On Monday Brendan Pearson, CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia writing in The Australian, took aim at activists for confronting the coal industry in Australia. This is our response.
It was an all too familiar attack on “greenies” claiming, as per usual, that those calling for action on climate change are anti development and radical troublemakers, acting against what the general populace wants. He quoted words from an email that I sent, of course cherry-picking language to paint us as having an anti-people agenda. This portrayal is inaccurate, and in fact reveals more about the coal industry than about those interested in challenging it’s license to keep polluting.
Last week I spent several days visiting the area around Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine now under construction by Whitehaven in northwestern New South Wales. I met members of the local community who have been fighting the mine for the last three years. These included farmers, who were forced into a position where their livelihoods are at risk, those worried about the health impacts of a new large open cut mine and the traditional owners, the Gomeroi, whose sacred sites are under threat. The Maules Creek Mine is already responsible for the decimation of large tracks of the Leard State Forest and has rights to 50 percent of the high security water from the nearby Namoi River. Taking that much water out of the river is predicted to lower the aquifer 6-7 metres. Water is the farmer’s most precious resource. This coalmine is putting livelihoods and land at risk.
In Newcastle, the site of the worlds largest coal port, the community has been fighting for years just to have coal trains covered to stop the spread of poisonous coal dust. And nationally, there are dozens of new coal mines in the pipeline which, if allowed to go ahead, would push us well beyond our ever shrinking global carbon budget that would keep us under the two degree temperature rise agreed by world leaders.
Despite these and many more confronting impacts of coal mining, the mining industry has waged an impressive PR campaign, with the result an over-inflated sense of importance not just for itself, but across Australian society. A survey by the Australia Institute revealed that the typical Australian believes that the mining industry contributes 35% of all economic activity in the country. Yet, according to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, the mining industry actually only contributed 10.1% in 2012-13. Coal mining is but a small percent of that. The typical Australian also believes that mining is responsible for 16% of all jobs in Australia. In reality, mining accounts for just 2% of all jobs in Australia — a miserly one eighth of what the industry wants us to believe. Australians have been spun by the PR spin of the Mining industry.
While there are many local impacts from coal mining and exporting, there is also one major impact, which has become the most controversial — the impact all of this coal will have in driving global climate change. The debate around climate change in Australia has been caustic — the fossil fuel industry, like the tobacco industry before it, has worked hard to seed confusion about the realities of science and strongly encouraged inaction. Despite such a caustic debate, and what Prime Minister Abbott repeatedly tells us, climate change is not a concern of a minority of Australians.
The evidence points us in the other direction. A recently released CSIRO survey of the public, found that 81 percent of respondents agreed that climate change was happening. Those same respondents on average rated the probability of climate change being caused by humans at 61.7 out of 100. Mr Pearson tries to tell us that because Tony Abbott was voted in, the population has spoken on the issue of climate change. But as this survey shows, that is an all too convenient line to tow to suit mining’s interests. Meanwhile, the robust scientific studies and the increasing weather extremes continue to provide concrete evidence that climate change is happening and is the result of our ongoing use of fossil fuels.
It’s an uncomfortable reality that digging up Australia’s vast coal reserves is one of the worlds biggest drivers of dangerous climate change. Increasing numbers of Australians are making the connection between Australian coal and climate change. That’s why we are seeing people like Glen, the 62 year old retired geophysicist from Canberra who recently travelled to the Maules Creek coal mine to join the effort to stop construction. These are not the radicals but ordinary Australians who are confronting the country’s most powerful industry.
As I said in my recent email to supporters, and as Mr Pearson so kindly quoted, we’re not faffing about lobbying the Government but instead challenging the power base of the coal industry itself, through a strong divestment movement. It’s a movement propelled by Australians who see the financial and ethical risk of having their funds invested in Australian coal and gas in the face of the global climate change crisis. They’re switching from banks that invest in the fossil fuel industry to those that don’t, and pressuring their superannuation funds to divest their fossil fuel investments. And the thing is, people are switching to fossil free options, without losing out on their returns. Recent research has shown that investment portfolios containing coal and gas companies perform no better than fossil free investment portfolios.
The Minerals Council would have us believe that coal will be king forever but the truth is, coal is losing its social licence and its financial case week by week. It’s ground it won’t regain, because as investment banking giant Citigroup concluded this week, the “Age of renewables” has begun. For a strong economic and environmental future, it’s time we all look at a future beyond coal.