Australia has suffered hellish wildfires and withering drought—and is asking for more through its massive coal exports.

By Guy Pearse

(Sierra Club May/June 2010)

Drought revealed the skeletons of trees once covered by Lake Hume, a massive manmade reservoir bordering the states of New South Wales and Victoria.

If what Australia is experiencing is not global warming, it’s something that looks just like it.

The driest inhabited continent has just endured its warmest decade on record and its worst drought in history. It’s finally started raining again, but not before the 10-year “Big Dry” cost a quarter of all farm jobs. Most state capitals are turning to desalinating seawater, and severe water restrictions will remain a fact of city life. Water your garden in the middle of the day in Brisbane and you risk a AUS$200 fine; wash your car with potable city water in Melbourne and you’ll pay more than twice that. Drought is just the start of Australia’s torments, which also include floods, cyclones, and dust storms.

Hundred-year weather events seem to happen all the time now. Few openly link climate change to the 173 deaths in the Black Saturday bushfires of early 2009, but they are a horrible taste of what’s coming. Firefighters point to longer and more intense fire seasons, and scientists warn of a doubling or even trebling of extreme fire-weather days. In the wake of Black Saturday, a new level was added to the nation’s fire-danger rating system: catastrophic.

Australia is feeling the effects of climate change–and fueling them as well. It’s by far the world’s leading coal exporter, shipping out 290 million tons of coal a year from 120 inland mines, out of sight and out of mind for most Australians. The four companies that dominate the global coal trade–BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Anglo, and Rio Tinto–all have corporate offices in eastern Australia, as well as their largest coal-export investments. The coal rush down under also has lured the world’s two largest coal-mining companies, the U.S.-based Peabody and the China-based Shenhua. The government plans to let exports double in the next 10 years; by 2020, Australia will ship out as much carbon dioxide through coal as Saudi Arabia does today through oil.
Last year’s extreme weather events in Australia were capped by a mammoth dust storm that engulfed half of New South Wales and shrouded Sydney (above) in red dust.

Not long ago the Australian economy was said to ride on the sheep’s back. Now coal exports outnumber wool exports by 600 tons to 1, and most believe the economy rides a coal train. Coal is Australia’s biggest export, the centerpiece of a natural-resources sector partly credited with shielding the country from the global recession. Eighty percent of Australian coal is burned offshore–mainly in power plants and steel mills in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, but increasingly in China and India too. These coal-importing countries are the addicts, with booming economies based on the polluting fuel. Australia is their enabler.

Australians unwilling to see the irony of the situation sometimes have it forced on them. In 2007, cyclonic winds washed a coal tanker up on an iconic surf beach in New South Wales. Greenpeace seized the moment, projecting the words COAL CAUSES CLIMATE CHAOS onto the beleaguered ship’s hull. In Queensland a 500-year flood in 2008 submerged large open-pit coal mines, contaminating the Fitzroy River.

As striking as those images were, and as shocking as it is to most Australians to learn that coral bleaching will likely destroy the Great Barrier Reef within their lifetime, only a small handful of activists connect the coal-export industry with the climate change Australia is feeling. There is no Aussie counterpart, for example, to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal movement. Not one coal-fired power plant here has been closed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. On the contrary, previously decommissioned 1960s-era plants are being refurbished, and the coal industry flourishes with bipartisan political support.

That includes the Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, which has enthusiastically backed the doubling of Australia’s coal exports. Coal, Rudd has declared, is “the backbone of regional Australia.” The emissions-trading scheme he proposes is cloaked in the rhetoric of low-carbon economic transformation, but guarantees the future primacy of coal. No matter what reduction target Australia eventually accepts, its most-coal-dependent industries will get, on average, more than 80 percent of their emission permits for free, with no overall cap on their emissions or share of permits.
Much of the opposition to coal comes from farmers fearful of encroaching open pit coal mines like this one (below) in central Queensland.

The government openly acknowledges that emissions from these sectors will increase, and modeling released by the federal treasury suggests that even with Rudd’s “Carbon Pollution Reduction” scheme, actual emissions in 2020 will be higher than today’s. And conveniently, the 80 percent of Australian coal burned overseas is excluded from Australia’s emission targets.

Australia is attempting to reconcile its spiraling industrial emissions with its emissions-reduction commitments by buying cheap international carbon credits on a grand scale. It’s also seeking a change in international greenhouse-gas accounting rules so it can offload rapidly increasing carbon emissions from wildfires and drought as “natural disturbances.” And it wants credit for the huge amount of carbon that can potentially be sequestered in its soil, which may let the country avoid industrial emission cuts for another decade.

