Tag Archives: climate crisis

Baillieu’s Coaltopia puts Victorians in danger

The Victorian State Government is currently considering a plan to offer mining licenses for large reserves of brown coal, with the aim of kick-starting a brown coal export industry in Victoria. They are also considering a taxpayer funded public relations campaign, on behalf of the coal companies, to convince Victorians that brown coal is great.

Mining companies are already lining up to bid for the right to dig up billions of tonnes of brown coal, in some of Victoria’s most productive agricultural regions.

This comes on top of the Baillieu Government’s destruction of the wind energy industry and is occurring alongside their destruction of the solar energy industry (they aim to get rid of the solar feed-in tariff for rooftop solar).

Under any reasonable analysis, this plan is indefensible. The only beneficiaries are the coal companies, who happen to donate money to the Liberal and National Parties.

There is a lot of misinformation and corporate propaganda flying around on this issue, so Yarra Climate Action Now wants to clear the air with a few key points:

1. There’s no such thing as “clean coal”.

Brown coal is the dirtiest and most polluting fossil fuel used in Australia. Some of the “new” technologies proposed for treating the brown coal (which the coal lobby deceptively refers to as “clean” or “pristine” coal) will only reduce brown coal’s greenhouse gas emissions to the level of black coal, or at best, fossil gas. This is far from clean and nowhere near the zero emissions status of renewable energy.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) which is also sometimes referred to as “clean coal” doesn’t exist, and is still only theoretical. Even its most enthusiastic proponents say it will not be ready for at least another 20 years, by which time renewable energy will be far cheaper anyway.

“Clean” coal is nothing but a delay strategy put forward by the coal lobby to slow down the roll-out of renewable energy and ensure they can keep making obscene profits for a little while longer.

2. Baillieu’s plan will increase electricity prices.

Baillieu’s destruction of the wind energy industry already means that Victorians will be paying billions more for our electricity than we otherwise would be. A brown coal export industry will expose Victorians to international pricing for coal, something we are shielded from since brown coal is not currently exported. This will increase domestic coal prices and increase the cost of electricity production in Victoria.

3. Brown coal development will kill jobs.

If you invest your money in one thing, then you don’t have money to invest in another. Money going into brown coal development will reduce the amount of money going into renewable energy technologies. And guess what! Renewable energy is far more jobs-rich than fossil fuel technologies are.

The Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan calculated that if we transitioned our whole economy to one that is run by 100% renewable energy, 40,000 permanent jobs would be created, and 20,000 jobs would be lost. That is, for every job lost in the fossil fuel sector, 2 jobs would be created in the renewable energy sector due to its higher labour needs.

If the money going into brown coal was shifted to building renewable energy and establishing a renewable energy components manufacturing industry, then far more jobs would be created, and they would be sustainable for the long term too.

4. Investing in coal is bad for the Victorian economy.

Lobbyist Dan Cass outlines the economic stupidity of  investing in brown coal in his article on the ABC website. He says:

Premier Ted Baillieu’s plan to expand Victoria’s brown coal sector is a blow to our economic credibility.

“The world is switching to renewable energy and brown coal, the dirtiest, least efficient way to generate energy, will be left for dead.

“China is the biggest coal consumer in the world, but it is planning to cap coal imports in 2015. That is only three years away. Victoria’s new brown coal mines will not even be a hole in the ground by then, let alone a viable export industry.

“India is another big coal customer that is turning to renewable energy, because it is more economically viable. The Indian government put an industry plan in place to bring the cost of solar below the cost of coal, by 2022. A review of this ‘Grid Parity’ by KPMG found that it was likely to be reached five years earlier, by 2017!

“The USA is still the economic powerhouse and it sets the global energy agenda. It also has an industry plan like India’s, which will get solar cheaper than brown coal by 2020. That is only eight years away.

To summarise – the world is shifting away from coal and we will be left with stranded assets and a product no one wants to buy. We should be putting our money into the energy technologies of the present and future, not the 19th Century.

