Fossil fuels must be demonised


Coal fired power plant

The Federal Government is set to release the report from its Renewable Energy Target (RET) Review Panel chaired by businessman Dick Warburton, with a decision to follow within weeks.

The review recommends a significant scaling back of Australia’s renewable energy scheme, with two options. One is closing the scheme to new entrants, and the other is supporting new renewable energy power generation only when electricity demand is increasing.

Even if the report’s recommendations do not make it through the Senate, it’s likely that it has landed a fatal blow on the renewable energy industry by destroying investor confidence. It’s the ‘sovereign risk’ effect was used as the major argument against the mining super profits tax.

The findings of the report support the prime minister’s stated wish to see the fossil fuels industry ‘flourish’ and environmental approval hurdles minimised. ‘It’s particularly important that we do not demonise the coal industry’, he told an industry gathering in May. The fledgeling renewable energy industry, it seems, is expendable.

The action to kill the renewable energy target is driven by a particular business case that takes no account of the moral imperative that is changing government policy in other countries. The Edmund Rice Centre released a statement on Friday urging Mr Abbott to visit a climate vulnerable Pacific atoll nation to see first hand the effect on the citizens of these poor nations of the greenhouse gas emissions from the likes of Australia’s coal industry.

It might move him to reconsider his resolve not to demonise the coal industry, and understand what’s behind the growing movement that considers such stigmatisation to be the only ethical course of action. Last Monday, Sydney University announced it had instructed its equities managers to halt investment in the coal and consumable fuels sub-sector of the Australian Stock Exchange. This is seen as a step towards divestment of its existing interests in companies including Whitehaven.

Divestment from fossil fuel investments is widespread overseas. It’s expected that the Vatican will commit itself to this, with Pope Francis planning to release an encyclical in coming months on humanity’s role in caring for the Earth.

The international grassroots organisation, which is urging the Vatican to act, distils its message in the simple logic: ‘if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage’. Anybody who is able to see the effect of rising seawaters on the lives of Pacific Islanders will at least be motivated to consider the evidence that there is a far better moral and business case for renewable energy than there is for fossil fuels.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Coal power plant image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, coal, Tony Abbott, Dick Warburton, renewable energy, Pope Francis, fossil fuels, divestmen



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OK, I've posted this 4 times now on E.S. No one at E.S., to my knowledge, has offered any peer reviewed contradiction of the recent peer-reviewed study behind this New Scientist report. Who are the deniers on this issue? "New Scientist June 2, 2010: "AGAINST all the odds, a number of shape-shifting islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are standing up to the effects of climate change. For years, people have warned that the smallest nations on the planet - island states that barely rise out of the ocean - face being wiped off the map by rising sea levels. Now the first analysis of the data broadly suggests the opposite: most have remained stable over the last 60 years, while some have even grown." Bottom line: of 27 islands studied, 86% either remained stable or grew, 14% shrank. And Kiribati? "...the research showed similar trends in the Republic of Kiribati, where the three main urbanised islands also “grew” – Betio by 30 percent (36ha), Bairiki by 16.3 percent (5.8ha) and Nanikai by 12.5 percent (0.8ha)." (TVNZ report: "NZ research shows Pacific islands not shrinking" June 3 2010)" (See also: "Warming may not swamp islands" by Christopher Pala: Science (Journal of the AAAS) 1 August 2014.) Conclusion: Not only is there no established link between fossil fuel use and sinking Pacific Islands: there is not even evidence that island states are being threatened by rising sea levels.

HH | 29 August 2014  

Worse than not demonising the coal miners ,Abbott and his jackeroo Minister Hunt have all but canonised them by conferring a divine right to destroy our landscape & the G B Reef with the likes of Abbott Point loading facility .Their dedicated cargo bulk carriers have been disgorging <70,000> tonnes of ballast water from the most contaminated waterways of the world ( Shanghai) into the Reef lagoon ,on a daily basis . The dying marine life there have skin lesions ,which biologists insist are caused by urban runoff .The almost village sized town of Bowen nearby ,can hardly qualify as the culprit . They have failed to apply mandatory mid-ocean exchanges on the shippers, as recommended by our world renowned Marine biologist, Gustaff Hellegraff ,quite some years back . As Pope Francis delivers his encyclical can we hope that he will also publish his dismissal of Pell ,a declared climate denier and close friend & ally of Abbott . Regards John

