Coking coal not the best target for climate movement

The expansion of the coal industry exposes the fraud of Kevin Rudd’s claims that his government is tackling the climate crisis. The likelihood that the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme will pass the Senate in some form is doing nothing to stop the massive expansion of emissions intensive industries.
NSW Climate Camp highlights this hypocrisy and it is encouraging to see people preparing for mass collective action to demand change.
The environmental damage caused by long-wall coal mining around Helensburgh poses serious dangers to Sydney’s water supply. It has been the target of local community protests that deserve the support of other activists.
But as a focus for climate activism it is somewhat disorienting. Coking coal at Helensburgh is exported for steel production, not used in the coal-fired power generation taking place in Australia.
Lots of the coal mining in Australia is for export to China and India. Opposing these exports can play into the common argument that China and India’s development needs to be held back. In reality unless rich economies like Australia are prepared to transform carbon intensive practices, developing economies will be forced to emulate them to grow and remain competitive.
China and India have a right to better living standards and we should not shut off their steel supply. We need to fight to shift the domestic priorities of the Australian government, creating the conditions for more sustainable development abroad.
There are methods of steel production without coal that are being researched, but at present high quality steel still requires coking coal.
We need to vastly increase recycling of steel and maximising energy efficiency in production—but new steel will be needed to make wind turbines, solar power stations and public transportation.
Climate Camp will be an important focus for activists. Days of discussion and action can help clarify the movement’s perspective—laying the basis for a successful protest demanding green jobs and no new coal-fired power stations in NSW at the state Labor conference in November.


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  1. It’s really this simple: if we keep digging coal in Australia, and burning it here and elsewhere, we will not be able to avert runaway climate change. The effects will be catastrophic.

    Coking coal is just as polluting – or slightly more according to the Australian Greenhouse Accounts – as thermal coal used in coal-fired power stations.

    There’s just no such thing as good coal, clean coal, necessary coal, or better coal.

  2. If only it were as simple as just stopping burning coal. And if only it was “us” who was responsible for this burning (“we” could just stop). Unfortunately the productive system is controlled by the capitalist class who “we” are forced to work for in order to survive.

    The question is – how are we going to build a political movement that is CAPABLE of confronting the power of this class and ACTUALLY stopping the burning of coal?

    For this we need to consider two things:
    i) How are we going to confront the myths perpetuated by our rulers that hold people back from action.
    ii) How are we going to engage with broader political forces necessary to transform production – namely the union movement. At the end of the day it is workers who do the burning, and workers who have the power to stop it – if they feel confident and supported enough that such action is possible and will not destroy their livelihoods. Not just if they are preached at about coal being bad.

    Targeting coking coal mines digging for export shoots yourself in the foot on both of these questions.

    i) As the article states, it buys into the common myth perpetuated by Rudd etc that development in India and China is the problem and that nothing can be done in terms of Australia’s domestic emissions while the developing world continues to expand.

    This is a very serious issue. It is one of the main arguments being made in the lead up to Copenhagen. It is also fueling spin-off racist arguments about restricting population in the developing world and stopping immigration to Australia. Unfortunately none of the media around the camp took up what our government was saying in the lead-up to copenhagen.

    ii) It misses a crucial opportunity to engage the union movement on a question we are far more likely, in the current context, to actually be able to kick some goals on – namely the production of electricity in Australia.

    Currently the government is expanding coal fired power. They are using this to further privatise the sector. Unions are against this privatisation. Many see the real alternatives that exist in renewable energy and are increasingly showing signs of willingness to actually fight for renewable energy. It is these sorts of considerations that should frame our actions.

    In terms of ongoing, unchanged steel production, the (generally progressive) South Coast Trades and Labor Council has a position that this is OK in the context of climate change because we need to build wind turbines etc to transform our energy supply. Now this of course can not be accepted uncritically – we need to drastically reduce the emissions from steel production. But it does contain a grain of truth – how are YOU proposing we build turbines? Trains? Buses?

    We can’t just ignore these questions and put forward moralism about “bad coal”. We have to grapple with the realities of the productive system and be imaginative about how we can work, in the real political world we live in, to transform it.

    The counter-protest at Climate Camp in Helensburgh by 100+ locals was reactionary and offensive. But its not an accident that the only climate camp in Australia where local right-wingers actually felt confident enough to come out and protest AGAINST the camp was at Helensburgh where the politics of the target where most weak and easy to isolate.

  3. All well and good, Paddy but
    a) You didn’t help organise the camp, and
    b) You weren’t at the action.

    Luckily there are folks doing more than criticising endlessly from the sidelines.

