David McKnight's talk on Big Coal at BCCAN AGM October 2013

This speech by David McKnight, co-author of Big Coal, was given at the BCCAN AGM on October 21, 2013.

When I was invited to speak here some time ago, I did not expect to stop off at a friends house which was nearly burned down in a bushfire. But that’s what I ended up doing. In the same street in Mount Victoria, a former colleague from University of Technology Sydney had her house burnt to the ground.

I think everyone knows by now that this month will go down as one of the hottest Octobers on record. However temperature and weather can vary greatly so, by itself this proves nothing. But then you add to this the terrible heatwave Australia suffered in January this year when we broke the record for hottest national maximum ever. To this you can add unusual shifts in rainfall pattern in part of Australia – some areas drying out, others becoming subject to more intense rains storms. No-one says that these temperatures, fires and changes in rain fall have been caused by climate change in any simple sense. That’s not true. What is true, I am sure, was expressed by a spokesman for the weather bureau earlier this year who said that ‘everything that happens in the climate system is taking place on a planet which is a degree hotter than it used to be’ . Another voice of warning comes from climate scientist Professor David Karoly said ’climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heatwaves and more extreme hot days’.

All of which brings us to coal.

At its most basic, the message of our book is a simple one. If the world wants to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world must stop burning coal. It is as simple -- and as difficult -- as that.

But we have not stopped burning coal. Far from it. The world is bingeing on coal. Global coal production has risen by 4% on average each year since 1999.

Between the year 2000 and 2008, global greenhouse gas emissions rose 30 per cent. No fallen, not levelled off, but rose 30 %.

So while everyone talks about climate change, effectively nothing is being done. In fact we are going backwards. And all this is happening while the evidence of dramatic change is becoming stronger.

The event which inspired the book occurred several years ago when the Rudd government tried to introduce a Mining Super Profits Tax. At that time the mining industry was making extraordinary profits and quite rightly the government wanted more Australians to benefit. In response the mining industry mounted a powerful and effective campaign against the tax. Among other things we saw the normally reclusive Gina Rinehart jump on the back of truck in Perth to lead a crowd of people in chanting slogans against the tax. I suppose this incident was more comic relief but the conflict that occurred was deadly serious. Shortly after the mining industry had beaten the government, the head of Rio Tinto said in London that what had happened should be a lesson to governments all around the world.

At the time, when I saw this display of raw power, something clicked for me. Here was a convincing explanation for the previous pussy footing of governments in acting on climate change. I came to this conclusion because the mining industry had exercised its power one year before the tax conflict. In 2009 they campaigned against the Emissions Trading Scheme and helped make it impossible to support . In 2011, a year after the clash over the Resource Super Profits tax, they campaigned against the introduction of a carbon tax. In all these campaigns the coal industry was absolutely central.

When it faced government action on climate change the coal industry told a tale of woe. If the ETS or a carbon tax was introduced, they said, the sky would fall in. Mines would close, thousands of jobs would be lost. Well, the carbon tax was introduced. What has occurred ? Mines were expanded, including some I’ve just been looking at over near Lithgow. And of the few that were closed not even the mining industry had the gall to say it was because of the carbon tax. Rather, everyone acknowledged it was because of the drop in the world price of coal.

But the mining industry has had a lot of success in convincing Australians that our good fortune in the global financial crisis and continuing today is due to the success of the mining industry. Any changes to the mining industry would damage Australia, they say. In the book we examine these claims. And we argue that the interests of Australia are not the same as the interst of the mining companies. For starters, the major mining companies and all the big coal companies are either totally foreign owned or foreign dominated. The biggest coal mining companies such as Xstrata, Peabody and Anglo-American, are 100% foreign owned. Other giants are overwhelmingly in overseas hands. Rio Tinto, is 83% foreign owned and BHP is 76%. And because, overall, the mining industry is around 80% foreign-owned, most profits eventually go offshore. That is what the Reserve Bank said, by the way. Some mining profits do stay in Australia. That’s undeniable. And average Australians like Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer have reaped the benefit of this. Indirectly, even people like Eddie Obeid have benefitted.

Another big claim made by mining companies is that they provide a vast number of jobs. Again, this is highly misleading because coal mining , like most mining, has become increasingly mechanised. Coal directly employs 46,000 people but this is tiny in an Australian workforce of over 11 million. To give you some idea of the number of coal mine employees, it is about one quarter of the jobs in the university and tertiary education sector. But the jobs argument is misleading in another way. At the height of the recent coal boom in 2012, the mining industry wanted to import large number of temporary foreign workers. The big Alpha mine (which is jointly owned by an Indian company and Gina Rinehart) admitted they were prepared to import temporary foreign workers to build the mine. Mining magnate Clive Palmer and his Indian partners made similar statements. So when the coal miners promise to provide many jobs, this needs to be discounted significantly.

In fact a boom in mining can actually reduce employment. For example, the recent mining boom damaged other export industries because it drove up the value of the Australian dollar. The result of this is that Australian wheat, wool and manufactured exports are more expensive to overseas customers. A higher dollar jacks up the cost of fees paid by overseas students to study in Australia and makes it more expensive for overseas tourists to visit Australia.