john kersh | 29 August 2014  

H.H. a good factual counter to Michael Mullins's catastrophism. If Michael Mullins thinks using fossil fuels is immoral, then I assume he would not want to be guilty of hypocrisy. Therefore, he should no longer use any transport that is powered by fossil fuels. He should not use electricity generated by fossil fuels. He should not use any goods which were produced, either partly or wholly, by fossil fuels. In other words, he should start living a pre-fossil fuel existence. I'm not sure how far he would have to wind the clock back, but I am pretty certain that he would have to make do without many of the modern conveniences he uses everyday and takes for granted. But he would do this because, as he himself quoted, "if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage."

John Ryan | 30 August 2014  

Yesterday on Radio National the programme Future Tense featured an interview about artificial photosynthesis. Professor Thomas Faunce of ANU presented the development of this form of power as a moral imperative. Perhaps by moving away from fossil fuels we are not moving back, but forwards.

Janet | 01 September 2014  

You certainly are a "turbulent priest" in the sense that your statements have attracted the opprobrium of HH and John Ryan, the latter quite keen to play the man as well as the ball, Michael. What strikes me about the whole matter is how supine our current Government is to the interests of the mining industry. I won't buy into the climate change debate but I am concerned about permanent "collateral damage" such as to the Barrier Reef; to irreplaceable farmland such as on the Liverpool Plains and to possible permanent depletion of the Great Artesian Basin. That, in itself, is enough. I am also concerned that valuable sunrise industries - such as major solar power technology companies - are moving offshore to California where they are genuinely concerned about pollution and the environment. The coal boom won't last forever and we'll be left with outdated technology and our best and brightest - once again - will have gone abroad to follow their dream.

Edward Fido | 01 September 2014  

While Fossil fuels should not be 'demonised' immediately, since we have become addicted to them, they should not be glorified either,nor allowed to discourage the development of renewables. Much of the global warming comes from the heat generated by dry desert lands. If renewable energy was employed to desalinate sea-water and irrigate the deserts not only would temperatures drop, but so also would rising sea levels.

Robert Liddy | 01 September 2014  

A fine footnote within coming Encyclical: "Vatican City Named Most Energy Efficient State Vatican City may be the smallest state in the world with the smallest population, with only 800 people within its borders, but it has now been declared the world’s most environmentally friendly state. Their recent installation of solar panels helped the Vatican reach their record high solar energy production per capita level of 200 watts per inhabitant. Officials say the installation of the panels on the Vatican’s conference hall has saved the nation almost 90 tons of oil equivalent"

Father John George | 01 September 2014  

Thank you Michael for pointing out the destructive and essentially insane nature of the policies of this government. And you are right to point to the impact of that on the small nations of the Pacific.They are the victims of this.

Paul Collins | 01 September 2014  

I should add that the picture that goes with this post is as bogus as the reference in the text to "climate vulnerable" pacific nations. The scary-looking emission in this picture is simply condensation - ie, water. And it's as pure and drinkable as that coming from the household tap. Or are we demonizing water now, as well? It's so hard to keep up these days.

HH | 01 September 2014  

Michael, I write to support your opinion. I have been in the process of analysing climate data and reading as much scientific literature as I can lay my hands for more than 30 years in order to come to an understanding of Australian climate change since 1900 , the earliest we have valid data, and to ascertain what the consensus by the Climate Scientists is now. I note these Reports cited by HH are now some years out of date . Regardless of the warnings by concerned scientists, we have a moral responsibility to care for the planet- that is to walk more softly on it for the sake of future generations. The destruction of the Renewable Energy Industry is nothing short of scandalous .Carbon energy use is highly destructive of the environment from its unsightly destruction of the landscape to the pollution of our atmosphere and acidification of our oceans. You can not eat coal ! Please note I am quite happy to submit my name, I wish other respondents would follow my example.

