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Book Reviews

The Big Switch: Australia’s Electric Future

A review by Rob McCann

Author: Saul Griffith
Published: 14 Feb 2022
RRP: $23.75
Paperback ISBN: 9781760643874
eISBN: 9781743822371

Saul Griffith is a straight-talking scientist, inventor CEO and founder of several successful companies. He is exactly the kind of person needed right now in the ever-important discussion on energy. After working on the biggest piece of climate legislation in US history, he has moved back to his native Australia and written a book on energy. The Big Switch proposes a smart, viable and achievable pathway out of the mess we are in here in Australia. And we are in one hell of a mess.

The first thing to say is that this topic (energy) is so incredibly important, yet it remains so poorly understood and communicated, so the mere fact that he wrote it – and did so in accessible language – is laudable. The book is loaded with useful facts, statistics, charts and diagrams, and will arm the reader with the tools needed to engage in a robust discussion on energy with your friends and colleagues. It will polish your BS detector, and have you yelling at the TV when commentators or politicians spout nonsense about our energy market.

Saul’s book proposes a very strong case for cautious optimism. His overarching idea is quite simply to electrify everything. That is to say, the path to lowest carbon and lowest cost is through cutting out the middle man (gas, coal, oil, hydrogen) as it were, and send and use energy directly in the worlds machines to where is needed without the use of combustion. This is cheaper, more efficient, anti-inflationary and more sustainable. This principle applies to both your household, the grid and to major industrial processes alike, and I cannot fault it.

You don’t get better, more efficient, lower cost and lower carbon energy by designing machines, systems or processes which require more moving parts and who’s fuel source requires vast amounts of processing, like LNG or hydrogen. These are not more efficient or clean. In fact, the energy, time and cost used to produce these are extraordinary when compared with pure electric derived from say wind or solar. This book is extensively researched, the writing is easy, non-technical and often conversational, but sometimes rushed I have to say. Nonetheless, this is one of the best arguments for clean energy I’ve come across. I learned a lot from this book and you will too. Go read it and let’s electrify everything!

About the Author

Saul Griffith, PhD, is an Australian engineer and inventor. He’s been a principal investigator on research projects for NASA, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the National Science Foundation and US Special Operations Command. He was awarded the MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ in 2007.

Industry Reviews

‘About f-ing time we have an actual plan written down that can be executed and financed. In a decarbonised world, Australia is a winner. The opportunity now is ours for the taking.’ — Mike Cannon-Brookes

So how do scientists know the climate is changing?

And what does it feel like to carry that knowledge and do their vital work at this crucial juncture in Earth’s history?

Fear & Wonder is a new podcast from The Conversation that takes you inside the UN’s climate report via the hearts and minds of the scientists who wrote it. Hosted by climate scientist Dr Joelle Gergis and lead IPCC author and award-winning journalist Michael Green. Listen to the Fear and Wonder podcast

Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope

A review by Tracie Hendriks

Author: Joëlle Gergis
Published: 30 Aug 2022
RRP: $34.99
Paperback ISBN: 9781760643232
eISBN: 9781743822531

I am writing this review as a member of the public with an interest in climate change and strong sense that something must be done urgently to combat it. I do not have any qualifications in environmental science, ecology, or climatology. Dr Gerges is a well-respected climate scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra.

For most part the book provides much data about what is happening now to our climate and how that is affecting all areas of our environment and ecology. Dr Gerges outlines four specific pathways that climate change might take from keeping the temperature change to +1.5 degrees C to the worst scenario of >4 degrees C. All the projections over 1.5 degrees C are bad to horrendous to contemplate. Dr Gerges goes on to outline how these pathways will affect our land, water and living environments, our food and water security, population displacements and societal structures. The worst scenarios will result in a basically unliveable world by the end of this century.

We are currently on the second pathway and if we don’t act urgently this will worsen. Many of the changes have already begun. We are experiencing worse and more frequent events such droughts, fires, and floods, than the world has seen for thousands of years with many animals becoming extinct, or facing extinction, especially here in Australia. There is melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, coastal erosion, crop failures, the movement of sea life away from the equator and death of a large proportion of the Great Barrier Reef.

While the language the book uses makes it very easy to understand, and technically easy to read, the book took me a long time to read. It was emotionally challenging to the point of needing to take frequent breaks from all the bad news. I had not realised what climate change really meant and how all encompassing its effects would be. It was a good lesson.

It is not until the last chapter that Dr Gerges puts forward her case for hope. She bases her ‘hope’ in a belief that the ordinary people of the developed world, you, me and our friends and family, would do enough – somehow – to mitigate climate change. I do not share her view that as individual households we can do that.

I think this book is definitely worth reading and I encourage as many people as possible to read it so that we are adequately informed when it comes to making important decisions for the future.

From my perspective the only thing that will reduce our carbon emissions enough to prevent unrelenting devastating changes within the necessary time frame is to totally cease burning fossils fuels for energy well before 2050. We are already at a point where some of the effects of climate change are irreversible. And we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels by 50% by 2030 to contain it at this level.

