‘The problem for coal is that it is the single greatest driver of climate change’. Photograph: Tim Wimborne/Reuters
Originally published in The Guardian
During the second world war, my dad performed his war service down the coal mines in the UK. The work cost him his sense of smell, but gave him a profound sense of camaraderie and regard for the men he served with down in the coal pits. Until the end of his life, my dad was proud of his modest contribution to the peoples’ war against fascism.
Seven decades later and, sadly, coal mining is no longer a noble endeavour. Once upon a time, coal miners justifiably believed they were building Australia’s prosperity. Today, such a belief is no longer credible. The problem for coal is that it is the single greatest driver of climate change. Professor James Hansen calls coal “the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet”. The IPCC’s latest report has simply underlined the overwhelming existing scientific and economic case for rapidly shifting away from coal and other fossil fuels.
But like the tobacco industry before it, the coal industry refuses to face its responsibilities, and instead puts all its energies into hitting out. And those efforts are looking increasingly desperate. Yesterday’s bizarre emergence of the Mineral Council’s online “Australians for Coal” platform is just the latest sign of an industry in values freefall. The initiative has proven a lightning rod for social media ridicule: just check out #Australiansforcoal on Twitter. As 350.org put it in one tweet: “[w]e love a good corporate hashtag backfire & #australiansforcoal is awesome right now.”
The coal industry is in a state of moral collapse, moving ever further away from public standards of good and responsible behaviour, even as the commercial prospects for the commodity are in steep decline. And, without a functioning moral compass, the coal industry has become mired in a sea of ridicule of its own making.
Just last week, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, seen by so many as an icon of hope and moral integrity, called for an apartheid-era style campaign against the whole fossil fuel industry on the grounds of climate change. But it is not only famous figures who know the game is up for the coal industry. Dramatically, Australians from all walks of life, including war veterans, religious leaders and farmers, are now regularly engaging in civil disobedience against the coal industry because of their deeply held moral concerns.
The collapse of the coal industry’s reputation has been cemented by any number of other unsavoury episodes, from being found out giving dodgy economic figures to government; open conflict with rural communities; the Morwell fire disaster; tipping money that was allocated for developing carbon capture and storage into a promotional slush fund; and of course obtaining permission to dredge and dump near the Great Barrier Reef in order to build new coal port infrastructure. The list of scandals and outrages associated with the coal industry seems to get longer by the day.
Yet none of this is to have a go at the working people who show up to earn a fair day’s pay at their practical jobs in the coal mining industry. The fault lies at an investor and executive level.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the coal industry’s ethical and moral collapse lies in how it is responding to its own crisis. Instead of facing up to its responsibilities, the coal industry has responded with calls for the draconian use of state force to quell protest. Yesterday Stephen Galilee, the chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, called for “heavy fines” and “jail time” for coal protestors. Does he want such penalties applied, to, say Bill Ryan, the 92 year old legally blind Kokoda veteran who is so worried about the impacts of climate change on his grandchildren that he has now been arrested twice protesting at the Maules Creek coal mine?
The coal industry also seems increasingly intent on claiming that the sector’s real concern is human poverty in developing countries. The most striking example of this corporate Orwellian exercise is Peabody Energy’s slick and expensive “advanced energy for life” campaign, dreamt up by PR giants Burson-Marsteller. The fact that the first and worst impacts of climate change will fall upon the poor and vulnerable within most societies render such claims particularly perverse. In reality, it’s hard to imagine that many fossil fuel companies have any interest whatsoever beyond their bottom line.
Which brings us back to the excruciating digital and social media fail of Australians for Coal. In social media, people tend to sniff a lack of authenticity a mile away. Yet the real embarrassment for the coal industry lies in the very establishment of Australians for Coal because any decent industry on a proper ethical footing does not need to try and confect the appearance of public support.
#Australiansforcoal – because when the arrogant, powerful and greedy are challenged by morality, economics and science, they don’t like it.