Coal loading operations in the Hunter Valley. Photograph: Ho New/Reuters
A mighty political struggle is dividing Australia, but it is not the mêlée taking place in Canberra. It is the battle that pitches the kids on my street: bouncy Jack, serious Cristiana, little toddling Lily and all of their mates, and every other child from across Australia, against a gigantic industry that menaces their future. It is the epic fight that is taking place between the fossil fuel companies and the rest of us.
The politics of climate change is often seen as complicated, but in one sense it is all very simple. On the one side we’ve got those who leading UK analyst Tom Burke calls “the climate makers – the small number of large businesses who produce and burn fossil fuels”. On the other side is everyone else.
In Australia, the arch climate makers are the coal mining companies, with up to 91 coal projects planned for Queensland and New South Wales alone. If they are allowed to proceed, burning the coal from these new projects could add an additional 1.5 bn tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year after 2018.
These are the coal mining companies who care so little about our country that they would wreck the Great Barrier Reef for their trade, and would dig up the fossil fuels that the science tells us is unburnable carbon. They’ve used the money that was meant for developing carbon capture and storage into a promotional slush fund. The head of the Australian Coal Association apparently sees the collapse of Arctic sea ice as worth a joke. These are the realities of the coal industry’s cynicism and contempt.
Enviroment activists display an anti-coal industry placard outside the New South Wales Parliament building in Sydney. Photograph: Greg Wodd/AFP/Getty
The contest between the climate makers and the rest of us is a competition between two radically different visions. It is a fight over the very future of Australia. It is the hope of people set against the bullying voice of a corporate lobby telling us that there is no choice but to let the coal industry have its way.
As the National Sustainability Council recently highlighted, we know from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ measures of Australia’s progress that environmental sustainability, economic resilience and social equity are recurring themes that matter to Australians. These are our hopes and dreams for Australia, embedded in our deepest shared values about what constitutes the good society.
Most Australians want decent sustainable jobs, prosperity that is about more than just the narrow pursuit of wealth at whatever cost, and a smart, balanced and resilient economy. We share the cherished ambition of our kids and their kids having fresh air, clean beaches, green spaces on which to play and bush to explore.
But the very possibility of a decent future for our country is at risk from the climate makers. We are already two years into what the Climate Commission calls the “critical decade” for averting catastrophic climate change. The National Sustainability Council said last month that the decisions we make in the very near future will determine “whether or not the next generation of Australians will become the first in recent history to be worse off than their parents and grandparents.” I think about the kids on my street. I don’t want them to miss out on the best of what life and our country has to offer. And the greatest threat to the prospects of the next generation of Australians is the climate makers.
Whether we can break the grip of the coal dead hand on our politics is a defining challenge of our time. Climate change is not just another policy issue. Global warming undermines the very foundations of the modern state. Professor James Hansen has described coal as “the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet”. According to Australia’s own Climate Commission, “[b]urning all fossil fuel reserves would lead to unprecedented changes in climate so severe, that they will challenge the existence of our society as we know it today.”
We already know that the extreme heatwaves and catastrophic bushfire conditions during the angry summer of 2012-13 were made worse by climate change. A nation perpetually reeling from cyclones, floods, fires and droughts, and struggling with food security and mass climate migration in a drastically more unstable world, will find it difficult to prosper. It is hard to see how Australians can hope to become healthier, better educated, more productive, or more content, in a world of climate chaos.
The choice could not be starker. The contrast in visions of the future is clear. If the climate makers win, it means diminished opportunities and reduced horizons for our children and grandchildren. The kids on my street deserve better than what the coal industry has in store for them. All our kids deserve better than that. It is the coal industry against the rest of us.