Coal miners are not to blame
A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the Newcastle Herald.
I am a Newcastle climate change activist, campaigning full-time against the expansion of the world's biggest coal port. I believe that climate change is the most urgent and important problem facing humankind, and that here in the Hunter Valley, we have a moral duty to begin the move away from coal and into sustainable alternatives, starting now. But neither I, nor any other activist or environment group, has ever laid the blame for climate change at the feet of coal mine workers.
Recently, it has been reported that coal miners feel they are being blamed for climate change. I wonder how many workers actually feel like this, or whether it is a bit of beat-up. I have several mates who work in coal mines, and they are fully supportive of the campaign against expansion of Newcastle coal exports. They even joined in the big protest flotilla this month on Newcastle Harbour. I often talk to coal miners on street stalls, and find that most workers in the industry are very critical of the coal companies practices, and opposed to plans to increase coal exports from Newcastle.
Why? Because when you work in the industry, you see first hand the destruction caused by coal mining in the Hunter Valley. You realise that it is no longer just the local and regional environments that are being irreparably damaged by coal mining, but the global environment through climate change. You can see that we in the Hunter are in desperate need for a planned and just transition away from coal, into sustainable alternative lifestyles and industries. I think most coal miners would much prefer to work in a more sustainable industry. At the moment, there is no government support for the development of sustainable alternative futures for our region, and full government support for massively expanding the NSW coal export industry.
If workers in the coal industry are feeling blamed for climate change, it is not the fault of activists like me, but of politicians and coal industry spin doctors. Frightened that most people polled now believe that the costs of coal mining outweigh any of the short term benefits, they have begun a concerted campaign to promote their plans to massively expand coal exports. There are two untruths that are now spoken almost every day in the media. One is that environmentalists are calling for the coal industry to be “shut down overnight” (in fact, we want a ban on expansion of the industry, and a plan for a transition to something else), and the other is that jobs are under attack.
The coal companies cling desperately to their employment statistics as the primary justification for existence. In reality, jobs in the coal industry continue to fall, while production continues to rise. From 1991 to 2000, jobs in the Hunter Valley coal industry declined by 29%, while coal production rose by 53%.
Luckily, there are alternatives. There are 250,000 people employed in all mining in NSW (not just coal), if you include people employed indirectly in supporting industries. In the last 10 years, Germany has created 300,000 jobs in renewable energy. Not only are there more jobs in renewable energy than in coal, but those jobs create a much higher value commodity that doesn't threaten the global climate: wind turbines, solar panels and energy efficiency technologies. Those jobs will still be there for our kids, and our kid's kids.
NSW is going to run out of coal one day, if we keep digging it up. When that day comes, we will have to find something else to do (presuming we can still survive in the rapidly changing global climate). So are we going to wait until then before we move away from coal? Or are we going to change now, while there's still a chance we can stabilise the global climate?
Most people now realise that coal mining is simply not worth the costs to our environment. By attempting to convince us that we cannot live without coal mining, the coal companies are creating a sense of despair about the future, and about our common ability to create a better one.
The reality is that we can have jobs without coal, and we can have energy without coal, but we cannot have a coal industry without climate change. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell something, probably coal.