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Australia’s duty to the world: Stop mining coal

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The paramount concern of many in the scientific community is not only the rapid progression of climate change-related disasters but also who will lead on taking urgent and drastic action. In the U.S., Afghanistan and COVID-19 must not distract President Biden and his team from their destiny. 

Biden recently said he plans to go to UN climate conference in held in Glasgow this November to move the rest of the world to “bold action.” 

He will need the Wisdom of Solomon and Odysseus to deliver even the first and most important step, the cessation by the developed OECD countries of fossil fuel usage within a decade, and by 2040 in all other countries. The Hill reports that John Kerry has noted that Australia is one of 20 countries most responsible for 80 percent of world emissions and needing to take “bold action.”

As a wealthy democratic country with advanced technology, Australia is one of the most culpable for its intransigence — it vows to continue with coal for decades.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who some accuse of closet climate denial, has said “But what’s important is that we continue to extract and get the value from the opportunity and wealth that’s there that really benefits the rest of this country”. Yet, energy experts indicate that to stop burning coal in Australia by 2030 would not be difficult.   

Australia is also one of the leading exporters of coal which Morrison maintains helps developing countries, a view which is contested

The U.S. recognizes the problem and accepts the mission of persuading Australia to change its ways. Mike Goldman, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy, has indicated both Australia and the U.S. need to set “more ambitious climate goals.”

In February, Kerry, in calling for a faster exit from coal-fired power publicly acknowledged past “differences” between the U.S. and Australia.

Warnings have also come from European, British and American diplomats in Canberra and from Selwin Charles Hart, special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Climate.

However, the U.S. needs to contend with the single-minded dedication of three ministers who deliver fossil-fuelled policy in Australia. 

Energy Minister Angus Taylor described climate change as “the new climate religion,” telling Parliament that “religious belief is based on faith, not facts. The new climate religion, recruiting disciples every day, has little basis on fact and everything to do with blind faith.” Within the Australian federal government façade of supporting renewable emergy, he opposes wind and solar as unreliable through subtle means such as regulation of the national electricity grid. 

Federal Resources Minister Keith Pitt describes himself as ”Mr. Coal” and is an outspoken supporter of coal and nuclear and critic of wind and solar energy.

Recently, he approved a $175 million (AUD) government loan to a Queensland coal mine just months after using his ministerial veto to block a similar loan for a wind farm because it would not provide “reliable dispatchable and firm generation to the National Electricity Market,” despite the fact that the wind farm encompassed energy storage. He does not regard storage as “reliable and dispatchable”.

The minister is also bringing parliamentary pressure on insurers and investors not to reduce their funding in coal.

He recently allowed for a $21 million (AUD) subsidy to the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program, by Imperial Oil and Gas.

Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley has an important role in ensuring environmental regulations are observed during resource development and production. However, her resolve has been to reduce “green tape” to speed resource development but, fortunately, the Parliament has refused approval of this change in environmental legislation.

When a coal mine approval was challenged in the Federal Court, the court ruled the minister had a common law duty of care to protect younger people against future harm from climate change. The minister has challenged the claim.

Minister Pitt has said, “the reality is that global demand for Australian coal is increasing and forecast to continue rising into the next decade at least.” He promised coal industry workers they had a “long-term commitment” from the government.

It seems likely that to avoid further criticism the Australian government will endorse a net-zero emission policy for 2050 just before the UN COP 26 meeting and will then trust in the development of technology to help reduce emissions nearer that time. Meanwhile, for the next 30 years there will be a frenzy of fossil fuel production in Australia with the opening of new coal and gas mines.

So, what more can the U.S. do?

The Australian government will not respond to lecturing. It functions only on economic imperatives, and income from trade is paramount to Morrison. “In trade agreements, I deal with trade issues. In climate agreements I deal with climate issues,” he said so he refused to allow climate change goals to be written into a proposed free trade deal with Britain.

Hopefully, it will not be ratified.

Australia is likely to accede to deliverable threats to trade or to other economic sanctions from friends and allies. It understands this language — if not the sustainability of the planet and the welfare of humanity.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

This piece has been updated.

Tags climate Climate change Coal David Shearman Environment Fossil fuel Global warming IPCC Joe Biden John Kerry oil and gas Pollution

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