Coal controversy continues

by Bryan Walker on May 4, 2012

Two North American pieces I’ve read this week appealed to me for their directness about the export of coal. One, via James Hansen, was a letter from a Canadian group to Warren Buffet, informing him of their intention this Saturday to prevent coal trains from his BNSF railway company from passing through White Rock, British Columbia to deliver their coal to coastal ports for export to Asia. May 5th is the chosen date because it has been designated an international day of action by 350.org.

We are a group of citizens in British Columbia, