global perspectives

False prophets and snake oil will fail coal communities

29 May 2021 / WORDS BY Patrick Suckling

Joel Fitzgibbon is trying to walk both sides of the street on coal and climate. As everyone knows you can’t. This week the Labor member for the federal seat of Hunter asked whether his party had the “agility” to appeal to residents of progressive inner Sydney and Melbourne suburbs and resource-rich regions. Two-faced politics rarely succeeds, certainly not over time and on issues as serious as climate change.

Presumably in a demonstration of this agility, Fitzgibbon’s prescription is to tell coal miners and their families in the Hunter that their industry is critical to Australia’s economic fortunes, it has unqualified support and that we will fight to keep it alive and well.

Given where the world is going on climate transition, this is snake oil. The curtain is closing on coal. Economics is against it, given renewable energy is a cheaper build for new power across the world. Sentiment is against it, not least because of its major role in 7 million deaths a year from air pollution. The climate is against it, literally. Our children beseech us not to burn it.

More than 60 per cent of the global economy is now committed to net zero emissions by 2050, meaning the curtain will fall more rapidly on coal than thought even a few years ago. Underlining the point, the International Energy Agency advocates no new coal mining from now – a position unthinkable for that organisation in the recent past. Macquarie Group has announced it will end its investments in coal. Neither can be dismissed as the “excessive” or “radical progressives” against coal who Fitzgibbon derides.

He contends climate change is a small challenge compared with those of military conscription and communism in Australia’s past. It is not. Climate change is the challenge for our generation. Unless the world successfully combats climate change, millions face destitution, displacement and death in ways now so extensively documented there is no argument. Ecosystems and a million animal and plant species are threatened, too. In its 130-year history, the Australian Labor has fought against such iniquities.

Climate action will be the barometer of leadership this decade, the next and the next. Leadership and snake oil are antithetical. Workers in the Hunter and elsewhere will not prosper from the blandishments of false prophets but the vision, practical solutions and diligent application of those charting a way through the demise of coal to new and thriving futures for those workers and their families who deserve every respect and opportunity.

No one says this is easy. Nor that this is a tomorrow thing. There is a transition occurring, not only for coal but the entire global economy as it shifts to net-zero emissions.

The good news is that although coal is flaming out, the climate transition offers unprecedented opportunities for new skills and jobs through new technology, industry and investment. In clean energy alone, joint analysis by the International Energy Agency and the International Monetary Fund foresees investment rising from $US2 trillion a year today to $US5 trillion ($6.46 trillion) every year from 2030 to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Last week The Wall Street Journal, no less, reported climate investing is becoming mainstream and listed what it called a geyser of capital flowing in this direction, including more than $US5 billion of bonds and loans issued every day.

This holds great prospects for regions such as the Hunter Valley, as our Prime Minister recently underlined to world leaders. Renewable energy, hydrogen and agriculture are three cases in point, each linked to the emerging world of digital technology and all the opportunities it will unfurl.

Change is inexorable, and the transition is accelerating. In these circumstances, leadership requires levelling with people and working out a plan rather than ducking and punting it. That is what leadership is: making things possible.

Germany has done this with coal, phasing out its use over hard-fought years of working with its industry and across the economy. When I was Australia’s ambassador for the environment, in every conversation I had with German officials and ministers, they put their concern for the workers and families affected – and on a just transition – at the heart of their work.

This gives every reason for hope for the Hunter and its workers. Politicians need to embrace it, not stoke the false hope of fading fires that are set to leave communities out in the cold.

Patrick Suckling, Australia’s former environment ambassador, is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and senior partner at the climate advisory and investment firm Pollination.


This article was published on on 8 June 2021

Pollination in the news


Stay informed


Please provide your details below to access the report

    By clicking submit, you agree to our Terms & Conditions.