CH 14

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Coal and Climate Change

Coal and climate change were issues central to my thinking from around 2003 onwards. As United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon  observed, “The clear and present danger of climate change means we cannot burn our way to prosperity. We already rely too heavily on fossil fuels. We need to find a new, sustainable path to the future we want. A clean industrial revolution is needed.” 

The central issue during my adult life and the clear and present danger to the future of humanity was climate change. I found it frustrating in the extreme that so many people denied the reality of climate change and the coming of the Anthropocene.

Part of my frustration lay in the simplicity and desirability of the solutions to address climate change, including the move away from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. I campaigned hard against big coal, Adani and CSG.

In my first speech to Parliament I said, “Climate change is a scientific fact. It is leading to sea-level rise and Cairns is a low-lying city. Every year I do my best to attend a king tide on the Cairns Esplanade. I see the esplanade seawall breached and I see water coming up through the storm-water drains and flooding underground car parks. This is an urgent situation and we need a sense of urgency from all our elected leaders. I have the utmost respect for those working in disaster recovery, but the reality is that a summer king tide combined with a category 5 cyclone would see much of Cairns city destroyed. All levels of government need to first acknowledge the problem and then make sure our best scientific minds feed into an all-of-government policy response. I pray this will happen.”

On Council and in the Queensland Parliament I fought with every breath to oppose the Adani coal mine proposal and the opening of the Bowen basin.  It was clear we had to move away from big coal for the sake of humanity.

Stopping Adani

I was the only MP to oppose Adani in the state parliament. However it was a speech in the federal parliament by then Treasurer Scott Morrison where he held a piece of coal that motivated me to make a plea for the planet.  I gave this speech on 15 June 2017 where I held a piece of bleached coral:

Great Barrier Reef, Coral Bleaching
Mr PYNE (Cairns—Ind) (1.06 am): This is coral—bleached coral! Be scared. Be afraid. It will not hurt you, but the global warming that killed it will. This bleached coral is the canary in the coalmine. This
coral was once part of the Great Barrier Reef, a 10,000-year-old ecosystem, one of the natural wonders of this world. Tens of thousands of men and women who work in the electorates of those who sit in this house, such as the electorates of Barron River, Mulgrave and Cairns, rely on coral for their livelihoods.

This coral, that has sustained thriving tourism and fishing industries for decades, in a World Heritage wilderness area that can be seen from space, is dying due to global warming. Thirty per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is dead. This is a national emergency—a climate emergency.

The problem is that those in this House have an ideological, pathological love of coal. There is no word for ‘coalaphilia’ officially, but that is the malady that afflicts those in this House. We continue to suffer the impacts of global warming because of their pathological, ideological addiction to coal.

Australia has become a pariah and a laughing stock internationally because of the ‘coalaphilia’ of our political elite. We are wasting these precious years of opportunity to mitigate global warming.

Many of those who sit in this House are taking big money from the fossil fuel industry while allowing our brightest hopes to fizzle out in the dark of 19th century technology. I am sick to death of hearing the mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ repeated ad infinitum in this House. This coal-loving, coral hating mantra has taken us to the brink of ecological disaster. Unless we stop to question what sort of jobs, what sort of growth, this mantra will destroy the planet we inhabit. The Great Barrier Reef mass bleaching events are symptoms of climate change. Climate change is driven by burning fossil fuels.

Supporting new coal at this juncture is tantamount to ecocide.
Today the ‘coalaphiliacs’ in this House may pander to Gautam, Gina and Twiggy in return for support, but in 10 or 20 years, when their grandchildren ask, ‘What did you do to stop global warming?,’ they will have no answer.

My office put out a media release in the lead up to the 2017 election reminding voters that emissions from coal were contributing to coral bleaching and urging local residents to vote to protect the reef because it is an international wonder and a massive financial asset for the region. I warned the emissions from the coal Adani will mine will fuel the primary threat to the reef’s survival: climate change. “Our governments seem to refuse to acknowledge the reality of the situation. It’s a choice – it’s coal or it’s coral and we are going to have to pick, because we can’t have both.”

Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Climate Council, have said coal mining is the primary threat to coral reefs worldwide. The reef has suffered back-to-back mass coral bleaching events due to warming ocean temperatures. UNESCO expressed serious concern about coral bleaching, stating that climate change remained the most significant threat.

A Deloitte report said that of the 64,000 jobs linked to the reef, 39,000 were direct jobs – making the reef a bigger “employer” than the likes of Telstra, the Qantas Group and the oil and gas extraction industry. The report, produced for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, says the World Heritage-listed asset contributes $6.4 billion to the nation’s economy each year.

Scientists, economists and conservationists agree the controversial Adani coal mine will negatively impact the Cairns economy. Climate scientist Steve Turton said “We’re gambling with this priceless global asset if we persevere with this mega coal mine.”

CSG Fracking

I remember telling the ALP State Secretary Evan Moorhead in 2015 (while I was still in the ALP) about my support for the “Lock The Gate (LTG) Alliance”. He replied, “Oh be careful with them, they are a bit radical”. I remember thinking “FFS we are talking about farmers and the knitting nannas.” The truth of my experience of LTG is that they were just ordinary people who did not want their farm land poisoned, or indeed their families.

