Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Double-speak on Coal

By Ian Lowe

The Turnbull government’s support for the coal industry relies on twisted logic.

As world leaders gathered in Paris for the long-anticipated climate change talks, the Australian government appeared frozen into embarrassing inaction by the deal done to secure the prime ministership for Malcolm Turnbull.

To reassure the nervous members of the lunar right, who conspired to remove Turnbull from the leadership in 2009 because he supported action on climate change, it seems clear that Turnbull agreed to stick to the Abbott government’s discredited “direct action” approach.

He and his ministers have also continued to support expansion of the export coal industry, using a twisted logic that Tony Abbott himself would have been proud of. As Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute has pointed out, Turnbull defended the export coal industry with two arguments that cannot possibly both be true. He said that it would not reduce greenhouse gas emissions if Australia did not export coal, as other producers would fill the gap. He also said that Australia’s coal was lifting some of the poorest people in the world out of “energy poverty”. As Denniss said, if our coal is helping those without electricity by adding extra energy, it is therefore increasing greenhouse gas emissions. If it is not adding to the climate change problem, then it is not providing extra energy and alleviating “energy poverty”.

It is now clear that the government’s approach is not just out of step with the electorate; it is even out of step with its own supporters. An Essential poll released in November asked if world leaders need to be acting now on climate change. Of the respondents, 49% said they should be acting now while a further 11% said they should act within the next year, so 60% support a rapid and concerted response. Only 9% still think there is no need for action. Not surprisingly, the level of support for immediate action was higher among those who vote for the Greens (83%) and the ALP (60%). But even among Coalition voters, 36% support action now and a further 13% within a year, giving almost exactly half supporting a response within the term of this parliament. Only 15% of Coalition voters support inaction.

A similar picture emerged from a question about coal mines. Asked whether they support or oppose a ban on new coal mines and expansion of existing mines, 47% supported a ban with only 25% opposed. Again, Green voters and ALP supporters were much more likely to favour a ban (80% and 60%, respectively), although there are intriguing variations. Even among Green voters, 11% oppose a ban and 9% don’t know!

The most interesting figures, however, were those for Coalition voters. Of Turnbull’s hard-core supporters, 36% favour a ban on new coal mines or expanding existing mines, with 33% opposed and 31% uncertain.

When even his party’s dedicated voters want to see the coal industry’s expansion plans halted and a concerted response to climate change, Turnbull really has a problem.

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The Australian government has announced a short list of six possible sites for the long-promised national radioactive waste storage site. The media release understandably concentrated on the plan to store low-level waste, most of which is relatively benign, with only one brief reference to the possibility that it will also handle intermediate level waste that will be returned from France (see LoweTech, December 2015).

While the sites being considered are all well away from major settlements, I have not seen any evidence that relevant traditional owners have been consulted and have expressed their support for the proposals. The hostility of traditional owners has been a fundamental obstacle to previous attempts to resolve this problem.

The basic idea of a centralised site is that the extra security of the waste justifies the risks of transporting it from the 100 or so places where it now rests. That seems superficially reasonable, but I still have not seen convincing – or even unconvincing – risk calculations to substantiate this plan.

I look forward to an era where policy is based on evidence rather than intuition.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.