Thermal coal exports killing our future

Guest Blogger: David Ritter

David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace, discusses the value of civil disobedience.
David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace, discusses the value of civil disobedience.

A moment has been reached in our national history where the prosperity and wellbeing of Australia are at threat. Radical plans to expand coal exports endanger our most precious places including the Great Barrier Reef, and stand to make a major contribution to tipping climate change out of control. But in the face of this clear and present danger our political leaders are silent.

As concerned citizens we must now turn our minds – as suffragettes, champions of the anti-slavery movement, anti-war protesters and others have in the past – to civil disobedience. Martin Luther King once said that a time comes when silence is betrayal. Truly, that time is now in Australia. It is a truth that was seared on to us by the angriest summer in our nation’s history.

Civil disobedience has deep roots in the great religious and philosophical traditions. According to philosopher John Rawls, civil disobedience entails public, non-violent and conscientious breach of the law undertaken with the aim of bringing about change. Practising civil disobedience in a liberal democracy requires accepting the legal consequences of one’s actions, thus showing ultimate fidelity to the rule of law. Civil disobedience is about peacefully standing up for a fair go or to stop something precious from being destroyed.

Around the world, civil disobedience has proven essential to social and economic progress and Australia is no exception.

From women getting the right to vote to gay and lesbian liberation; from the Gurindji walk-off to the Franklin River blockade; from anti-apartheid demonstrations to protests against the Vietnam War: civil disobedience is a precious part of the heritage that has made us a tolerant and thriving country.
The proposed expansion of the thermal coal industry in Australia calls for civil disobedience because of the scale and immediacy of the threat and the absence of action to address the danger.

Climate Action at Hay Point Coal Terminal in Australia

The world is on target for a temperature increase of 4C by the end of the 21st century. Australia in particular is at risk of dire impacts. Eminent Australian climate scientist David Karoly has warned that by driving global warming we are “unleashing hell” on our country. Our coal exports are by far Australia’s greatest contribution to climate change at about 140 per cent of domestic emissions in 2011-12. The International Energy Agency has given a precise timetable for reducing use of thermal coal, yet we don’t even monitor our exports, let alone have any plan for restraining their increase.

Commonwealth Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics data reveals that across the next five years the coal industry plans to add new thermal coal mining capacity equivalent to twice our 2012 exports of this commodity.

As News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch said more than five years ago, “climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats. We may not agree on the extent, but we certainly can’t afford the risk of inaction.” Despite the rancour over the carbon price, there is bipartisan support in Australia for reducing carbon emissions and commitment to the 2C global target.

Neither the ALP nor the Coalition is proposing any action on coal exports. Yet the lack of progress in global climate negotiations means there is no international solution in sight. If we want to do something about the emissions generated by Australian thermal coal exports, our country has no choice but to act.

Opposing the expansion of the coal industry does not mean objecting to mining per se. Indeed, the Australian extractives sector includes some great examples of world’s best practice in environmental and social responsibility. Neither is stopping the expansion of coal about being against jobs. In reality, the planned growth of the thermal coal industry directly threatens tens of thousands of real and existing jobs in tourism, agriculture and fishing, as well as indirectly in manufacturing.

Four years ago, internationally renowned climate scientist James Hansen said that “peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we’re running out of time”. Just three months later, he was arrested at a protest. Most recently, Hansen has retired from his post with NASA to engage in more activism, noting that at 72 he is “not worried about having an arrest record”.

In Australia in 2013, it is not easy to oppose the expansion of the thermal coal industry, but the silence of our politicians is a betrayal of our shared fate. Our choice is clear: Australia must cease expansion of coal exports or wilfully threaten the future of our children. For our kids and our country we must act to break the silence.

David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. This article was first published in The Australian, and is based on a talk he gave at the Castan Centre in March. You can read a review of the talk, and watch a video of the full event here.

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