Coal is certainly firing up the political debate in Australia. Take the normally mild-mannered Bernie Fraser, for example. Interviewed by Naomi Woodley on the ABC’s AM last Tuesday, the former Reserve Bank governor and one-time head of the Climate Change Authority used the words “nonsense” and “obscene” with reference to Turnbull government minister Josh Frydenberg.
During an interview with the ABC’s Insiders presenter Barrie Cassidy on October 18, the Resources, Energy and Northern Australia Minister declared there was a “strong moral case” for the Adani Group’s Carmichael coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
He pointed out that more than a billion people do not have access to electricity and “are using wood and dung for their cooking”. Both fire-burning materials have severe adverse health impacts.
Fraser disagrees with Frydenberg, maintaining that “it’s the vulnerable people around the world who are going to suffer the most and have the greatest difficulty adjusting to global warming”.
So, to Fraser, climate change is of more concern than wood or dung burning.
At this stage, there was a genuine point of disagreement between the two. It was then that Fraser threw the switch to abuse, describing Frydenberg’s position as a “nonsense argument”. He also said that for the minister to put a “moral label” on his position was “quite obscene, really”.
Fraser appeared on AM following the release of an open letter by 61 prominent Australians (Fraser included) addressed “To President Hollande and World Leaders”.
The signatories urged Francois Hollande and other unnamed leaders “to put coal exports on the agenda at the 2015 Paris COP21 climate summit and to help the world’s governments negotiate a global moratorium on new coalmines and coalmine expansions”.
The Australian signatories expressed their concern to the French President that “while world leaders discuss emission reduction targets, a small number of countries with large coal reserves, including Australia, are planning to massively expand their coal exports”. Fraser and his colleagues are upset by this and have joined with Anote Tong, president of the Republic of Kiribati, in calling for an end to all new coalmines along with expansions of existing coalmines.
Australia’s prosperity was built on the back of mineral and rural exports. Coal is Australia’s second biggest export, after iron ore, and Australia has the fourth largest coal reserves in the world after the US, Russia and China. Australia’s leading export markets for coal are Japan, China, South Korea, India and Taiwan.
It’s unusual for a group of Australians to write to the leaders of foreign countries urging them to act in a manner in conflict with the expressed views of the Australian government and opposition alike.
What’s notable about the group is that it does not contain any leaders of business, employer organisations or trade unions. Moreover, not a single employee on any mining site signed the “no new coalmines” open letter.
Rather, the signatories comprise mainly professional Australians, many of whom are employed in taxpayer-funded or subsidised institutions and/or in receipt of taxpayer funded grants.
Certainly there are several leading scientists among the list, including Peter Doherty, Fiona Stanley, Will Steffen and David Karoly.
However, most of the petitioners to Hollande are of the “concerned” genre who are rarely seen near mines.
Those who have stepped forward on behalf of Tong include academics (Robert Manne, Carmen Lawrence, John Quiggin, Simon Chapman, Clive Hamilton), actors (Richard Piper, Rod Mullinar), activists (David Ritter, Bob Brown, Ben Oquist) and authors (Richard Flanagan, Drusilla Modjeska, John Coetzee). Plus rugby union star David Pocock, who is in London preparing to play for the Wallabies in the Rugby World Cup final this weekend.
There are also the familiar array of clerics. Plus Fraser, of course. And Tim Flannery is on the list — despite the fact his past predictions that some Australian cities would run out of water are yet to materialise. False prophets are not unknown to the environment movement over the years.
Malcolm Turnbull was asked about the “no new coalmines” open letter at a media conference on Tuesday when Alan Finkel was announced as Australia’s next chief scientist.
Questioned concerning his position on the petition, the Prime Minister replied: “I don’t agree with a moratorium on exporting coal. And look, (with) great respect to the people who advocated it, it would not make the blindest bit of difference to global emissions. If Australia stopped exporting coal, the countries to which we export would simply buy it from somewhere else.”
The findings of the International Energy Agency have been contested. But it seems clear that the IEA’s scenarios indicate that there will still be a demand for coal up until at least 2040. Moreover, the nations requiring coal for electricity generation will include China and India.
The IEA also anticipates that CO2 emissions from coal will continue to decline over future decades as power generation efficiency increases.
It is likely that sections of the professional class in Australia will continue to campaign against new coalmines and the expansion of existing coalmines. This is becoming an increasingly popular cause among tertiary-educated Australians who work in the services, government and educational industries.
Yet, in view of Australia’s current and projected economic situation, it is most unlikely that a Coalition or Labor government would forgo the taxes and royalties that are obtained from Australia’s second largest export along with the employment it provides (particularly in rural and regional areas).
There is another point, frequently overlooked. What would nations that want to buy Australia’s relatively low-emission coal say if Australia declares that this cheap power generation resource is no longer for sale?
Fraser and friends had a lot to tell Hollande, who leads a nation heavily reliant on nuclear energy, about the health effects of climate change.
But the petition is silent on how billions of people will obtain electricity without a substantial contribution from coal. Which is what Frydenberg was talking about onInsiders before he was accused of obscenity.