SO while many of the supposed benefits of the mining boom are small or illusory, the damage is very real. This is particularly true of coal which is at the heart of the Australian mining industry.

Having said all that, I am not opposed to mining in general but I am opposed to mining coal. Coal is a mineral like no other and mining coal is an industry like no other. The reason is simply that coal is the largest single source of greenhouse gases in the world. And the resulting climate change can have potentially catastrophic effects. This is one of the inconvenient truths which former US vice president, Al Gore spoke about.

Many people still talk about the ‘threat’ of climate change but the changes are already happening before our eyes. The most dramatic recent evidence is the rapid shrinkage of the once vast Arctic ice sheet. In the northern summer of 2012 the size of the Arctic ice sheet sank to the lowest level on record. Scientific forecasts had previously predicted that the Arctic could be free of ice in the summer by around 2050. But the current melting lends weight to the most pessimistic analyses which said that this may occur by the end of this decade. So we have already changed one of the largest physical features on our planet and this physical feature plays big part in global ocean currents & the world’s weather.

The sceptics like to point out that air temperatures have plateaued. What they don’t say is that the temperatures of the oceans are still rising and the shrinkage of the Arctic ice may well be one of the consequences.

Other consequences of climate change are well established. If you go to Sydney Harbor and do a litmus test , it comes out redder than it used to. Our sea water is 30% more acidic than pre-industrial times. More acid seawater makes it harder for coral to grow and for krill to reproduce.

Air temperatures are higher and warm air traps more water vapour than cold and so the atmosphere is 4-5% moister than it was previously. The result is that we get drought and flood on a whole different scale. When US had a drought a couple of years ago -- the price of grain went through the roof (10 percent) and people in poorer countries didn’t have enough to eat.

We are messing around with the thin layer of the planet’s surface which supports life and we are doing this recklessly and carelessly.

In spite of all these warmings, the multi-national miners and most governments are planning to massively increase coal mining and exports in Australia.

Already Australia is world’s fourth largest producer of coal, after China, US, India.

Newcastle is the biggest coal export port in the world and Australia is world’s biggest exporter, sending 310 million tonnes of coal to offshore steel mills and power stations. The coal industry wants to double or triple Australian exports over next 20 years.

Many of the mines which they hope will do this are being built now. One of the key places is in the Galilee basin in central Queensland. Coal mined here will have severe impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. New or expanded ports often require extensive dredging of areas on the Queensland coast. In some areas this dredging is already killing fish and damaging the habitat which they need to survive. The export boom in coal will turn the ocean around the Reef into a coal super highway. But this is not the main threat. This will come when the coal shipped through the Reef is burned. This will inevitably damage the Reef. Before 1979 there was no record of coral bleaching on Great Barrier Reef, since then it occurred 7 times.
This was one of the reasons why 2000 marine scientists who met in Cairns last year rang the alarm bells about the warming and acidification of the world’s oceans. In a statement they warned that QUOTE ‘This combined change in temperature and ocean chemistry has not occurred since the last reef crisis 55 million years ago.’

What to do

I now want to go back to the start of this talk when I discussed how powerful the coal industry and the fossil fuel giants are. When you are dealing with raw power, you need a counter force to defeat it. You cannot defeat a powerful and wealthy group like the coal industry unless you mobilise such a counter force.

Rational arguments about the science are useful. Identifying alternatives to coal fired power is useful. Using the court system is useful. But each of these can be ignored or brushed aside. The only thing that ultimately counts, in my view, will be an active public, a mobilized counter force of people power to confront the power of the coal industry and demand that governments take real action on climate change. But so far this has not occurred and I wonder why. My background is not in the environment movement but one thing which has struck me is the extraordinary degree of fragmentation and disunity among those who are worried about climate change. Each group focuses on its own patch and its own factional territory. There seems to be no sense of a common purpose . To build an active counter force of people power requires a lot more unity. It requires activist groups to not only join other activists but to also reach out to non activist organisations – for instance, churches, trade unions, scientists -- and together sponsor meaningful public protest action.

I say this because while all successful social changes begin with committed activists, to succeed they usually have to transcend this. If the activists find a way to build a broadly based movement, which allows a place for those I call ‘ordinary people in the general public’, they can succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

A rough example of the kind of movement about which I am talking was the ‘Your Rights at Work’ movement. . It was an extremely unusual movement ---- because the unions had not done this kind of public, grassroots organising for a very long while. Instead, each union focused on its own members and where they worked. Each union kept to its own patch. They had something in common but little commitment to a expressing that common purpose. As well, the unions were deeply factionalised. But by 2006, their backs were to the wall and they faced extinction under the Workchoices laws. The Labor Party couldn’t help them and they couldn’t lobby the Howard government which wanted to destroy them. The remarkable thing was that when faced with this, they were able to organise a grass roots, mass mobilization. They sponsored local committees and aroused their own passive membership, and they dramatised things. They showed how Workchoices affected ordinary, everyday Australians. And to everyone’s astonishment they had a huge impact.

I think we are now in a similar position with the Abbott government. I think there is a very large number of Australians who are alarmed about climate change. If we can find the ways to arouse them then I think it is possible to build a broad and united mobilisation to demand real on climate change.

To help such a movement come into existence also requires research and background and that has been the real purpose for publishing this book.