5. A brown coal export industry is a climate disaster.

The climate science is clear. There is already too much carbon in the atmosphere to prevent catastrophic climate change. We need to get to zero emissions and start removing the excess carbon we have been adding to the atmosphere as quickly as is humanly possible.

Brown coal is currently not exported due to its unstable nature. If left at room temperature it can spontaneously combust, making it too dangerous to transport long distances. If the coal companies get their way and they can develop technologies to make brown coal suitable for export, then more coal will be exported, making coal more accessible to countries currently deciding their energy futures and thereby delaying the urgent and necessary transition to zero-emissions technologies.

Coal mine destroying agricultural land in NSW. Photo: Jeremy Buckingham MLC

6. This brown coal plan will reduce our food security.

Coal mines are planned for Bacchus Marsh and many other areas in Victoria, particularly Gippsland. These are some of the most agriculturally productive regions in Victoria, supplying Melbourne and many other places with fresh fruits, vegetables, grain and dairy products. With the impacts of the climate crisis, including droughts, floods and heatwaves, reducing our ability to produce food globally, the productive land we do have is becoming more and more precious.

No matter what the coal industry says, we can’t eat coal. Food security is more important than the profits of mining companies.

7. We don’t even need coal anyway.

We already have the renewable energy technology to get to 100% renewable energy and replace the baseload power we get from coal and gas. Renewable energy is rapidly dropping in price, and the more we build it, the cheaper it gets. Contrast this to coal and gas prices which are set to become even more volatile and will just keep going up in the long term. We don’t need coal anymore to produce our electricity.


The Greens have already come out and rightly condemned this plan, saying they will fight it. As has the Bass Coast Shire Council (Wonthaggi) and even the state Liberal Member of Parliament for that area, Ken Smith. The Federal Labor Party has continued its usual support of the fossil fuel lobby by saying they will allow a brown coal export industry to be developed, while the State Labor Party maintains an unprincipled silence (we have contacted our two state members of parliament, Bronwyn Pike and Richard Wynne, and await their responses).

To help stop this insane proposal please sign the petition here. If you want to get more actively involved (and unless more people do, then this will go ahead) please contact us or Quit Coal.

Climate change is an “immediate, growing and grave threat” to health and security

First published on the Croakey Blog.

“Climate change poses an immediate, growing and grave threat to the health and security of people in both developed and developing countries around the globe.

“Climate change leads to more frequent and extreme weather events and to conditions that favour the spread of infectious diseases. Rising sea levels, floods and droughts cause loss of habitat, water and food shortages, and threats to livelihood. These trigger conflict within and between countries.

“Humanitarian crises will further burden military resources through the need for rescue missions and aid. Mass migration will also increase, triggered by both environmental stress and conflict, thus leading to serious further security issues. It will often not be possible to adapt meaningfully to these changes, and the economic cost will be enormous.

“As in medicine, prevention is the best solution.”

This is the introduction to a statement issued yesterday from a conference in London on the health and security implications of climate change. It was held at BMA (British Medical Association) House and convened by the BMJ.

It stands in such stark contrast to the focus of so much of the public debate in Australia since the House of Reps passed the carbon tax legislation last week.

The BMJ’s conference blurb notes that the event was “borne of an unlikely alliance – between health leaders and military experts. Frustration at the slow progress in tackling the causes of climate change at national and international level led to a series of discussions and an editorial in the BMJ. From these beginnings, a loose partnership of concerned organisations has emerged, with a common aim of highlighting the urgent need for action.”

The conference blurb describes climate change as “the greatest current threat to public health”. It says: “This is the view shared by Dr Margaret Chan, director general of WHO, and a growing number of the world’s health professionals. Less well known is the view of leading military experts – those working to prevent and manage conflicts around the world: that climate change is also the greatest future threat to security.”

You can read the full conference statement here.

The conference recommendations include calling for developed countries to adopt more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, to increase their support for low carbon development and to invest in further research into the impact of climate change on health and security.

As well, all governments are urged to enact legislative and regulatory change to stop the building of new unabated coal-fired power stations and phase out the continuing operation of existing plants prioritising lignite generation as most harmful to health.


