An unsurprising anti-coal campaign plan

6 March 2012

The Australian Financial Review today revealed a leaked Greenpeace document containing the startling revelation that environmentalists oppose the coal industry.

The document, entitled Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom, seeks to raise millions of dollars for a campaign against the expansion of the Australian coal industry. This isn’t particularly surprising: it is only logical that we need a strategy to get from Point A (Australia’s leaders believing fossil fuels are the best thing since sliced bread) to Point B (zero or nearly zero fossil fuels being burned) as quickly as possible.

The document notes the next two years are an important window to stop massive investments being locked in, and an opportunity to influence government through the Greens and independent crossbenchers who hold the balance of power in Parliament. I agree; science tells us time is fast running out, and the next couple of years will be critical.

It’s actually a pretty good campaign strategy – just what is needed to get the Australian climate movement back in motion. It lists six steps to be taken; here are my thoughts on each one:

  1. “Disrupt and delay key infrastructure.” The underway expansion of the Australian fossil fuel industry is monstrous in scale, with plans to double or triple fossil fuel exports in the near future. Both major political parties refuse to do anything to stop it, happy to sit back and watch the profits flow in. In these extraordinary circumstances it makes sense for citizens to take matters into our own hands. The document proposes legal challenges against new mines, rail lines, and port expansions.
  2. “Constrain the space for mining.” There is a growing movement against coal seam gas which transcends old divisions, includes crossbenchers on whose support the current Government depends, and is shaping up to be an important issue in the Queensland election on 24 March. The next two years are a rare opportunity to lobby for legislation placing restrictions on the mining industry.
  3. “Increase investor risk.” As I argued in a recent post, the global economy contains a bubble of high-carbon investment which will inevitably burst at some point, and it’s better for both economy and environment if it bursts sooner. This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: spreading the idea of a carbon bubble will help to bring about its bursting.
  4. “Increase costs.” The true cost of CO2 pollution is probably far higher than any price a government has yet put on it. We need to move towards internalizing those costs, and we can start by cutting the billions of dollars Australian taxpayers spend annually on perverse subsidies and tax loopholes for fossil fuels.
  5. “Withdraw the social license of the coal industry.” Australia, or at least its government, suffers from “quarry vision”: we can only see ourselves as a mining nation, and mining interests as equivalent to the national interest. However, the coal seam gas issue shows community attitudes toward the mining industry are beginning to change. To build on this we must loudly and clearly explain the science of climate change and the key implication that we urgently need to phase out fossil fuels.
  6. “Build a powerful movement.” As I said in November, we need to build a movement against fossil fuels. We will need massive public support to overcome the massive profit motive and force government and businesses to change their plans.

The only part of the leaked information I find concerning is that billionaire Graeme Wood has been approached as a possible funder. Wood also funded new online publication The Global Mail, and the Australian Greens’ 2010 election campaign. Obviously, I’d prefer money to be put into a cause I agree with than one I disagree with, but I am concerned that one person can have disproportionate influence because of their wealth. It could lead to the dominance of that individual’s point of view and stifle healthy debate, never a good thing in any movement. On the other hand, I suppose a high-profile campaign has to be financed by someone and I hope Greenpeace do manage to raise the required funding for their proposals.

The response from the Government and businesses was predictable, but it’s worth examining their justifications. Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: “The coal industry has a great future in this country. We are seeing that future being built now. We have got to have appropriate environmental regulatory processes, of course we do, but they should always be based on fact.” I agree policy should be based on fact, and a very pertinent fact here is that burning more than a fraction of global fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with preventing dangerous global warming.

Environment Minister Tony Burke said the carbon price is “the way to make sure that as a nation and as a planet that we do the right thing by the atmosphere. I’m not supportive for a minute of further actions on top of that, that are simply designed to undermine people who are doing their jobs and doing them legally.” This was always going to be Labor’s argument after it introduced a carbon price, and many environmental groups have played into Labor’s hands by failing to be effective advocates for more ambitious action.

Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson said: “Reports of elaborate strategies designed to destroy Australian industries and jobs are very disturbing.” Treasurer Wayne Swan, despite his recent commendable criticism of the influence of vested interests, also took the Government line: “I think many people confuse the fact that whilst we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we’ve got to keep the lights on and the power flowing, and of course coal is a very important part of that equation.” We can keep the lights on with renewable energy, but we can’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions while expanding the fossil fuel industry.

The Australian Coal Association’s Nikki Williams said: “We have real concerns for safety, threats to the livelihoods of our workforce and the impacts on the economy and community more generally.” Concerns for safety! Rio Tinto called it a “blueprint for economic vandalism that would fundamentally undermine all sectors of the Australian economy and threaten growth, investment and jobs”. What about the harm fossil fuels do to the economy? What about jobs in renewable energy, or in industries likely to be devastated by climate change, like agriculture or tourism?

New South Wales Resources Minister Chris Hartcher gave perhaps the most honest response: “The authors of this document seem to forget the tens of thousands of jobs created by the NSW coal industry, and the billions of dollars generated in royalties that are used to pay for more teachers, nurses and police.” The state will simply have to find alternative sources of revenue; ultimately the carbon bubble will burst and those royalties will fall away anyway.

Trade Minister Craig Emerson was most hyperbolic: “They are deluding themselves if they think that the world is just going to flick the switch to renewable energy. […] It would mean mass starvation; it would be a global depression; and they ought to wake up to that instead of, you know, living in a fantasy land and organizing these sorts of campaigns.” In reality it is not switching to renewables but sticking with fossil fuels that leads to economic doom. If the global temperature rises by several degrees, the associated impacts on food production would surely be so catastrophic that mass starvation would be difficult to avoid. And it is conceivable that the bursting of the carbon bubble could result in a global depression.

The looming expansion of Australia’s fossil fuel industry may seem inexorable. But things which seemed unstoppable have been stopped before. Now it’s time to do it again.

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