The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, turned up in Queensland very recently to open a coal mine (the $US3.4 billion Caval Ridge Mine in Central Queensland, a joint venture between BHP and Mitsubishi which will produce 5.5 million tonnes annually of metallurgical coal and employ about 500 people). In a TV interview he managed to inflame a number of commentators around the world with his quote that “Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world . . . . . “.
In this world in which it is difficult for politicians to say anything without getting criticised, he was perhaps in a losing situation before he spoke, simply because of the critical role that coal happens to play in the global economy cast against the reality that its cumulative carbon footprint is the single largest contributor over time to the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere. More recently, increased coal use has also contributed most to the rapid rise in global emissions.
In one sense Abbott is correct in that over and over again coal has been the starting point for industrial development. I explored this in more depth a few months ago. Coal is an inexpensive fuel, but perhaps most importantly it requires only minimal technology to utilize. There is no need for pipelines, leakage monitoring or sophisticated storage facilities. One could argue that the most important piece of technology is a shovel. This was true in Victorian England, it is still true in parts of China today and it may well be the case as Africa begins to industrialize on a large scale. Of course, the development of Africa on the back of the vast coal resource that sits in that continent (200 billion tonnes in Botswana alone) will send emissions to levels that are hard to contemplate and even more difficult to reduce. That is highly unlikely to be good for humanity.
Contrast this with the latest offering from activist and author Naomi Klein, who has recently published a book on the climate issue; This Changes Everything. I am about a quarter of the way into this and try as I may to be objective, I am already wondering if I will ever finish it. I feel that I have already been vilified a hundred times over, not just as part of the fossil fuel industry that she likens to an evil empire, but also as a shareholder daring to expect a return on my investments (“. . . . pour their profits into shareholder pockets . . .” ). Ms. Klein seems to believe that nothing short of a return to collective ownership, community living, local production and simple lifestyles will be sufficient to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. She blames anybody and everybody for the problem of rising emissions and lands the issue squarely at the feet of the economic system that has served us pretty well for centuries. Apart from her argument for the need to change everything, it looks as if I will have to plough through another 300 pages to find out how she imagines this might actually happen. My guess is that it could be more wishful thinking than practical policy advice. Should I ever get to page 533 (!!) I will let you know, but I don’t know if I have a thick enough skin for that.
One reviewer did manage to make it to the end and his views can be found here.
In the midst of this cacophony of criticism, the rational middle continues on without much of a voice. But some of us are at least trying. My new book, Putting the Genie Back: 2°C will be harder than we think, hasn’t attracted the talk shows or celebrity endorsements yet, but I have at least had some good feedback from readers and that is very gratifying. I wrote it to try and present a more balanced view of the climate issue and it does seem to be succeeding in that regard.