Gavin O'Brien | 01 September 2014  

If any one has spoken more truth about Fossils fuels , find them for me . Thank God for your intelligence sir

Guy Graham | 01 September 2014  

I imagine, Michael Mullins, that to be faithful to your sense of morality you now no longer use any vehicle powered by fossil fuels nor any of the multiple household electrical appliances. Or is today's article simply the irrational confusion of a doomsday proclaimer?

john frawley | 01 September 2014  

While some Pacific Island corals have kept up with sea level rise to date, that's because the ice caps have only just started to melt - "and there's a lot more where that came from". They might also want to reflect that sea level change can vary from location to location, depending also on changes to winds and currents, and in the longer term to isostatic responses by earth's crust to changing distribution of overlying loads.

David Arthur | 01 September 2014  

There is another"ethical course of action'.. Nuclear energy is used in some 435 power plants arpund the world because nuclear power is cheaper, cleaner and safer than coal.

Bill Barry | 01 September 2014  

In reply to HH here is a further paragraph from the New Scientist article: "Webb says the trend is explained by the islands' composition. Unlike the sandbars of the eastern US coast, low-lying Pacific islands are made of coral debris. This is eroded from the reefs that typically circle the islands and pushed up onto the islands by winds, waves and currents. Because the corals are alive, they provide a continuous supply of material. "Atolls are composed of once-living material," says Webb, "so you have a continual growth." Causeways and other structures linking islands can boost growth by trapping sediment that would otherwise get lost to the ocean." Which is not to say that sea-level rise is not a concern. Buildings and roads may have to move and the rate of sea-level rise could increase to the extent that the island growth is overtaken. (See for the article - may need a subscription to login and access the article).

Peter Horan | 01 September 2014  

The report that HH quotes is accurate enough but ignores the localised effect that the El Nina had on sea levels at that time (see second and third links below). Furthermore, the long term trends since the SEAFRAME study run by our Bureau of Meteorology and commenced in 1991 all indicate that there is a rise and that the increases in sea level in the Pacific are higher than for the rest of the world (see BOM link below page 32 onwards). and

ErikH | 01 September 2014  

@Edward Fido. I reject totally your assertion that I am playing the man. I am simply calling on Michael Mullins to live in accordance with the standards he sets for others. Michael Mullins stated unequivocally and clearly that the continued use of fossil fuels has a moral element. The quote that he used said it was "wrong to wreck the planet." This is a strong stuff. Good on him for so clearly issuing this challenge. However, I maintain that if he does not live by the standards he sets for others, he is guilty of hypocrisy. I see it as being no different to one who denounces slavery, but still keeps slaves. I certainly hope that viable renewable sources of energy can be found. However, history has shown that most often the free market is the best way to unleash humanity's creative capacities. Government mandated targets or taxes rarely create little more than rent-seekers and boondoggles.

John Ryan | 01 September 2014  

Gavin, with respect, to justify a claim that a report is "out of date", (2010? Sheesh!) the onus is on the claimant to produce the peer-reviewed counter-evidence. OK, so where is it? Also note my second citation (AAAS) is August 1, 2014. So even one month old is "out of date"? Bit of a high bar there for "denialists", eh? David: "some" Pacific islands have kept up with sea level rise? 86% stable or actually growing is interpreted as "some" islands "keeping up"? And with respect to the alleged ice melt that's just beginning, I quote further from that AAAS article (and surely the AAAS are not denialists?) re. the NZ author of the cited study, Kench (who, btw, believes global warming to be a real threat). "Kench notes that reefs can grow 10 to 15 millimeters a year—faster than the sea-level rise expected to occur later this century. 'As long as the reef is healthy and generates an abundant supply of sand, there’s no reason a reef island can’t grow and keep up,' he argues." Sincere thanks, though, to both of you for having the decency to talk intelligently about this, and not just demonize.

HH | 01 September 2014  

1. ErikH, I'm certainly not here disputing sea level rise (a phenomenon consistent with the global defrosting from the "Little Ice Age" of a few hundred years back). I'm simply citing a study of 27 Pacific islands over the last 60 years which shows that, even if sea levels have risen, the vast majority of these islands have either held their size, or grown. Surely a good thing? And what do you mean that the report I cited ignored El Nina effects? Are you suggesting El Nina effects have been in play for sixty years, dominating El Nino? Once again: quality science, please. 2. Peter Horan: "Buildings and roads MAY have to move and the rate of sea-level rise COULD increase to the extent that the island growth is overtaken." Wow! "may", "could"! Who could possibly disagree with these logically possible speculations? But note that "may not" and "might not" are other sides of the same logical sword.Where's the empirical data?

