THE HERALD'S OPINION: Technical disruption and climate change the issues for 2018

If 2017 was a year of rapid change – and it was – then we can expect the whirlwind pace to continue in 2018.

Humans are home-makers, searching for stability and safety among the chaos surrounding us. But our society is also constantly changing, and right now we are in the midst of one of the greatest technological disruptions of any age. Almost every facet of modern life – moral, social and commercial – is in the midst of an extraordinary overhaul. Things are so intertwined that it is difficult to determine the ultimate drivers of this change, beyond saying that one of the most important elements is the extraordinary gains made in digital computing power in recent years. One of the other crucial elements is the growing acceptance that global warming is real and man-made: this means established beliefs about the best way to power our world are being turned on their heads.

This matters in the Hunter region because from colonial times until now, our economy has relied heavily on coal. Despite the imperative of climate change, and despite the rapid advances in renewable technologies, the region’s export coal industry is more likely than not to continue – and at its current scale – for some decades to come. But an industry used to getting its own way has had some brutal wake-up calls in recent years, and can no longer take its social license for granted.

In demonising coal, we are also putting incredible faith in the ability of the renewable energy industry to build a never-fail electricity grid using essentially intermittent energy sources. Electricity is embedded into almost everything we do in modern urban life: it will become even more important if the “internet of things” – the interconnected world predicted by futurists – comes to pass. So the availability, and stability, of our power supply, is paramount. Which is why Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wanted AGL to keep Liddell power station open beyond its planned closure in 2022.  

However we fare as a region in 2018, our fortunes will be determined to some degree by our interactions with Canberra and Macquarie Street. Some years ago, the region was told it had too many peak bodies speaking on its behalf. As 2018 gets under way, it seems we still lack a single organisation able to articulate a vision for the Hunter as a whole. With so much at stake, perhaps that’s something worth working towards in the year that awaits us.

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