Hot air

Once again, the Abbott government is tilting at windmills. In its attempt to cut a deal weakening the renewable energy target, the environment minister is promising to appoint a national wind farm commissioner, a kind of state-sanctioned Don Quixote.

The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha would “handle complaints from concerned community residents about the operation of wind turbine facilities … and help ensure that complaints are satisfactorily addressed”.

His Sancho would be an “independent scientific committee” tasked to “provide research and advice to the minister on the impact on the environment and human health of audible noise (including low frequency) and infrasound from wind farms”.

These promises – contained in a draft letter from Greg Hunt’s office – follow a meeting between the prime minister and anti-wind farm senator David Leyonhjelm on Wednesday. They largely reflect the interim recommendations of the senate’s anti-wind farm inquiry, released on Thursday.

The government is courting anti-wind farm votes on the crossbench – Leyonhjelm, but also Family First senator Bob Day, and independents John Madigan and Jacqui Lambie – after a deal with Labor to weaken the renewable energy target fell over.

The major parties had agreed to winnow down the annual target to 33,000 gigawatt hours of renewable energy by 2020. But Labor pulled out after the Coalition announced it would include the burning of native forest wood waste as a renewable energy.

The decision to attack wind farms explicitly while undermining the broader renewable target is unsurprising. Since taking power, the Abbott government has been steadily destroying the sector with a mix of uncertainty and viciousness. Jobs have dripped away, projects stalled. Throughout, wind farms have drawn special ire.

“Up close, they’re ugly, they’re noisy and they may have all sorts of other impacts,” Abbott said last week. “It’s right and proper that we’re having an inquiry into the health impacts of these things.”

Speaking to shock jock Alan Jones earlier, he called wind farms “visually awful” and again hinted at nebulous health impacts. “What we did recently in the senate was to reduce, Alan, capital R-E-D-U-C-E, the number of these things that we are going to get in the future … I would frankly have liked to have reduced the number a lot more but we got the best deal we could out of the senate and if we hadn’t had a deal, Alan, we would have been stuck with even more of these things.”

The problem is that none of this is supported by science. There is no compelling evidence that wind farms create illness. In the past decade or so, 23 key studies have found no consistent evidence of ill health caused by wind farms. The Australian Medical Association has dismissed the fiction of wind turbine syndrome, as has the University of Sydney and the National Health and Medical Research Council – although the latter has decided to fund further research grants in the field.

As if slashing away at the renewable energy target were not strange enough, not filled with enough anti-science prejudice, the government is now bent on establishing a fool commission to preside over a problem that does not exist.

And so there it is – instead of action on climate change, the government takes another quixotic sally. It could be dismissed as fitting if it were not so serious. The commissioner and his committee have the sense of Einstein’s insanity, of the man who repeats the same task repeatedly expecting different outcomes. Or perhaps the analogy is to be found closer to La Mancha. “Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading,” Cervantes wrote, “his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 20, 2015 as "Hot air".

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