Queenslanders angry, but not in way you might expect
It was when a senior manager of a coal-fired electricity plant started talking about the need to transition to renewables that it became obvious the conversation had changed.
We were in the heart of Queensland's coal country discussing changes to the energy sector and how the region could take advantage of it, when a young university professional and a representative of the agriculture industry clashed over whether we should be discussing climate change.
It was the power plant manager who broke the stand-off.
"Look, change is here," he said.
"Whether you believe in climate change or not is beside the point. This is about getting on with business.
"Whether we like it or not, our power plants are going to close and we need to move to renewable energy.
"The rest of the world is and we'll be left behind if we don't start planning now."
This is what Queensland wants, and it's in regional communities where people are increasingly angry that the discussion about the need to transition quickly and smoothly to renewable energy is more about political agendas than building resilient, economically stable regional communities.
Over the last 15 months, The Next Economy has consulted with more than 450 representatives of industry, government, unions, education, and community groups on how changes to the energy sector are impacting regional Queensland, and to explore ways that reducing and absorbing emissions can stimulate regional economies.
We visited towns from the Tropical North, through Central Queensland to the South Burnett, talking through opportunities such as advanced manufacturing, hydrogen and green metals production, and even helping graziers become carbon neutral.
In Rockhampton, we found support for government planning to coordinate the transition away from our reliance on fossil fuels, to ensure the regional economy is diversified and the energy supply is secure, stable and affordable.
In Gladstone and Townsville, industry representatives emphasised the need for government investment in transmission infrastructure and energy storage so that heavy industry can take advantage of the increasing amount of renewable energy being generated across the region.
Across all regions, they expressed frustration with the lack of government foresight in planning the transition to net zero emissions.
With companies such as BP, Rio Tinto and BHP developing plans to decarbonise their assets by 2050, many asked why State and Federal governments aren't doing more to support them with the policies, regulation and investment they need to develop new markets and attract private investment in emerging industries.
Local governments, industry players and workers want the State and Federal Governments to move beyond political stalemates to develop bi-partisan support for energy and climate policies, coordinate long term planning, invest in renewable energy zones across Queensland, establish appropriate workforce, safety and environmental regulations, and fund feasibility, market and supply chain development activities.
But alongside the anger and frustration, there is also growing excitement at the range of emerging economic possibilities the energy transition is opening up - from using the abundant renewable energy across central and northern Australia to develop hydrogen for export and manufacturing green metals and batteries, to finding ways to invest the $500 million Land Restoration Fund to diversify farm income and build greater climate resilience into our agricultural sector.
Queensland is ready to seize on Australia's growing advantage in digital technology, major port infrastructure and the growing availability of cheap renewable energy generation to develop new industries and jobs.
Given the billions of dollars state and federal governments will spend to rebuild the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these are relatively cheap, commonsense moves that will support regional communities and boost the national economy for decades to come.
The only thing stopping us is politics.
In the words of a local government manager in Townsville: "We've got the technology to move to the future.
"The government just needs to stop fighting and help the region. Do we want the country to move forward, or are politics more important?
"That's what it comes down to."