Bad medicine

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Feature Story - 11 January, 2013
On Monday, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, visited communities affected by bushfires in Dunalley, Tasmania. She made what should not be, by now, a controversial observation: “…we do know that over time as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events”.
Bush fires©Greenpeace/Armestre

Gillard’s frankness is encouraging. Yet, despite making the link between climate change and catastrophic extreme weather, the Prime Minister – and Australia’s political class in general – continues to suffer institutionalised cognitive dissonance.

Rather like a doctor selling cigarettes whilst warning of the threat of cancer, the concern about climate change and extreme weather is coupled with unequivocal support for the expansion of Australia’s coal export industry.

If Australia is to make a contribution to avoiding dangerous climate change – and more weeks like this one - then the problem of our coal exports must be addressed.

Right now, the world is heading towards temperature rises that could reach four degrees above pre-industrial averages, leading to far worse conditions than those we’ve seen this summer. To prevent this, we must stop increasing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel and its use in power stations is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Its use must begin reducing dramatically within the next five years. Instead, Australia - already the world’s largest coal exporter – it preparing a huge expansion.  Indeed, the coal projects coming through the pipeline in NSW and Queensland, if realised, would make Australia’s coal exports a significant barrier to efforts to keep global temperature rises to below two degrees –the benchmark accepted by most, including the Australian Government, as a “safe” level of global warming.

A recent example underscores the extent to which the Government openly prosecutes two totally contradictory policy positions when it comes to climate change and coal. On October 18 2012, Indian company GVK held a signing ceremony in Hyderabad for contracts to build the T3 coal export terminal at Abbot Point, in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The T3 coal terminal is a key component of the push to open up the Galilee Basin in central Queensland to vast new coal mining projects. The Gallilee Basin is such a large coal reserve that if all the proposed projects go ahead, the greenhouse emissions from the coal it exports will be far larger than Australia’s own emissions from all sources.

At the event for this globally significant climate disaster was Prime Minister Gillard. The photo accompanying newspaper coverage shows her smiling while helping to exchange ceremonial signed contracts for a project that will help drive our planet towards dangerous climate change and our country towards more horrible weeks like the one we have just endured.

Here are the two faces of Australia’s response to climate change: a Prime Minister who one day is presiding over the expansion of our climate changing coal industry – the next condoling devastated communities and making the link between climate change and extreme weather.

How does the Government deal with this contradiction? Usually it simply doesn’t, because no one asks it to. When confronted with the occasional question about our coal exports, the response is frequently the drug dealer’s defense saying, “If we don’t export coal, someone else will”. Yet whatever the response, government and industry cannot change the simple reality that every ton of coal that leaves our shores brings the prospect of dangerous climate change ever closer.

What, then, are we to do? As a nation, this is a conversation that we simply have to have: how can we allow the massive expansion of our climate changing coal export industry when we know how seriously climate change will impact us?  It’s an unavoidable and inconvenient truth that we simply can’t avoid any longer and must address. And we need to do it soon.

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