“Don’t underestimate the enemy”

The BMJ Editor-in-Chief, Dr Fiona Godlee, was tweeting from the conference, and here are some of her reports (the conference program gives the titles of the speakers she quotes):

Have just opened #healthandsecurity climatechange.bmj.com conference. Michael Jay – don’t need hype, hard headed science is scary enough

Chris Rapley, British Antarctic Survey #healthandsecurity, sea levels rising at 3.5 cm per year due to ocean warming and ices melting

Chris Rapley: Is the climate warming, is it us, does it matter, and should we do something about it? Yes, yes, yes and yes

Chris Rapley #healthandsecurity lower and mid atmospheric layers are warming while stratosphere is cooling so CC not due to sun warming up

Hugh Montomgery: we are in the midst of the greatest and fastest mass extinction ever

Tony McMichael: global crop yields will decline as photosynthesis slows when average temperatures rise above 40 C

Jon Snow: all private cars should be banned in central London.Resounding applause from this audience

Tim Lang: the public health sector is pathetic and I speak from inside it. Going to have to radically change our diet

Paul Wilkinson: many changes needed to tackle climate change will be good for our health and quality of life

Malcolm Green: Don’t underestimate the enemy on climate change. Huge vested interests. We need courage, money, a strategy

Delegates at climatechange.bmj.com call for us all to put heads above parapets: “We should all be full time activists”.


Armed forces keen to reduce carbon footprint

Meanwhile, the BBC reported on the conference, citing research suggesting that climate impacts will make conflict more likely, by increasing competition for scare but essential resources such as water and food.

Military officers at the meeting also emphasised the interest that armed forces have in reducing their own carbon footprint. Several officers admitted that armed forces were “the gas-guzzlers of the world” – and while that was sometimes necessary in operations, reducing fossil fuel use and adopting renewables wherever possible made sense from economic and tactical points of view.

The Global Campaign for Climate Action features interviews with some of the conference speakers.


Meanwhile, in Australia….

Australian public health experts have urged health organisations to support carbon pricing.

In this recent article, Carbon pricing is a health protection policy, in The Medical Journal of Australia (full access only to subscribers), they say that “…a carbon price is especially in the interests of those with low incomes, whose lives will be more disrupted by climate change than will the lives of the wealthy, and among whom the negative health impacts will be greater.”

The back story to this article – concerns about a recent Royal Australasian College of Physicians media statement on climate change  – is explained in previous Croakey posts (and in somewhat more direct language than in the MJA article…)


Update, 19 Oct

Further to the London conference, Julian Sheather, ethics manager at the BMJ, suggests that we are in the grips of “mass collective denial” about climate change.

He writes: “…if the climate change predictions are reliable – and it is likely that they are – and the results of the continuing rise in carbon production are as catastrophic as they are predicted to be, why do we continue as if nothing in the world has changed? Scientists are close to unanimous about the problem. The solution: a global economy based on green energy sources, is both well-established and technologically feasible. So why is it that even those who are fully signed up to the problem behave almost without exception as if nothing is happening? We drive, we fly, we consume, we gorge on unnecessary calories, we clamour for economic growth. How is it that, to judge by our behaviour rather than our pious words, even the best educated among us refuse to accept the truth?”

Sheather says he went home from the BMJ conference feeling “desolate”.

“It would seem that the long day of economic growth driven by fossil fuel consumption is waning. The shadows are lengthening. And unless the motivation for real change can be found, the night ahead of us will be long and dark and we may not recognise ourselves when we emerge from it.”

Join the backwards march!

Put this one in your diaries! We are having a backwards march to show our anger at how Victoria is going backwards under Baillieu. Sunday 13 November, 1pm, Parliament House.

* Cattle trampling our national parks
* New wind farms blocked and solar energy attacked
* Co2 emissions target ignored
* Endangered species habitat logged
* New coal-fired power station approved and funded with taxpayer money
* Anglesea coal mine continued
* Green Wedges threatened
* Westernport destruction fast-tracked

For more information click here.

