Bob Brown
The Robbins Island wind farm debate

The Australian moved in for the kill last week. Back-to-back front pages, on Monday and Tuesday, after I sounded the alarm about the impact on endangered birds if the Robbins Island wind farm in Tasmania’s north-west goes ahead. Backed up by the usual cronies at Sky News, the boilover raised a question about the impending extinction of measured public debate.

Graham Lloyd, the newspaper’s self-labelled “fearless” environment reporter, did not contact me on the issue before it went to print. He has not contacted me on an environmental issue for years.

He is, of course, always welcome.

The question that arises, though, is why his polemic is directed more at environmentalists than at threats to the environment. The answer is in the underlying cowardice of the activist right, and much of the establishment, in facing the awesome ecological tragedy being engendered by humanity. It is easier for them to shoot the messenger than to confront the complexities of dealing with that reality.

A number of people had contacted our Hobart-based foundation about the proposed Robbins Island wind farm and its transmission line across northern Tasmania. As most Tasmanians knew nothing of the project, I wrote an opinion piece for The Mercury, which ran on July 8. It took a week for this article to reach Lloyd. I have no clue who the vector was, though incongruously enough, Lloyd did get comment from Eric Abetz.

At the heart of my article was this: “Besides the impact on the coastal scenery, wind turbines kill birds. Wedge-tailed eagles and white-bellied sea eagles nest and hunt on the island. Swift parrots and orange-bellied parrots traverse the island on their migrations. Multiple species of international migratory, endangered and critically endangered shorebirds use the wetlands for six months of the year: Australian fairy tern, fork-tailed swift, little tern, white-throated needletail, ruddy turnstone, sharp-tailed sandpiper, sanderling, red knot, curlew sandpiper, red-necked stint, great knot, double-banded plover, greater sand plover, lesser sand plover, Latham’s snipe, bar-tailed godwit, eastern curlew, whimbrel, golden plover, grey-tailed tattler, common greenshank, terek sandpiper and hooded plover. For which of these species will the wind farm be the thousandth cut?”

Environment reporter Lloyd, his correspondent Abetz and fellow critics, including state Labor leader Rebecca White and Liberal minister Guy Barnett, have at least one thing in common – none has looked into or analysed the plight of those species. I doubt any of them accept that Australia is well on its way to losing one-third of its bird species this century, let alone the ornithologists’ reckoning that human plunder is capable of eliminating three-quarters of Earth’s birds by 2200, or even this year’s United Nations-based report that one million species of wildlife face extinction because of what we are doing.

The wind farm proponent, Hong Kong-based UPC Renewables, says it will put a one-kilometre exclusion zone around the two sea eagle nests on Robbins Island. But who will tell the eagles not to fly more than that kilometre from their nests? The giant ailerons – those proposed for Robbins Island will spin to 270 metres high – driving wind turbines knock hunting eagles to the ground. Much like Adani’s plan to transfer critically endangered black-throated finches from the Galilee Basin mine site, now being bulldozed, to an “offset” woodland where they have not chosen to live, the exclusion zones sound nice but they are no more than greenwash.

Labor’s Rebecca White and Anthony Albanese followed the right-wing in accusing me of hypocrisy. Breathlessly, Guy Barnett said it was “breathtaking hypocrisy”. It is true that I have advocated renewable energy for years and there are more than 80 wind farms in Australia, with two more under way in Tasmania. None of the 80 was built without any social or environmental cost. All are part of the world’s dire need to replace burning fossil fuels with renewable energy in our era of climate emergency. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Robbins Island is on the wrong side of the ledger and I look forward to independent studies of all its costs and benefits.

At the heart of an informed public debate should be an allowance for moderation. But the right sits by the guillotine, with selective damnation for progressive thinkers who do not see the world in their absolutist terms. Curiously enough, they have seen no “hypocrisy” in Glencore or BHP, or Germany and New Zealand, declaring limits in this age of global heating, opposing more coalmines.

The penny has not dropped for Lloyd or his ilk that the Franklin Dam was to produce renewable energy. Along with so many others, I opposed that scheme 40 years ago because it would have devastated the wild river along with many square kilometres of forests and other habitat for wildlife, including birds. My reasoning against the Robbins Island wind farm has that much in common. The best option in both cases is energy efficiency on a national and global scale – a cheaper and more job-rich option for everyone – and then renewable energy, if it stacks up ecologically.

Hard on the heels of Lloyd’s article was a request for an interview from Melbourne’s 3AW for its afternoon drive program with Tom Elliott. But Elliott was not prepared for some questions in return. I asked him if he supported solar power, which he did. I asked if he would put solar panels over the Opera House. He said he probably would. It was the classic moment of a right-wing activist putting imprudence in front of his determination, in order not to be seen dissembling. I hope no one in Sydney reads about his plan for their World Heritage icon. Elliott’s thinking should also leave room for a couple of windmills working wonders on the arch of the Harbour Bridge. A good headline there for Lloyd.

Graham Lloyd himself does not stand unwavering on environmental issues. He can’t make up his mind on the cause of global heating. So, where’s his licence for demanding all-or-nothing ideology from fellow environmentalists?

We live in a materialist society, in which both equality and ecology are given short shrift. Eight billion of us are already using 170 per cent of Earth’s resources and want more, calling it “growth”. Gandhi’s observation that “the world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed” seems as irrelevant to the right-wing guard dogs as the Golden Rule. You won’t find Lloyd or Abetz addressing the global existential crisis. However, they are ready for the kill if someone else does.

The Robbins Island wind farm tests us. Should the profit-seeking multinational UPC Renewables be waved through, or should we draw the line on this farm in order to obviate its contribution to our self-made mass extinction crisis?

That’s not to sideline the question of Tasmania’s economic dividend from the Robbins Island project. Successive Labor and Liberal state governments have diverted billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to resource-extraction industries such as those consuming a third of the island’s hydro-electricity, exporting woodchipped native forests or, more recently, lining up to build lodges at peppercorn rental rates in the heart of the public’s World Heritage wilderness.

Billions of dollars have poured out of Tasmania to companies or individuals that don’t give a damn about the island state’s relative poverty and mendicancy over past decades. This time, will the state profit more than UPC Renewables itself? The one gigawatt of wind power from Robbins Island will not warm one Tasmanian home. It will be exported into the mainland electricity grid, which is fine provided the island state gets a fair share of the bounty with UPC Renewables. The company says it is “developing a project pipeline of more than six gigawatts in Australia, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Taiwan, Korea and Tunisia”. Is that “pipeline” where the benefits will go, while Tasmania continues with high illiteracy rates and ambulance queues at hospital emergency departments that can’t cope? Where is the independent Robbins Island cost-benefit analysis? Mr Lloyd?

The right of the public to get informed public debate is at stake here. So, I don’t mind ruffling the feathers of the raptors of the right, even if, when all the information is in, it will be seen by some that my protective instinct for Robbins Island was for the birds.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 20, 2019 as "Too much hot air in wind debate".

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Bob Brown is a former leader of the Australian Greens.

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