    There weren’t 100+ locals on the street, and most of those who were there weren’t opposed to the action. Actually, only a few were. We actually spoke with them. Some were interested, some danced with their kids to the music, some joined in conversation, some took photos, some commended the protestors shouting their support for peoples’ protest, some were there for the spectacle.

  4. And dismissing my ideas as “moralism about “bad coal”” is fairly absurd. [Especially because you write and imply in the article and your comment that coal isn’t bad, and is necessary.]

    Your argument about steel is problematic. It’s like arguing: “One in two people in my generation will get cancer. They’ll need and want nuclear medicine to survive. Therefore, we need to keep mining uranium to make nuclear medicines. Surely the lives of half the population are important?”

    The South Coast Labour Council’s plans don’t include a demand or organising for the Port Kembla steel works to actually produce a wind turbine, let alone install existing emissions reductions technologies they have full approvals for, or make steel that is designed for reuse, or consider making steel products that don’t require burning coal (30% of steel is made without coal globally). Bluescope don’t and have no plans to. The SCLC hope the market will magically make Bluescope completely retrofit the steelworks and retrain workers. Maybe you should do some more research, Paddy, before you keep criticising.

    Some of us are out there actually organising in and with coal communities in the Southern Coalfields, and the Hunter and Gunnedah basins. Maybe you should too.

  5. Sorry ‘yawn’ (if that is your real name) this is very confused. I said clearly that the SCLC “can not be accepted uncritically – we need to drastically reduce the emissions from steel production.” And obviously I’m not defending Bluescope or the market! (plenty of extensive critique of why the market will fail the climate on this site).

    Loads of unions have terrible positions on a whole range of things. The climate movement can get better though at working where we can initiate joint struggle and get into these conversations – so for example the AMWU support the CPRS but have been willing to speak out against the closure of Solar Systems. I think Solar Systems is a clear example – the climate movement is quite happy to pay lip service to ‘green jobs’, but many have remained silent while a chunk of crucially important ones are slashed.

    And what is your position? No coal ever (the first post)? Or a bit of coal if its used to produce wind turbines (alluded to above)?

    Research by people like Jim Green from FoE exposes the lie that Australia needs a nuclear reactor, or to dig up any more uranium to get nuclear medicine.

    But haven’t read anything that says you can produce the high quality steel needed for major infrastructure without burning some coking coal. I did have a hunt around before the camp. Drastically reduce, reprioritise, transform yes. But not stop. Would be helpful if you have some links. Obviously research priorities under capitalism have helped create this situation!

    Keep up the good work agitating in the communities – I’m sure you’ll appreciate there’s plenty going on out there and just ’cause you can’t make it to one demo doesn’t mean you’re “on the sidelines”.

  6. I’m not sure how any body could claim there wasn’t a counter demonstration. There was a huge line of locals standing on the other side of the concrete barricades hurling abuse and some kids had a banner that said ‘fuck off greenies, keep burning coal’. This doesn’t mean every single local hated the protest, but a significant chunk did, and that included a lot of the mine’s workers.

    To actually acknowledge this and attempt to understand it is something that can only improve our attempts, as a movement, to win over coal towns and coal workers to campaigning and using their collective power for a just transition. We need those locals who were on our side or we’ll never force a win. I think the protest actually served to push them further away from the cause — walking down a coal town’s main street chanting ‘shut down the mine’ was very ill-thought out.

    Saying that we need the power of organised workers on our side doesn’t mean we accept all the reactionary policies of unions — it means we should be trying to shift them.

    Further, criticising the target of the protest is not the same as saying we ought to keep this mine open forever. It is saying that there were much more productive targets for the climate movement. For example, the expansion of Eraring power station is a much more obvious target, and something that holds more possibility of winning over the electricity workers.

    Helping to organise the camp does not make one immune to criticism, I’m sorry. We have to honestly reflect on our mistakes or we’ll just keep making them.

  7. Some interesting links to research exploring the possiblities of “Green Steel” if anyone is interested:

    Though also it should be noted that FoE has highlighted the potentially destructive impact of mass plantations for char (though not in the context of steel production)

    Despite this discussion about protest targets, the recent climate camp was an extremely productive place for discussions, workshops etc – so a big thanks to the organisers on this. We are in a period of important and often very sharp debate in the climate movement about orientation and future directions – we shouldn’t shy away from this.

    In one of the major ‘where-to’ workshops of the camp for example there was open and very fruitful debate about the question of targeting exports (with James Goodman from FoE and John Hepburn from Greenpeace putting forward different perspectives) that we will continue to try and cover in ‘Solidarity’.


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