Premier Baillieu said he would ‘fix the problems, and build the future’, but when it comes to climate change and our environment his government has created new problems and is threatening out future!

His government has no formal environment or climate change policy, and no clear vision for a more sustainable Victoria.

So after 12 disappointing months we’re marching backwards to demonstrate the direction the Premier is taking us.


Yarra Council split on climate stance

On Tuesday night Yarra Council voted four votes to five to reject a motion calling on the Federal Government to implement a large range of measures for achieving a safe climate future. This motion was put to council by Mayor Alison Clarke at the request of Yarra Climate Action Now and was found by a staff member to be consistent with Yarra City Council’s own climate policies.

The proposed motion expressed support for a carbon price as well as the following measures:

  • Offset the financial implications of the carbon price for households, through measures such as rebates for energy efficiency and financial assistance for low-income households, to ensure that they are not further disadvantaged by the effects of taking action on climate change.
  • Adopt a long-term zero-emissions target for the whole Australian economy, and draw up and immediately implement a plan for how to meet this target.
  • Any new power plants constructed should substantially reduce net emissions and assist in the rapid transition of our major baseload power supply from coal to renewables.
  • Invest in a just and rapid transition to less polluting industries for workers and local communities in places such as Victoria’s La Trobe Valley, based on advice that is independent and evidence-based.
  • Invest the carbon tax revenue not required for household and worker/industry compensation in renewable energy generation, including baseload solar thermal.
  • Introduce a gross national feed-in tariff, to pay a guaranteed fair price for all electricity produced by all forms of renewable energy, including baseload solar thermal.
  • Initiate a mass roll-out of energy-efficiency measures, particularly for residential and commercial buildings, in partnership with interested local governments, many of which already have considerable experience and expertise in this area.
  • Shift investment away from roads and into rail freight, walking, cycling and public transport, including urban and regional/rural public transport and high-speed rail between capital cities.
  • End the logging of carbon-dense old growth forests and broad-scale native vegetation clearing, and invest in revegetation projects.
  • Minimise administrative complexity in the carbon price mechanism, and build flexibility into it, so that the price can be adjusted in line with not only inflation but also technological change and updated scientific information about the extent and severity of climate change.

While the Greens and Cr Fristacky voted for the motion, the Labor and Socialist councillors and Cr Smedley voted against it.

YCAN would like to express our extreme disappointment with the councillors that voted against this motion as it represents a clear and comprehensive list of essential policy measures. We aren’t surprised the Labor Party councillors Funder and Barbour voted against it. While the Federal Government is working on implementing a carbon price, it is also funding the new HRL coal-fired power station, and working to expand coal and gas extraction and export. This hypocrisy and continued taxpayer support for the fossil fuel industry means that Labor Party representatives may be constrained in calling for climate action that will make a real difference. When will Labor finally stand up to the big polluters and do the right thing?

We are surprised that Councillors Jolly and Main from the Socialist Party voted against this motion. This is despite Cr Jolly campaigning for a zero emissions economy and the replacement of Hazelwood with renewable energy at the 2010 State Election. YCAN members present at the council meeting reported that the main argument used by the Socialists against the motion was that they didn’t support market-based mechanisms (carbon pricing) and it didn’t call for the re-nationalisation of the electricity sector.

This stance means throwing the baby out with the bathwater. YCAN is also ambivalent about market-based mechanisms, with evidence from Europe showing that they have achieved little in the goal of reducing emissions (although our survey found that 83% of those asked in Nth Fitzroy and Clifton Hill support a price on carbon). However, that is why this motion had a whole range of other demands and policy measures, consistent with YCAN’s own carbon price stance. The climate crisis is bearing down upon us and may require some political compromise for action to occur.

We invite the Yarra Councillors to comment below and explain their stance to YCAN members.

