Tony Abbott is the 21st century Neville Chamberlain

You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.

– Winston Churchill to Neville Chamberlain, after the Munich conference, September 1938

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The reality of the climate crisis can no longer be avoided.

Whether it’s Australia’s record-breaking 2018/19 summer heat wave, the disruption of the jet stream that has delivered arctic winters to north America and Europe, or the life-threatening collapse of global insect numbers, it is clear that climate change is already here as an existential threat.

Individual actions to combat the problem, like turning down your air-con or doing meat-free Mondays, barely scratch the surface. Proposals for economy-wide transformations better match the scale of the threat. The most current, and most promising, is the Green New Deal, promoted most visibly by first term US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The scheme borrows its name from US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vast scheme of public spending and regulatory reform – the New Deal – which helped to pull the US out of the Great Depression. The Green New Deal proposes mobilising the resources of the state on a similar scale to rapidly reduce carbon emissions and prevent the impacts of climate change shifting from bad to catastrophic.

The ambition of the Green New Deal is its great strength. But it is already being opposed by the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry, and their political and media enablers, whose profits would be threatened by the necessary phase out of coal, oil and gas.

They are not simply faceless corporations and lobby groups. They are people who have names and faces and addresses. Globally they include US president Donald Trump, former Exxon CEO and short-lived US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch. In Australia the familiar roll call includes Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott, and the compromised men of the Monash Forum.

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They trust science in other area of their lives but have chosen to ignore it here. They play make believe when it comes to climate science because it is easier (and more lucrative) to pretend a catastrophic threat doesn’t exist than to face it square on and make the sacrifices that it demands.

We need a Green New Deal. But a better 20th century comparison is not the Great Depression but the immediate lead up to World War 2. Then, people of conscience and character could see the threat and chose to face up to it. They knew that the longer they delayed, the more difficult the task would be in the long run.

But today, as then, those who would turn away and try to postpone the inevitable at the expense of the rest of us remain in power.

As much as former Australian Prime Minister, and climate denier in chief, Tony Abbott admires Winston Churchill, he is much more akin to Churchill’s political opponent, Neville Chamberlain, in his cowering before a threat that is all too real, instead of taking up the fight.

Abbott has already suffered the same fate as his appeaser compatriot, who was forced to resign as Prime Minister in 1940. At the upcoming May election, Abbott will likely lose his seat in parliament as well.

Poetic justice for a man who has perhaps done more than any other to delay climate action in the hottest, driest continent on earth.

 

Behind the spin, Adani and coal are in trouble

My op-ed on the looming failure of Adani Australia’s huge Carmichael coal mine was published in New Matilda:

Image via Flickr: Max Phillips

Image via Flickr: Max Phillips

You have to hand it to Adani Australia chief executive Jeyakumar Janakaraj. Despite years-long delays on Adani’s Queensland Carmichael coal mine – a project mired in court challenges and no realistic prospect of obtaining the financing it needs to proceed – Mr Janakaraj retains a cheerful disposition. Last week he said Adani was “absolutely committed” to proceeding with the mine. The show of optimism is designed to obscure the fact that his company’s coal mine project looks increasingly likely to fail.

The Carmichael mine and associated coal port at Abbot Point have been the target of sustained opposition from a wide range of community organisations, both in Australia and overseas, because of the catastrophic impact they would have on the Great Barrier Reef. UNESCO has kept the Reef on its world heritage watch list due to the threat that projects like Adani’s pose to its health. In August 2015, a Federal Court challenge forced Environment Minister Greg Hunt to overturn the approval for the mine. Two more legal challenges against the Carmichael project remain, and the project is yet to obtain mining leases from the government. The project itself is effectively stalled, with the Adani contractors who were sent home in 2015 still not back on the job.

Yet even if all of these obstacles were removed, the mine’s financials simply don’t stack up. A viable enterprise when coal prices were at their $140 per tonne 2012 peak, Carmichael’s forecast operating expenses mean that it cannot turn a profit at the current price, which is hovering around $50. The environmental and economic arguments against the mine have led 14 global banks to rule out involvement in the project, leaving it with no banks willing to lend Adani the money its $16bn mega mine needs to proceed.

So when Indian market analysts Axis Capital reported that Adani had frozen investment in the project, with “further investments [in Carmichael]dependent on visibility of revival in global coal prices”, it should have come as little surprise.

As acknowledged by analysts, including Goldman Sachs and Citi, the market for thermal coal, used for electricity generation, is in structural decline and being displaced by cleaner, more cost-effective renewables like solar and wind, accelerated by the growing momentum for action on climate change after last year’s Paris climate agreement. Even Adani itself is moving into solar power, with 800MW of new solar plants in the pipeline for India, as well as this week’s announced plans to build a utility scale solar plant in Queensland.

The project still has its defenders, of course. Queensland MPs, like Adani spruiker George Christensen, insist that Carmichael remains viable. Queensland state Environment Minister Steven Miles recently gave the mine its environmental approval and the Palaszczuk government continues to express broad support for coal mining in Queensland. And, unsurprisingly, Adani insists the project is going ahead.

These manoeuvres are best understood as part of a face-saving exercise by the Queensland government and Adani for the moment when the project is declared dead and buried. Adani will blame the onerous regulations and delays supposedly placed on coal mine developments in Australia. It continues for now to push for the mine’s final outstanding approvals in the hope that it might be able to sell the rights to the project and at least salvage a small portion of the billions of dollars it has already wasted. Queensland Labor has and will claim that it has done all it can to assist Adani to get the mine up and running, thereby avoiding the charge of not supporting Queensland jobs. It will point to the poor economic fundamentals of the project as the culprit.

The spin can’t hide the fact that the decline of coal, exacerbated by a cooling Chinese economy and a broader global commodities slump, is already being felt in Australia. According to BIS Shrapnel, the Australian mining industry has laid off 40,000 workers since 2012/13, with 20,000 more forecast to go in the next year. With the world’s biggest economies, including the US and China, announcing moratoriums on coal mine approvals, this decline will only accelerate in the months and years to come. Predictably, the Queensland Resources Council has already called for more taxpayer subsidies for the mining industry. That’s on top of the $1.8bn in annual production subsidies already given to the coal mining industry, and the $5.5bn in direct subsidies or tax breaks given to fossil fuels.

This sorry state reveals the lack of political vision for the Australian economy beyond the waning era of fossil fuels. Instead of continuing to mouth support for coal mining, it is time our political leaders develop a serious plan for a fair transition for the hard-working Australians whose jobs are already being lost, and a coherent energy policy that sees Australia rapidly transition to renewable energy and take on the threat of climate change.

In parts of Australia, that future is already here. AGL recently completed its Broken Hill solar plant – the largest in the southern hemisphere – and Australia is a world leader in adoption of rooftop solar. It is indeed an exciting time to be Australian, as our PM has observed. That excitement will be sustained in the years to come not by clinging to obsolete 19th century technology, but by seizing a clean energy future.

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