HH | 01 September 2014  

Of course the Warburton Review is going to find in favour of the fossil fuel industry from a business point of view. But what has happened to the triple bottom line of business reports - economic, social and environmental? I have a feeling my local Shire Council might be one of the few "businesses" that issues an annual report with a triple bottom line summary. I agree with Mr Liddy that we shouldn't demonise the FFI too soon or too vehemently. There could be (and probably are but I can't test my hypotheses in a laboratory experiment) other causes of global warming (e.g. dry desert sands as Mr Liddy refers to). But if the FFI are to be closed down surely it has to be on a phased program. This requires some long term planning - a talent that seems to be missing in the Australian parliament , on all sides of the chamber.

Uncle Pat | 01 September 2014  

Global warming is irrelevant the real threats to sustainable living in small island nations such as Kiribati. As I understand them, the urgent problems there are: the over-use of the potable water lens by a rising population, the over-fishing of the parrot fish which results in a decrease of coral sand, and the destruction of shorelines by poor siting of buildings and other constructions. Some of these problems have viable solutions: Each of the main islands could be supplied with a mini nuclear reactor to provide electricity for a desalination plant (and all other power needs). Etc. But in the end, unless these islands find a way to build a sophisticated economy - as did Hong Kong on a site similarly unblessed with natural resources - the long term solution for many citizens will be emigration. The global warming bogey is, IMO a dangerous distraction from these far more pressing issues.

HH | 02 September 2014  

HH is playing the same sloppy game as Plimer, leaving out the qualifying sentences. He is right about the pictures of steam. They should not be used and I don't think that the continuing use of the small islands as examples help. As for John Ryan asking Mullins to live in a pre fossil fuel world, it would be a post fossil fuel world. This is the whole point about the climate change problem. It is global and so I cannot live completely free of fossil fuels because people like John Ryan won't let me! As long as Australia ignores the great renewable energy resources we have and actively supports the fossil fuel industries with subsidies etc. try as I might it is impossible. At least I do not access the electricity grid. I grow trees and use the train and not the car and I am working to get rid of the brown coal power stations. There is a lot that can be done to reduce the CO2 emissions.

AAL | 02 September 2014  

Thank you for your reply John Ryan. I think there was an element of the reductio ad absurdum about your post on what Michael said and thus a bit more on the man than on the ball. I suppose, if we all want to live a completely blameless life ecologically we could emulate our Stone Age ancestors, but then again, they probably committed ecological crimes as well. My point is that we are all caught up in the modern easy heavy pollution lifestyle. No one is totally "innocent" here. I don't want to enter into the "Climate Change" debate. What I have seen and what we can all see is the destruction wreaked by major mining projects: degraded land, water, pollution, effects on animals etc. I am not sure the market, of itself, will sort this out. Nor do I think legislation for the sake of legislation is the answer. I think common sense, properly envisioning the future (always difficult) , appropriate legislation and a great deal of encouragement to the sunrise industries of the future might succeed.

Edward Fido | 02 September 2014  

AAL, are you going to supply evidence as to where I've omitted anything from the referred articles which substantively contradicts what I've presented above?

HH | 02 September 2014  

One week later, and no studies offered to refute the peer-reviewed evidence that, despite sea level rises over the past 60 years, most islands have not sunk: indeed several have grown substantially. In that case, I'd say, the moral challenge laid down by Mr Mullins no longer makes any sense. Now let's address the real problems these communities face.

HH | 04 September 2014  

The fact that there is a debate between commentators, about rising sea levels and pacific island communities, shows that there is still conflicting scientific information being published about climate change. The climate change zealots won't even acknowledge that the scientific results are inconsistent and still worthy of debating. I've never known any other area of scientific endeavour where simply asking questions is received with vehement resistance. It is this resistance which makes the 'climate change' issue more of a cultish religion than a scientific area of analysis. The title of this article "fossil fuels must be demonised" further proves that this issue is more about 'belief' and 'religious zealotry' than scientific rigour. I can't image any other scientific area that would attract a headline like this one that uses the term "demonising".

Cathy | 29 September 2014  

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