Gillard cuts solar energy programs to pay for flood damage

The Gillard Government has announced its plans for funding the reconstruction after this month’s devastating floods. These include a flood levy on taxpayers earning more than $50,000 and cuts to various government programs, many of which are related to cutting emissions and developing renewable energy. The Solar Energy Society has estimated that $495 million will be cut from solar energy programs.
The irony here is inescapable. Ever-worsening and more frequent natural disasters are directly linked to human greenhouse gas emissions. Yet while the Federal Government continues subsidising fossil fuels – the cause of the problem – to the tune of billions of dollars per year, it cuts funding to the solutions – renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Some of that money cut from renewable energy will probably go towards rebuilding coal export infrastructure.
This is insanity. We continue to have proof that the big polluters call the shots with both major parties.
A petition has been launched calling for the fossil fuel industry to pay for the clean up rather than taxpayers and the renewable energy industry – please sign it here – http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/tax-polluters-for-climate-disasters/

Please forward it to family and friends.

Clive Hamilton: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change

A paper to the Climate Controversies: Science and politics conference
Museum of Natural Sciences,
Brussels, 28 October 2010

For a full pdf of the article click here.

Repudiating science
Let me begin with a pregnant fact about United States’ voters. In 1997 there was virtually no difference between Democratic and Republican voters in their views on global warming, with around half saying warming had begun. In 2008, reflecting the accumulation and dissemination of scientific evidence, the proportion of Democratic voters taking this view had risen from 52 to 76 per cent. But the proportion of Republican voters fell from 48 per cent to 42 per cent—a four percent gap had become a 34 per cent gap. What had happened?
The opening of the gulf was due to the fact that Republican Party activists, in collaboration with fossil fuel interests and conservative think tanks, had successfully associated acceptance of global warming science with “liberal” views. In other words, they had activated the human predisposition to adopt views that cement one’s connections with cultural groups that strengthen one’s definition of self. In the 1990s views on global warming were influenced mostly by attentiveness to the science; now one can make a good guess at an American’s opinion on global warming by identifying their views on abortion, same-sex marriage and gun-control.
That global warming has been made a battleground in the wider culture war is most apparent from the political and social views of those who reject climate science outright. In 2008 they accounted for seven per cent of US voters, rising to 18 per cent if those with serious doubts are added. Among those who dismiss climate science, 76 per cent describe themselves as “conservative” and only three per cent as “liberal” (with the rest “moderate”). They overwhelmingly oppose redistributive policies, programs to reduce poverty and regulation of business. They prefer to watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. Like those whose opinions they value, these climate deniers are disproportionately white, male and conservative—those who feel their cultural identity most threatened by the implications of climate change.
Those on the left are as predisposed to sift evidence through ideological filters; but in the case of global warming it happens that the evidence overwhelmingly endorses the liberal beliefs that unrestrained capitalism is jeopardising future well-being, that comprehensive government intervention is needed, and that the environment movement was right all along. For neo-conservatives accepting these is intolerable, and it is easier emotionally and more convenient politically to reject climate science.
The United States is a deeply polarised society. In Europe, the absence of a longrunning and rancorous culture war explains the relative weakness of climate denial. Where it does prevail it is associated with parties of the far right. It seems perfectly natural, for example, that the British National Party should adopt a denialist stance. In Italy and some former Eastern bloc countries, where anti-communism and remnantfascism still influence right-wing politics, denial is more potent.
The aggressive adoption of climate denial by neo-conservatism was symbolised by the parting gesture of George W. Bush at his last G8 summit in 2008. Leaving the room he turned to the assembled leaders to say: “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter”. It was a defiant “joke” reflecting the way US neo-conservatives define themselves by their repudiation of the “other”, in this case, the internationalist, environmentally-concerned, self-doubting enemies of “the American way of life”. Conceding ground on global warming would have meant bridging two implacably opposed worldviews. Bush’s words, and the fist pump that accompanied them, were read by those present as a two-fingered salute to everything the Texan opposed.
The fragility of the Enlightenment
In these circumstances, facts quail before beliefs, and there is something poignant about scientists who continue to adhere to the idea that people repudiate climate science because they suffer from inadequacy of information. In fact, denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information. Once people have made up their minds, providing contrary evidence can actually make them more resolute, a phenomenon we see at work with the upsurge of climate denial each time the IPCC publishes a report. For those who interpreted “Climategate” as confirmation of their belief that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy, the three or four reports that subsequently vindicated the scientists and the science proved only that the circle of conspirators was wider than previously suspected.
In a curious twist, climate deniers now deploy the arguments first developed by the radical social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to erode the authority of science. This was perhaps first noticed by Bruno Latour when he lamented the way climate deniers set out to explain away the evidence using a narrative about the social construction of facts. However, while constructivists developed an epistemological critique of science, climate deniers, adopting the heroic mantle of “sceptic”, claim to be protecting official epistemology from internal corrosion. The strategy required an attack on the system of peer-review and sustained attempts to “deconstruct” the motives of climate scientists. They are always on the lookout for biases and prejudices that could lie behind the claims of climate scientists, explaining away the vast accumulation of evidence by impugning the motives of those who collect it. That was the genius of the “Climategate” scandal—the emails were hard evidence that the “hard evidence” had been fabricated. The leaking of routine private exchanges between professional colleagues tarnished the public image of scientists as whitecoated experts too preoccupied with their test tubes and retorts to be political.
Since the founding of modern science, matters of fact have been established through the common assent of those qualified to judge under rules laid down in the 17th century by the Royal Society. The break from the past lay in the fact that the “potency of knowledge came from nature, not from privileged persons”. “Climategate” allowed deniers to claim that climate science indeed emerged from privileged persons rather than disinterested nature. In their study of Robert Boyle’s struggle to found the new scientific method of experimentation observable by suitably qualified others, Shapin and Schaffer note that “democratic ideals and the exigencies of professional expertise form an unstable compound”. Deniers have adroitly used the instruments of democratic practice to erode the authority of professional expertise, including skilful exploitation of a free media, appeal to freedom of information laws, the mobilisation of a group of vociferous citizens, and the promotion of their own to public office. At least in the United States and Australia, democracy has defeated science.
Innocently pursuing their research, climate scientists were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order. They could not know that the new facts they were uncovering would threaten the existence of powerful industrialists, compel governments to choose between adhering to science and remaining in power, corrode comfortable expectations about the future, expose hidden resentment of technical and cultural elites and, internationally, shatter the post-colonial growth consensus between North and South. Their research has brought us to one of those rare historical fracture points when knowledge diverges from power, portending a long period of struggle before the two are once more aligned.
To continue reading click here.