By 2017 I had resigned from the ALP. While this left me ostracised in the parliament and with nothing more than an outside chance of re-election, I was just so grateful for the opportunity to speak from the heart on issues I was passionate about. I made these comments to Parliament on 22 March 2017:

Mr PYNE (Cairns—Ind) (6.12 pm): I speak in support of the motion moved by the member for Mount Isa. I was surprised recently to read that we are in a gas crisis. After all, I regularly hear in this chamber how well our gas boom is being handled in this state, how effectively the government is managing it and how it is underwriting the economic vibrancy of Queensland and not to mention Gladstone, which from all accounts is turning into an economic industrial powerhouse the likes of which the world has never seen. How can there be a gas crisis when we are mining more gas than ever before?

About six years ago, the Queensland and Australian governments entered into agreements with three huge gas consortiums to give massive approvals to build three giant terminals in Gladstone. They promised huge supplies of gas in contracts with foreign countries, contracts nobody else has ever seen. Our
governments have in effect linked the local gas market to the international gas market. How crazy is that. Of course it has massively pushed up the price for gas that people have to pay here in Australia. The result is that Queensland people and businesses are paying through the nose for something that occurs naturally here in vast quantities. In fact it is not only vast quantities; Australia is poised to become the world’s greatest gas exporter.

It reminds me of the line from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which goes something like ‘Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink’. In this case it is more like ‘Gas, gas, everywhere, but none to keep Australian pensioners warm this winter’. I am also reminded of the lyrics from the Skyhooks song Ego Is Not A Dirty Word. I would hope ‘ego’ is not a dirty word in this place, because there is a lot of ego in this chamber. Another word that should not be a dirty word is ‘regulation’. Regulation exists to protect consumers; regulation should be used to protect Australians. We know that regulation works. We see it working in Western Australia. It is simply a matter of saying to these companies that if they want to export they need to reserve 15 per cent for domestic use for the domestic economy.

People are left scratching their heads about gas prices, but one thing they are not scratching their heads about is the growing evidence of the damage this industry has done in Queensland and
New South Wales. There are industrial gas fields imposed on regional communities that are damaging farms and damaging the environment. We have seen farmers who have had livestock die. I have spoken to parents outside this chamber who live close to gas wells and who have said that their children are bleeding from the nose. We have seen the tragic consequences here in Queensland with people like Mr George Bender taking their own lives after a lengthy struggle with this massive gas industry.

When an individual farmer is dealing with a multinational company of such power and influence, how can they be expected to compete with that influence? I have always believed that governments should
be there to help the little guy but, no, governments here in Queensland are helping the big multinationals, not the little guy.

We all know that opening this country up to more damaging fracking will not help push down the price of gas—not while the price is linked to the international market. Who is to blame for where we are
today? There are only two parties to blame—one, the greedy multinationals that come here with no other goal than to maximise profits while sucking this nation dry and, two, the governments of this state and country that failed to reserve Australian gas for Australian consumers.

New Ackland Stage 3 and Big Coal

New Ackland is a massive coal mine and the expansion of stage 3 of the mine was opposed by many farmers and community members. A local farming and community group, The Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAC) was formed and formally objected to the controversial expansion.

The Land Court made the decision to reopen evidence into the expansion. During 84 hearing days of the case, evidence challenged various claims made by New Ackland mine owners New Hope. This exposed evidence that the expansion was placing farmers’ critical groundwater supplies at risk.

The hearings also revealed a high risk of the project exceeding air quality limits unless so-far unproven controls were in place. There were complaints about coal dust and noise levels and requests for data have fallen effectively on deaf ears, despite more than 100 complaints to New Hope and 30 to the state environment department.

Local objector and representative of OCCA Aileen Harrison participated in a rally outside Queensland Parliament. The objectors raised four crucial concerns.

One. Nothing can survive without water. Our farms cannot survive without water. We cannot survive without water. If the mine goes ahead it will cut through the aquifers and risk bores drying up. If we have no farms, what will we eat and what will our children eat? We need to look after our future for our children and grandchildren. Long after the mine is gone, the farms will still be around.

Two.There are no certain alternatives to supply water. No mine that risks a solitary water source for a community should go ahead.

Three. We must plan for the long term future. What happens when mining is over in a short 12 years? Mining is short term but if it destroys the water, it will kill off farming that could continue otherwise for hundreds of years. We need water for our food bowl now and in the future.

Four. The dust and noise from the mine affected families’ health. If it is expanded, how many families will be affected, including children? How can anyone agree with that?

Several farmers spoke about loss they had already experienced. One farmer described how the water table on his property had fallen dramatically as a result of coal mining.

I was proud to take up the opportunity to speak at the rally against the mine. Offering solidarity with the community concerns, I expressed concern that we were losing so much farming land and of the need to protect prime agricultural land to meet the needs of future generations.

The lack of action or even concern by most politicians in relation to climate change was something I found appalling. The increased temperatures have disturbed ecosystems, putting more species at risk of extinction. Other impacts include more droughts, heatwaves and more natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, storms, wildfires and sea level rise. There is nothing less at risk than the collapse of civilisation and the extinction of much of the natural world. This issue has to be our politicians main policy concern.

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