Ironically, the rest of the world views Rudd as an ecofriendly politician who ratified the Kyoto Protocol, championed an ambitious global climate agreement, and vowed to set a national target of lowering greenhouse emissions by up to 25 percent by 2020. Barack Obama said Rudd was doing “a terrific job,” and Al Gore twice toured with him, heaping praise and recording a video for the prime minister’s Web site. Gore did distance himself from Rudd’s polluter-friendly emissions-trading scheme (“not what I would have written”), but the overall impression has been a glowing endorsement of the Australian government.

Rudd, at least, acknowledges that global warming is a problem. The other side of Australian politics is thoroughly controlled by climate skeptics. When “moderate” elements of the conservative opposition negotiated concessions from Rudd to make the proposed emissions-trading scheme even more polluter friendly, conservatives changed their leader rather than see it enacted. Their new leader, Tony Abbott, calls the scientific case for human-made global warming “absolute crap.”

The most conspicuous resistance to the Australian coal rush comes from farmers. It’s not that they link coal and climate change to the devastating drought (although scientists expect irrigated agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin, the most significant agricultural area, to be gone by 2100). Rather, coal mining and coal-bed methane extraction directly threaten the country’s 6 percent of arable land. In particular, farmers fear the mining could damage the headwaters and aquifers feeding into the Murray-Darling river system. The battle pits two of the country’s most potent lobbying forces against each other.

Rosemary Nankivell is one of hundreds of farmers whose outlook has been turned upside down. Since 1920, her family has farmed 5,000 acres of some of Australia’s best land, in the Liverpool Plains region of northwest New South Wales. Now she sees the devastation that coal mining has inflicted on farms in the neighboring Hunter Valley unfolding on her own doorstep: “We’re seeing the same divide-and-conquer strategy used to buy up farms, and we’re hearing the same hollow rhetoric about mining and farming coexisting peacefully and about mining not harming the rivers and groundwater. In truth, these companies don’t care about the devastation they leave behind.”

The farmers have attracted influential backing. The conservative National Party’s senate leader, Barnaby Joyce, for example, says, “There are certain peculiar areas in Australia where the quality of the land is so exceptional that you should not be compromising that for coal.” Yet Joyce is also a prominent greenhouse-gas skeptic and a supporter of coal mining; in 2006 he suggested that Australia should mine coal in Antarctica before others get to it.

A few well-connected farming communities may prevail in preserving their land, but it will scarcely dent Australia’s booming coal industry. Most transactions involve drought-weary farmers who can feel the climate changing, whether or not they blame human activity. As Nankivell puts it, “If someone is offered a million dollars for 500 acres of marginal country, they’re quietly taking the money.”

Perhaps as a subtle hint to would-be sellers, BHP Billiton, Xstrata, and others are sponsoring a “drought recovery concert” by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. “BHP Billiton brings soothing Symphony to drought-stricken farmers,” croons the press release. As greenhouse gases slowly broil Australia’s parched farms, the band plays on.

ON THE WEB See more photos from award-winning photographer Michael Hall.

Guy Pearse is a research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute.

4 thoughts on “Australia has suffered hellish wildfires and withering drought—and is asking for more through its massive coal exports.

  1. Pingback: Coal as the Aussie backbone? That’s a sick country Mr. Rudd « Moth incarnate

  2. A good article by Guy Pearse. The trick of excluding exports from our nation’s carbon accounting will not fool the rest of the world although the number of times I’ve heard/read the ‘Australia’s emissions are too small to be relevant’ line shows it works quite well on Australians.
    So we have a Federal Gov’t that promotes the massive expansion of fossil fuel mining and exports, has Carbon Capture and Storage as the keystone technological ‘fix’ and uses this virtually non-existent and unlikely ever to be economic greenwash fantasy as the fall-back excuse for that expansion and for failing to make any substantial efforts on climate change. Even their CPRS and ETS negotiations involved weakening inadequate policy to the point of irrelevance and hoping to blame the Liberals for it’s failure – I suspect in order to stave off a flow of votes to the Greens.
    It’s not the radical fringe that’s the problem, it’s the policy inadequacies of mainstream political parties that are the problem. Based on progress to date I’d have to say we have bipartisan support for a policy of maximising global dependence on Australian fossil fuels.

  3. Pingback: Lets Revisit The Global Warming Theory | Environment Activities

  4. I think the drought is the simply reason of cutting trees in Australia and it’s very harmful for the environmental cause as well. The Eco-balance is lost and the result is clearly been observed.

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