ANZ Bank – the dirtiest amongst the dirty

Tell ANZ to clean up its act!

Burning coal is endangering our health, polluting the air and water, and making global warming worse.
And who is providing the dirty money to finance dirty coal power in Australia? It’s the retail bank that claims it ‘lives in your world‘ – ANZ.
ANZ is officially the dirtiest bank in Australia.
Despite announcing its plan to be carbon neutral by the end of 2009, ANZ is the largest financer of dirty coal power in Australia. Over the past five years, ANZ has poured nearly 1.6 billion dollars into coal power stations, coal mines and coal ports. At a time when we need to be cutting pollution and investing in renewable energy, ANZ is using our money to expand Australia’s coal industry.
Click here to go to the Greenpeace site that allows you to send an email to ANZ’s CEO Mike Smith. You can also send him a Christmas card by downloading the image below and sending it to ANZGroupCEO@anz.com and gerard.brown@anz.com.au.
We also encourage all ANZ customers, and those of the other major banks to switch to companies not investing in coal or other fossil fuels such as Bendigo Bank or MECU Credit Union.

Vote Climate attempted smear backfires

The Melbourne Times Weekly on 17 November published an article claiming that one of the independent candidates for the upper house, Adrian Whitehead, put together the Vote Climate scorecards and rated himself. This is untrue (and without basis) and the Melbourne Times Weekly did not seek comment from any community climate group involved in Vote Climate to correct the Labor Party’s attacks that stemmed from this misrepresentation. The scorecards that are being distributed across Melbourne were put together by the respective community climate group from that area and no candidate was involved in putting them together.
Mr Whitehead was involved in research for the Vote Climate website (in which he is not mentioned or rated) and has been for many years. He has also been a climate activist for many years and is running in this election on a science-based climate action platform.  However, the final word on scoring was given independently by non-partisan climate action groups and the scorecard mentioned in the article was prepared without any input from him and separate from the website (YCAN’s scorecard focuses on the lower house anyway, with no upper house candidates rated). At no stage was Mr Whitehead involved in assessing a score for himself. We stand by Vote Climate’s assessment of the candidates’ climate policies as accurate and fair.
The article also quotes a Rick Brown without revealing that he works with Fiona Richardson’s (Labor member for Northcote’s) husband. His Labor and Liberal party links should have been revealed in the article as he was commenting on the Vote Climate campaign and is obviously not an independent voice on the matter.
We have been informed that the Melbourne Times will issue a correction next week.

