Fear of a black planet

The argument from the coal lobby is simple. It says that burning Australian coal helps lower carbon emissions. Burning Australian coal is good for the planet.

The argument was made this week by Paul Flynn, chief executive of Whitehaven Coal. His company is influential in politics. His chair is Mark Vaile, a former deputy prime minister.

“It’s not a popular narrative … but withdrawing Australian coal from global markets today would be a big setback for a world trying to meet its net zero global emissions targets,” Flynn wrote in The Australian Financial Review. “How can this be so? And if this is the case, why isn’t it more widely understood and accepted?”

He said the answer was “both logical and straightforward but requires a willingness to challenge the group-think orthodoxy that says, if it is coal it must be bad and therefore should be demonised”.

Essentially, he argues that Australian coal is cleaner than international alternatives. It’s also more valuable. He says environmental activists should support its export. “They should be careful what they wish for if they are to be true to their stated ambition of lowering global emissions. If this is a genuine ambition and not just a political slogan, they should be agnostic about how it is achieved.”

This argument has been made in various forms. Its twin is the argument that says Australian coal will lift poorer countries out of poverty. Scott Morrison explored a hybrid of the two in his response to the sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We cannot ignore the fact,” he said, “that the developing world accounts for two-thirds of global emissions and those emissions are rising.”

These are appalling arguments. They are inaction dressed up as responsibility. They use the world’s poor to justify their profits. Flynn says he doesn’t lose sleep over stranded assets, but he should lose sleep over the destruction wrought by his business.

The IPCC report makes clear that the impact of climate change is worse than first thought. It is undeniably the result of human enterprise. No single model predicts the world meeting its Paris targets. Sickness, fire and flood will be the result, along with drought and huge, disruptive flows of people seeking shelter.

On the worst projections, cities such as Sydney will be inundated by rising sea levels. Temperatures will reach unliveable highs. There will be mass extinctions.

Australia’s answer is obfuscation and rhetorical tricks. How can this be so, Flynn asks. As if the question is not: How dare you? How dare you be so glib about the destruction of this planet?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 14, 2021 as "Fear of a black planet".

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