspective its purpose and to choose technologies that pose the least environmental risk and are the safest in terms of their impact on human and ecological health. Part of the impetus in the energy sector is the declining quality of existing infrastructure - our forty to fifty year old coal fired power stations have passed their use-by date, and it is only the cost of their replacement (and the histrionics of their politically powerful owners) that appear to compel governments to award ongoing licences to operate. There are even more compelling pressures to upgrade our energy infrastructure however; the mining, transportation, and burning of coal for electricity generation poses serious threats to human health and is responsible for hundreds, possibly thousands of avoidable deaths each year from the toxins and pollution produced by this process. Coal kills; and whether we burn it here or ship it offshore for others to burn, it will lead to loss of life and the development of serious illnesses and human suffering. Not only does coal poses a health threat, it is the principal villain in driving dangerous climate change worldwide, and its replacement therefore one of the big potential wins in cutting national emissions and reducing our very high level of emissions per person. Gas too poses serious risks - given the shift to shallow coal seam gas mining as traditional natural gas reserves diminish, fertile farmland is being lost to industrial wastelands, and underground water tables threatened by the use of mining chemicals untested for human safety. Coupled with the emerging evidence that coal seam gas poses as big a threat to atmospheric pollution as coal (it may have an even higher lifecycle emissions profile than coal), this leaves renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind in the box seat in terms of safety for human health and as climate friendly technologies. There are powerful vested interests however in preventing the widespread roll out of these technologies and recent activities suggest these interests are promoting anxiety and concern in the community regarding the safety of some renewable energy technology, such as wind power. Often these concerns can be heightened by a sense of disruption with regard to place identity and are understandable human responses to changes in the known environment. It is important to however not to confuse these responses with genuine concerns with regard to wellbeing, and the community must be careful not to allow those with vested interests to exploit the public's sense of vulnerability around change and lack of access to credible information by promoting fears about the safety of wind power. Recent reviews of the scientific literature demonstrate that there is no credible peer reviewed scientific evidence that demonstrates a link between wind turbines and adverse health impacts in people living in proximity to them. A new paper has been developed by a coalition of Australian health groups should assuage community concerns on this topic. The Health and Wind Turbines position paper, released by the Climate and Health Alliance today, finds that while large-scale commercial wind farms have been in operation internationally for many decades, often in close proximity to thousands of people, there is no evidence of any associated increases in ill-health. Change in our known environment can be challenging. Investing in safe community infrastructure is important for all of us. In making decisions about our future energy supply, we must consider the costs of current forms of electricity generation on climate change and health for all members of the community, including those living in proximity to infrastructure. Fortunately for the community and the climate, wind power offers a safe, reliable, climate-friendly alternative to harmful and high emissions from coal, and is available now at prices we can afford. This article first appeared on Climate Spectator on January 25, 2012.