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Australia has suffered hellish wildfires and withering drought - and is asking for more through its massive coal exports

Drought image #

By Guy Pearse
April 20, 2010

Drought revealed the skeletons of trees once covered by Lake Hume, a massive manmade reservoir bordering the states of New South Wales and Victoria.

If what Australia is experiencing is not global warming, it’s something that looks just like it.

The driest inhabited continent has just endured its warmest decade on record and its worst drought in history. It’s finally started raining again, but not before the 10-year “Big Dry” cost a quarter of all farm jobs. Most state capitals are turning to desalinating seawater, and severe water restrictions will remain a fact of city life. Water your garden in the middle of the day in Brisbane and you risk a AUS$200 fine; wash your car with potable city water in Melbourne and you’ll pay more than twice that. Drought is just the start of Australia’s torments, which also include floods, cyclones, and dust storms.

Hundred-year weather events seem to happen all the time now. Few openly link climate change to the 173 deaths in the Black Saturday bushfires of early 2009, but they are a horrible taste of what’s coming. Firefighters point to longer and more intense fire seasons, and scientists warn of a doubling or even trebling of extreme fire-weather days. In the wake of Black Saturday, a new level was added to the nation’s fire-danger rating system: catastrophic.

Australia is feeling the effects of climate change–and fueling them as well. It’s by far the world’s leading coal exporter, shipping out 290 million tons of coal a year from 120 inland mines, out of sight and out of mind for most Australians. The four companies that dominate the global coal trade–BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Anglo, and Rio Tinto–all have corporate offices in eastern Australia, as well as their largest coal-export investments. The coal rush down under also has lured the world’s two largest coal-mining companies, the U.S. based Peabody and the China-based Shenhua. The government plans to let exports double in the next 10 years; by 2020, Australia will ship out as much carbon dioxide through coal as Saudi Arabia does today through oil. Last year’s extreme weather events in Australia were capped by a mammoth dust storm that engulfed half of New South Wales and shrouded Sydney in red dust.

Not long ago the Australian economy was said to ride on the sheep’s back. Now coal exports outnumber wool exports by 600 tons to 1, and most believe the economy rides a coal train. Coal is Australia’s biggest export, the centerpiece of a natural-resources sector partly credited with shielding the country from the global recession. Eighty percent of Australian coal is burned offshore–mainly in power plants and steel mills in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, but increasingly in China and India too. These coal-importing countries are the addicts, with booming economies based on the polluting fuel. Australia is their enabler.

Australians unwilling to see the irony of the situation sometimes have it forced on them. In 2007, cyclonic winds washed a coal tanker up on an iconic surf beach in New South Wales. Greenpeace seized the moment, projecting the words COAL CAUSES CLIMATE CHAOS onto the beleaguered ship’s hull. In Queensland a 500-year flood in 2008 submerged large open-pit coal mines, contaminating the Fitzroy River.

As striking as those images were, and as shocking as it is to most Australians to learn that coral bleaching will likely destroy the Great Barrier Reef within their lifetime, only a small handful of activists connect the coal-export industry with the climate change Australia is feeling. There is no Aussie counterpart, for example, to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal movement. Not one coal-fired power plant here has been closed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. On the contrary, previously decommissioned 1960s-era plants are being refurbished, and the coal industry flourishes with bipartisan political support.

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