Australia is lagging behind the rest of the developed world because of our addiction to the wealth made by selling coal, and to the interests of our governments in their relationships with the fossil fuel lobby. So, therefore the only way we as individuals can alter the course of climate change is to alter our governments view of climate change and the relationship with the fossil fuel industry. That means that our ability to alter climate change is in our ability to lobby politicians and to vote.

Please use your voice to government well, strongly, and frequently.

The Sacrificial Valley: Coal’s legacy to the Hunter

A review by Paul Maguire

Author: John Drinan
Published: 2022
RRP: $25.00
Published by: Bad Apple Press

Is redemption possible?

Imagine Sydney Harbour. It’s beautiful, right?

And enormous, stretching from The Rocks all the way to Watsons Bay and out to Manly.

Now picture an Upper Hunter open-cut coalmine.

It’s a dirty, big, degraded hole in the ground.

No comparison?

In terms of aesthetics, they’re poles apart.

Now consider this.

Sydney Harbour covers 5500 hectares – that’s 55 square kilometres.

A 2016 report said there were 29 open-cut coal mines in the Upper Hunter.

Some pits were kilometres long and more than 300 metres deep.

Their total surface area, back then, was over 4554 hectares – that’s more than 45 square kilometres.

That report was about seven years ago and every day since, coal companies (largely foreign-owned) have continued ripping up the Hunter region as if there were no tomorrow.

The open-cuts are a series of gigantic, growing pockmarks with a combined size approaching that of Sydney’s iconic waterway.

The immense scale of destruction is John Drinan’s comparison point.

And, you know what?

When coal companies have finished banking their billions-upon-billions of financial profit, they can simply walk away from their mess.

That’s right.

There is no requirement to refill the shocking holes with the mountains of ‘overburden’ rock and earth they’ve dug up, and dumped nearby.

Our Sydney-centric New South Wales Government politicians and bureaucrats agree with coal company chiefs that such a clean-up would be ‘unreasonable’.

Hypocrisy is obvious.

Successive governments have accepted billions in coal royalty and political party payments for decades, while encouraging exploitative expansion.

There’s no way this permanent industrial wasteland would be okay anywhere around Sydney.

These huge eyesores will forever be left in the Hunter to fill with water that’s increasingly contaminated by toxic seepage and runoff.

This scandal is the most stunning thing I learned from John Drinan’s great book.

I’ll sum up The Sacrificial Valley in a moment.

But rather than scatter our attention on other issues Mr Drinan covers so well, I’ll stay focussed on what he has unearthed about coal’s dirty, big holes in the ground.

The demolition of our environment, I believe, is indicative of the careless approach to all coal mining impacts.

No, it’s not careless.

It’s deliberate.

The rape of our land, defiling our air and water, obliterating ecosystems and a multitude of human health issues are well-documented, long-standing, common coal impacts.

People, and their place, have been trampled by the pursuit of money.

These vast mining holes prove that Australia’s environmental protection laws have failed.

Best practice rehabilitation has also withered.

In the United States, for instance, coal companies have to backfill, compact and grade pits to restore the approximate original land contour, eliminating highwalls, spoil piles, and depressions.

On Upper Hunter mine sites, woodlands, forests and grasslands have vanished, along with the fauna they supported.

Some surface and underground water flows can never be restored.

Huge, ugly pit holes will remain for, at least, hundreds of years.

Their fill will include continually concentrated salts, chemicals and heavy metal contaminates such as mercury, selenium, cadmium and more.

The venomous mix will affect surrounding and downstream surface and underground water, stunting all ecosystems in their seeping path.

There’ll be no pristine, sandy beach fronts in the Upper Hunter.

And, this ecological ruin is knowingly bequeathed to generations who reap no benefit, have no say in the situation, yet, have to deal with it.

It’s contemptible, I say.

To sum up.

The Sacrificial Valley is clear, factual, revealing and wide-ranging.

From environmental, social, economical, human health and generational perspectives it’s an absolute shock.

The book concludes with the hope that ‘redemption is always possible’.

My hope is that it’s read, and acted upon, by decent politicians, bureaucrats, coal company decision-makers and their stock market shareholders.

More importantly, the general public should read The Sacrificial Valley and pressure wrong-doers to clean up their mess, and spur a just transition to alternative energy and a safer future for us all.

How to warm your heart in seven short minutes

By Kassia Klinger

“It’s a new year and after the last few ‘unprecedented’ ones here’s some long-awaited good news. The ozone layer is healing. Yes that’s right the global community, every nation on earth, agreed to the Montreal Protocol in 1987 and while it hasn’t been a quick fix it’s heading in the right direction.

Paul Newman is co-chair of scientific assessment and Chief Scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center was interviewed by Summer Breakfast presenter Hamish Macdonald on Radio National on January 11.

Happy listening …”

I’m listening to ‘The ozone layer is healing’ podcast with the ABC listen app.

Published: 24 Jan 2023