Big Coal : how climate action is sabotaged by the fossil fuel industry

At this time in history there is  a very simple truth we must recognize. If the world wants to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world must stop burning coal.  

But we have not stopped burning coal. Far from it.  The world is bingeing on coal. Global coal production has risen by 4 per cent on average each year since 1999.  What does that mean? It means that between the year 2000 and 2008, global greenhouse emissions rose 30 per cent.  No fallen, not leveled off, but rose 30 per cent.

So while everyone talks about climate change, effectively nothing is being done. In fact we are going backwards.

What does this mean? It means that  if you do a litmus test in the Pacific Ocean , it comes out redder than it did in pre-industrial times. Our sea water is 30% more acidic.  It means that if you look at the extent of the sea ice in summer in the Arctic you find  80 per cent of it has disappeared.   This reality is outstripping all the previous cautious scientific predictions.

We know that the temperature of the world has risen just under one degree. The sceptics seize on the fact that in the last decade the air temperature has plateaued. They forget to tell us that the temperature of the oceans is rising steadily and has not plateaued. It is accelerating.  This explains why the first dramatic visual evidence of global warming is in the shrinking of the Arctic sea ice.

Closer to home the evidence is clear. This year Australia had its hottest ever summer and bushfires devastated places like eastern Tasmania and the Blue Mountains.  The atmosphere is 4-5% moister than it was  40 years ago. Warm air traps more water vapour than cold and so drought and floods is beginning to  happen on a new scale. Rainfall is declining in southern New South Wales, around Perth and in eastern Tasmania.  

In the face of all this, very little is actually being done. One of the main reasons is that the global coal industry is doing its utmost to make sure very little will be done. In Australia, they have funded campaigns against any kind of restraint on the use of coal. In 2009 the first Rudd government tried to introduce an emission trading scheme.

This angered the coal industry because it would target the methane gas released by mining (the so-called ‘fugitive emissions’). Like the fossil fuel industry world-wide, the Australian coal industry fought this modest attempt to restrain greenhouse emissions, using lies, deception and its considerable wealth to do so. Television ads proclaimed that more than a dozen coal mines would close and thousands of jobs would be lost. Their campaign so weakened the emissions trading scheme that it failed to get the support of the Greensand was defeated (and then dropped by Rudd).

 Two years later,  the Gillard Labor government, supported by the Greens, introduced a carbon tax. Once again the coal industry cranked up a scaremongering TV ad campaign about mine closures and job losses. In the end it weakened the  carbon tax but did not kill it.  Now the coal industry and their propagandists are making sure a possible Abbott government will stop any pricing of carbon and will abolish the renewable energy target. The latter is the only lever promoting non-carbon energy.

These attempts to block even modest reforms are part of a long running global campaign by the fossil fuel lobby to stop any real progress. In this regard, the United States has been crucial. One report in the New York Times in 2010 described the situation in the following terms:

 [the fossil fuel industries] have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it. They have created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global warming studies, paid for rallies and websites to question the science and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy. (NYT 21 Oct 2010)

In the 2012 US presidential election,  TV advertising from fossil fuel corporations dominated the campaign. According to the New York Times, ‘Some of the mightiest players in the oil, gas and coal industries are financing an aggressive effort to defeat [Obama], or at least press him to adopt policies that are friendlier to fossil fuels.’ While Barack Obama won in the face of this onslaught, he barely mentioned climate change during the campaign.

The global coal industry expects that world demand for coal will grow strongly in the future. They argue that global warming can be prevented by what they call “carbon capture” . This is the notion that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases can be captured from power plants and buried in underground reservoirs. This notion of carbon capture acts as the great escape hatch, the get-out-of-jail-free card, the wonderful alibi that allows the coal industry to imagine coal burning forever.

The trouble is that this is an illusion, because it is impractical, expensive and unnecessary. For example, the carbon dioxide from Sydney’s power stations would have to be piped almost thousand kilometers down to the Victorian coast because this is the closest place where suitable geological formations exist to store gas. And that gas would have to remain secure until the end of time.

Quite apart from climate change, there are other reasons to oppose coal mining myths. Australians should be skeptical of the alleged wealth which comes from mining coal. According to the Reserve Bank, the mining industry is around 80% foreign-owned and therefore most profits eventually go offshore.

In addition, the coal boom actually damaged other industries in Australia,  by forcing a high value of the dollar. The high dollar made it more expensive for tourists to visit, more expensive for overseas students. It made it harder for Australian  export industries to succeed,.

The industry loves to pretend that coal is a big employer but this is false. The coal mining workforce is around 50,000 – a tiny part of the 11 million workforce of Australia. The coal workforce is a quarter  of the size of the university and tertiary sector. It is  a few thousand more than the small printing and publishing industry.

By expanding coal mining we are locking ourselves into reliance on coal exports when it is increasingly clear that coal must be rapidly phased out of world energy use (and it will be, but maybe too late).