Brumby’s Quarry Vision

Originally published in Arena Magazine.
John Brumby stands looking upwards into the distance, squinting and baring his nice straight teeth. Behind him is a giant octagonal configuration of mirrors reflecting the sun’s rays against a backdrop of perfect blue sky. They call this greenie porn: pictures of big shiny solutions for the energy dilemmas of our time, like this one taken at a large-scale solar power plant.
Cashing in on the appeal in this advertisement in an inner-Melbourne local paper we read: ‘John Brumby and Labor – Leading Australia on Climate Change’. There are some dot points about making Victoria the ‘Solar State’, about spending $650 million on climate change and renewable energy programs; $10 billion on unspecified new investment and jobs; a target for emissions cuts of 20 per cent by 2020 on 2000 levels; and a staged closure of Hazelwood power station. Interesting for a state government that has overseen steady increases in greenhouse gas emissions over the eleven years it has held power.
There is no questioning the motivation here. Following the 2010 federal election (in which Julia Gillard’s strategy on climate policy was to duck and deflect), the large swing to the Greens across the country, and especially in Victoria, resulted in that party gaining the balance of power in the Senate and claiming the lower house seat of Melbourne. Facing an election of his own on 27 November, with four seats at risk of being lost to the Greens, Brumby has made no secret that he has a different strategy in mind. On 26 July, as Abbott and Gillard’s campaigns were already in full swing, he released his Climate Change White Paper.
This long-awaited statement of Victoria’s climate policy agenda looked fresh: first, because it was in radical contrast with the federal climate change policy vacuum; second, because it actually did reflect a new approach from the Brumby government. Previous drafts focussing almost exclusively on ‘adaptation’ had had to be pulped as carbon prices went on and off the national agenda, and Brumby finally decided emissions reductions could not be left to higher forces.
Unfortunately, Brumby’s apparent climate policy stance has very little to do with the substance of his policies. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence of politics-as-usual, which continues to fall distressingly short of the task of altering our progress along a path to ecological disaster. It boils down to the question of how we might assess leadership on climate change. If it were a question of relativity we might have reason to congratulate the Brumby government for taking some steps forward. The problem is that they are baby steps, and can be explained more easily by a fear of losing votes to the Greens rather than any real comprehension of climate change science.
The capacity of politics-as-usual to live up to the task of avoiding dangerous climate change has been questioned before and found wanting. In their 2008 assessment of the dramatic, widening gap between the response that climate science demands and the response actually given, David Spratt and Philip Sutton in Climate Code Red pointed to the short-term, adversarial and incremental mode of politics conventional in Western nations like ours. This mode is ‘steeped in a culture of compromise that is fearful of deep, quick change—which suggests it is incapable of managing the transition [to a safe-climate economy] at the necessary speed’. Nothing has changed, except that is, the amount of evidence in support of this statement.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Australian approach to coal, with politics-as-usual meaning a refusal to deviate from the ‘quarry vision’ so aptly described by Guy Pearse in his 2009 Quarterly Essay, Quarry Vision: Coal, Climate Change and the End of the Resources Boom. This is an ingrained mentality—shared by the vast majority of politicians, the business sector and many citizens: that Australia is a nation dependent both for domestic electricity and export income on digging up, shipping out and burning coal.
While the imperative to break with this mentality could not be stronger, for reasons ranging from the moral to the pragmatic, there is no indication that this is occurring where it matters most. Witness QR National proudly boasting their coal freight activities and asking that Australians invest in the idea that this will continue indefinitely. Witness federal Energy Minister Martin Ferguson feigning ignorance when presented with the prospect of the need to draw up transition plans for coal workers. Meanwhile ABARE proudly reports that Australian coal exports reached record levels in the December quarter 2009 and projects that exports will rise by 88 per cent between 2004/2005 and 2029/2030.
