Friday, 21 November 2014

Denial in the Saudi Arabia of Coal

Australia's current little piece of political theatre, aside from the lunatic fringe festival that is the Palmer United Party, is provided by the fall-out from Barack Obama's speech at the University of Queensland during the G20.  In speaking about global climate change, Obama said "the incredible glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened" and went on to express the desire that his daughters, and their children, would be able to visit it long into the future.

It seems like a mild and self-evident thing to say, but in the delicate and nuanced world of diplomacy it has been understood as a rebuke of the Australian Government for trying - unsuccessfully as it turned out - to keep climate change off the G20 agenda.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (oddly not Environment Minister Greg Hunt) has come out swinging.  "Of course, the Great Barrier Reef will be conserved for generations to come. And we do not believe that it is in danger," Ms Bishop said.  Her point is that the Australian and Queensland Governments have a strategy to protect the Reef from what she says are its two biggest threats, agricultural run-off and natural disasters (failing to mention dredging and dumping of dredge spoil, over which her government is still prevaricating - oh, and also climate change).  She is apparently sending a detailed briefing to the White House explaining just that.

It would be interesting to read that briefing, because it seems hard to find a marine scientist who agrees with her.  Today the Brisbane Times reports feedback from a number of scientists who confirm that yes, the Reef is under threat.  Even the Government's own report, the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, found "the reef to be in poor condition and the outlook for further deterioration".  Even if we deal with the run-off and dredging problems and the impact of cyclones, it will all be swamped by rising sea temperatures and acidity over the coming century.  A rising tide may not lift all boats, but it will certainly kill off a lot of coral.

So what's with all the furious denials from Bishop and her colleagues?  Why not just calmly say, "yes we all know this is a problem, it's great that the US and China are finally promising to do something about their massive emissions."?  Why, despite its official acceptance that climate change is a problem and its much criticised but nonetheless existent strategy for reducing emissions, does the government reach for the denial card almost as a reflex?

A number of countries claim the title of "the Saudi Arabia of Coal", including the US and Mongolia, but in actual fact Australia has the best claim to that title, as Richard Denniss from the Australia Institute pointed out in a recent article in The Conversation.  Australia is currently the world's largest exporter of coal, and has a bigger share of the global coal market than Saudi Arabia does of the oil market.  If Australia sneezes, the coal market gets a cold.  Or Black Lung, or whatever.

This presents Australia with a both an opportunity and a dilemma.  Coal, along with oil, is the major contributor to climate change.  The faster we can move away from coal and oil to renewables, the more we will limit global climate change.  Australia, despite it's small size and limited influence in the global economy generally, has a significant amount of power to influence this process.

If we limit our coal production, the global coal price will go up.  This will make renewables more competitive and hasten their development and adoption over the next few decades, both in Australia and around the world.  In the long run, this will mean some of our coal will stay in the ground, but in the short term what we dig up will be more profitable.

On the other hand, if we rush to produce more of it the price will go down.  The emergent renewables sector will have a much harder struggle, and we will be able to sell more coal for longer.  Good for the coal miners, bad for the rest of us, and the reef.

Which way will our government jump?  Before we could even get around to asking the question the government has answered it loud and clear.  The coal industry has said "jump", and the government has said "how high?".  "Coal is good for humanity," says our Prime Minister.  By which he means "Coal is good for coal miners".  And coal miners back his party, and fund his election campaigns, as well as having key media organisations in their back pockets to whip him with if he steps out of line.

Coal is not good for other members of humanity.  It's not good for Pacific Islanders whose islands are getting swamped.  It's not good for people in poor communities around the world who suffer increasing climatic volatility and food insecurity.  It's not good for the people of Beijing who have to breathe coal smoke all day.  And it is clearly not good for the reef.  But Julie Bishop has her instructions.  If she talks loudly enough she might be able to drown out the voices that are telling us this, and her backers will live to sell another day.  Not so the coral.
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