The Federal Court’s decision to overturn the Adani Group’s federal environmental approval to build the A$16 billion Carmichael coal mine in Queensland highlights policy issues that have a significance far beyond Australia. The reaction of the Abbott government reminds us just how difficult it is for states – especially democratic ones, perhaps – to deal with a problem that is implacably transnational and long-term.
Tony Abbott’s declaration that he is solely focused on “jobs and growth” is a familiar mantra and one with particular attractions for an unpopular and accident-prone government. To be fair, though, Abbott is hardly alone in sounding the alarm on the possible impact of this decision on Australia’s international reputation as a “safe” investment location for footloose multinational capital.
The Coalition’s concerns about the possible impact this decision will have on the domestic labour market are also widely shared. Trade unions and elements of the ALP are long-standing and vociferous supporters of a coal industry that needs little help or encouragement in trying to promote its supposed importance to the nation.
The mainstream press in Australia has been similarly dismissive of the Court’s decision. The Australian Financial Review, for example, editorialised about the dangers of what it described as “eco-activism”, which it claimed would:
… do little to help the planet or the hundreds of millions of Indians denied first-world access to reliable power.
It is an argument that has been spun by the government, too, but it is one that reeks of hypocrisy and self-interest.
The idea that the Abbott government’s policy stance is driven primarily or even partly by a concern for India’s poor is simply laughable and sharply at odds with other areas of foreign policy that have seen steep reductions in foreign aid.
In reality, a coal-powered future means condemning Indians – rich and poor alike – to the very real prospect of shorter lives and the rest of us to a warming planet. An expansion of the already massive coal industry in Australia and the ultimately destructive coal exports it generates would contribute significantly to these long-term problems.
Politicians in countries such as Australia are understandably preoccupied with issues that affect the people who elected them. Even illegal migration, which could be considered as a foreign policy issue, is refracted through a domestic prism and driven by a remorselessly parochial dynamic. Expecting any government to ignore this underlying reality is wishful thinking. And yet it is clear that a growing number of Australians are aware of the contradictions in the foreign policies that are conducted in our name.
The unambiguously negative impact of coal throws these contradictions into sharp relief. Jobs here are more important than a liveable, much less a sustainable environment there.
The idea that it is selfish not to utilise coal to allow development is equally specious. There are other ways to power a developing industrial economy that don’t have the same sort direct, negative impacts that coal does.
In this context, the decision to sell uranium to India was – in my view, at least – the right one. True, there may be problems with disposal of nuclear waste and some risk of accidents. But we know unambiguously and without doubt that growing coal usage is disastrous for India and for us in the long-term.
In such circumstances, nuclear power is the least-worst option. Advocating the peaceful use of nuclear energy also puts to rest the argument that being anti-coal means being anti-development.
The reality is that the Australian government has little ability to influence the development strategies of a country such as India. It has a great deal of capacity in determining what kind of economic activities are undertaken in this country, however.
We may not be able to fix global environmental problems or stop climate change – perhaps no-one can. But we can ensure that Australia does not add to such problems by continually prioritising the short-term national interest at the expense of the global environment.
In the political contest to determine Australia’s domestic and foreign policies the coal industry and its allies are formidably powerful, well organised and given virtually blanket endorsement by, and access to, the mainstream media. Civil society, by contrast, looks rather feeble and disorganized, despite the emergence of some imaginative campaigns and the occasional legal victory.
While the fight may be woefully lopsided, the anti-coal movement is likely to grow, no matter what the short-term costs of closing it down may be. To paraphrase Mrs Thatcher, ultimately there is no alternative.