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Jan 19 2013

It’s high time we talk about coal

Gillard two-faced

As Australia bakes in record-breaking heat and burns in devastating fires, the country’s political and media elites have yet again lined up to defend the industry driving global warming and cast those who speak out against it as extremists.

On Monday, 15 Australian public figures and 29 environmental groups placed an ad in the Australian Financial Review titled “Let’s talk about coal”, calling for Australia to stop expanding coal exports and start phasing them out (you can add your name here). The newspaper responded with an editorial arguing that limiting Australian coal exports would be ineffective (which I have rebutted here) and that its advocates are “an extreme section of the green movement that will never listen to reason”. Yet it is the Financial Review that is refusing to listen to the reasoned argument that expanding coal exports is incompatible with avoiding dangerous climate change.

The ad was published a week after a controversial hoax by anti-coal activist Jonathan Moylan from the group Front Line Action on Coal. The ANZ bank recently made a $1.2 billion loan to Whitehaven Coal, 19% owned by Nathan Tinkler, for the Maules Creek project in the Gunnedah Basin in New South Wales. The mine would export 12 million tonnes of coal per year for 30 years, and is the latest in a long line of coal projects financed by ANZ.

Moylan issued a forged ANZ press release claiming the bank was withdrawing the loan on ethical grounds, and also impersonated an ANZ employee on the phone. The effect was to temporarily reduce the market value of Whitehaven Coal by $300 million, but the hoax was identified in less than an hour and the share price quickly recovered. Investors apparently lost around $500,000, though considering the short time period it seems likely these losses were limited to professional traders, ie. gamblers.

Moylan is being investigated by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), which has seized his laptop and phone. Penalties for distributing false information to the sharemarket can be as severe as a $500,000 fine or 10-year jail sentence. These are criminal punishments intended to apply to fraud committed for financial gain. Despite having failed to prosecute several companies who have misled the sharemarket, ASIC is going after Moylan, who was acting in the interests of all humanity and life on Earth. “There may well be consequences for me, and fairly severe consequences, time will tell if that’s the case, but my concern is what happens to society at large and what happens to the local community,” says Moylan.

Whitehaven Coal chair Mark Vaile, who is a former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia (a fact which I think says something about the cozy relationship between the industry and government), called Moylan “unAustralian”, whatever that means. He made the standard excuse that his company is complying with all environmental laws, which is meaningless because the existing laws are weak and do not even take climate change into account. The reason why our laws are inadequate is because the fossil fuel industry has a stranglehold on the Australian political system. (Indeed, Vaile is probably among those campaigning to wind back environmental laws.)

Labor Whip Joel Fitzgibbon said ASIC should “make an example of this guy as a means of deterring others from contemplating similar reckless acts”. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz said: “This is the epitome of extremism.” The Australian Coal Association’s Nikki Williams predictably used the carbon price as an argument against direct action: “People could be excused for wondering what the point of the highly controversial carbon tax is and what the purpose of the intense debate over it was, if civil disobedience and potentially criminal activity is still warranted after its introduction.” The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen described Moylan’s actions as “economic vandalism”; demonized him as a “tent-dwelling”, “scruffy, long-haired” “eco-lout”; and conflated opposition to the fossil fuel industry with opposition to the entire system of capitalism. The few public figures who expressed sympathy with Moylan, such as Christine Milne and Clive Hamilton, were viciously attacked and even called on to resign from their respective positions as Greens leader and Climate Change Authority board member.

Moylan’s critics have a point insofar as the law is extremely important and our society would not function cohesively if it were not generally respected, but that does not mean the law is the be-all and end-all. Moylan acted dishonestly and almost certainly broke the law, not something I would have done, not something I would normally condone, and not a decision I imagine he took lightly, but I can certainly see why he did it. His intention was not to permanently deceive, as the hoax was obviously going to be discovered quickly.

We are not dealing with ordinary circumstances. We are dealing with an industry that is endangering the world as we know it for profit, with the full endorsement of governments. We are living in a time when climate science tells us we cannot afford to burn the majority of the world’s fossil fuels, but corporations and governments are planning to do just that, and banks like ANZ continue to invest in new coal mines. We live in a time when the world’s political “leaders” have agreed to limit global warming to a safe level, but are neglecting to act on an adequate scale. We live in a time when we urgently need to phase out fossil fuels globally, but instead Australia plans to double, triple, or even quadruple its coal exports. The true economic vandals are those who advocate burning all fossil fuels, because if they succeed there’s not likely to be much of an economy a century or so from now. In such extraordinary circumstances, it makes sense for citizens to take matters into their own hands.

It is not easy for activists to get publicity. The national political and journalistic agendas are almost entirely set by big business. Throughout rural and regional Australia, local communities are fighting desperate battles against rapacious fossil fuel companies and corporate-controlled state governments, with their plight mostly ignored by the mass media and federal government. Whatever you think of Moylan’s actions, he has certainly succeeded in exposing ANZ’s coal investments to the broader public, resulting in thousands of petition signatures and social media messages to ANZ.

I am aware of several current Australian anti-coal petitions, and I urge readers to sign one or more of them:

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