But what of Premier Brumby and his latest advertisements? Should we be grateful that he did not pose next to a big pile of coal and some smokestacks? Unfortunately there is nothing to suggest that Brumby’s own quarry vision is wavering, beyond his apparent recognition that it may not be the best thing to emphasise in an election context.
A key element of Brumby’s climate policy platform is a commitment to shutting down a quarter of production at Hazelwood—Australia’s most polluting coal-fired power station—over the next four years. Considering it was due to close in 2009 but had its life extended in 2005 by then Labor Premier Steve Bracks for an extra few decades, this is hardly a position worth celebrating. It should have gone completely off-line by now. With Victoria’s potential for baseload solar thermal power it is possible to replace all of Hazelwood’s generating capacity with renewable energy within the same four year timeframe. However as it stands under Brumby’s plan, a quarter of Hazelwood’s current output will probably be replaced with coal power from another source.
Even worse than this, and certainly not a lead item on Brumby’s climate policy agenda, is the proposal currently waiting for approval from EPA Victoria to build a brand new 600 megawatt coal-fired power station near Morwell in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. The HRL Dual Gas proposal has the support of both the Brumby Government who have committed $50 million and the Commonwealth Government ($100 million). They claim that the use of synthetic gas (from the drying and gasification of brown coal) and natural gas at the new plant will ensure the emissions intensity is lower than any other coal plants operating in Victoria. Again, this is nothing to get excited about. While the HRL Dual Gas plant would indeed help to bring Victoria into line with other coal plants in Australia by producing emissions slightly below the level of a typical black coal power station, the emissions intensity of the plant would still be almost double the OECD average. One wonders why the Brumby Government would make their own target to reduce 20% of emissions by 2020 that much harder by committing to new coal power development that will increase emissions and lock in reliance on coal for years to come.
Further evidence that the Brumby Government has expansion rather than curtailment in mind for Victoria’s coal industry emerged in September 2009. At that time Victorian Energy Minister Peter Batchelor was reported to be championing a proposal by Australian-based company Exergen, to mine, dry and export 12 million tonnes of brown coal annually to India.  Confidential cabinet documents obtained the next month by The Age showed that this was only the tip of the iceberg with the Brumby Government considering a competitive tender process to sell off billions of tonnes of Latrobe Valley brown coal reserves to companies looking to open up new coal export markets overseas. Premier Brumby himself said that given Australia exports oil, gas, black coal and uranium, he saw no reason why Victoria should not export brown coal. Yet, by December 2009 the export deals had been shelved, seemingly because the run in the media and backlash from environment groups had ignited fears of broader voter disapproval. However this has not been ruled out, and one should ask whether the plan to expand coal exports might emerge again after a Labor election victory.
Premier Brumby may not be all he is cracking himself up to be on climate change, but how much does it matter to Victorian voters? The gamble is that green message will beat the substance, which is probably a safe bet in this age of marketing supremacy. The strategy is clever enough to sway people without the time or inclination to consider the details.
Brumby’s approach is likely to mean that NGOs, community groups and individuals concerned about climate change will have to work harder than they did during the recent federal election campaign where it was easy to show that Gillard had nothing to offer on climate issues. The task is to build public understanding so that Brumby and others in positions of power can be judged on just how far their policies are really intended to secure a safe climate future.
Taegen Edwards is a member of Yarra Climate Action Now, an independent community group based in the inner Melbourne suburbs of the City of Yarra. She works as a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.