The true price of coal

I finally got around to reading Bill McKibben’s article in the June edition of The Monthly this week. Titled ‘False Profits’, it looks at the impact of Australia’s coal mining and export industry on global climate change, and what we need to do if we want to minimise that impact (hint: stop mining and exporting so much coal).

As a relative newcomer to the cause, I liked this article for a few reasons – not least of them being that McKibben, who is president and co-founder of, is a pretty rad guy. He’s a great writer, and here he’s managed to present a very emotive issue in a reasonable, balanced way. For the uninitiated (especially those living in Australia), it’s a good entry point to the issue of climate change: it identifies the internationally accepted two-degree warming limit, and the roughly 500 gigatons of carbon we can release into the atmosphere worldwide before we breach it. It then points out the percentage of that carbon Australia’s coal-mining industry will produce if we don’t leave the stuff in the ground: roughly 30 per cent at last estimate, meaning changing the behaviour of individual Australians is far less important than reshaping our resource industries.

(It’s all very calm and factual, so if you have friends or colleagues who’ve aligned themselves with Lord Monckton or Andrew Bolt, it might be worth emailing them the link to McKibben’s article with an invitation to discuss at a later date, once they’ve come to understand the error of their ways.)

Speaking of hysterical denialists, the second thing I liked about this article was its summary of the absurd way Australian politicians react to the issue of climate change. We’re used to the political circus by now, but McKibben is Canadian, and it’s interesting to read an outsider’s view. The piece opens with his reflections on reading about an “attack” on the coal industry by green groups. Given the responses from Wayne Swan (who calls the attack “disturbing” and “completely irrational and destructive”) and fellow ministers, he’s worried his Australian allies may have blown something up; but nope, all they’ve done is produce a strategy document outlining plans to steer public support away from the coal industry. Hardly cause for mass industry panic, and yet the overblown response to anyone daring to challenge Australia’s reliance on coal highlights the extent to which we can’t rely on politicians to solve climate change for us.

Around the world, corporations and industry are sitting on their heels, waiting for governments to introduce policy that will force them to act on climate change. And yet politicians are bound by three- or four-year election cycles (not to mention 24-hour media ones) and are actually dis-incentivised against making long-term decisions. They want to get re-elected, so they try to please the greatest number of us at all times. However, a lot of Australians’ happiness is linked to the current thickness of their wallets, rather than the ongoing health of the planet, and so the government props up dirty industries in the short-term, to keep the two-speed economy humming – and the voters placated.

Not to diss economic concerns: they do matter, and that’s precisely why you, as The Vital Few, are so important. By lobbying your funds to take action on climate change, you’re potentially funnelling the largest accumulation of money anywhere in the world – more than $30 trillion dollars, the equivalent of the entire world’s GDP – towards reducing carbon emissions and developing low-impact alternatives. Whether you voted for them or not, you can’t control how the sitting government spends your tax dollars; but what you can do is go over the government’s head, to hold your fund accountable for how they invest your money. Who needs an election cycle when you have an ongoing fiduciary responsibility to identify and exploit?

Right now, only two per cent of that $30 trillion is invested in renewable energy sources. Increasing that to five per cent will redirect billions of dollars for investment in a low-carbon economy, and McKibben makes it clear Australia should position itself as a leader in this area.

“Consider, by contrast, Australia – highly educated, full of entrepreneurs, plenty of capital. There’s nothing you can figure out how to do except dig up black rocks and send them to China to burn?”

Overall, I think what I like most about the article is that it clearly articulates a future beyond our current reliance on coal. McKibben makes it clear the transition will be difficult – “perhaps the hardest transition civilisation has ever forced itself through” – and that it will require a great deal of resilience and commitment. It will also require capital, which you’re working to redirect toward a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Read Bill McKibben’s article, share it with your people and keep up the good work.

(The Vital Few social media co-ordinator and new Bill McKibben fan)

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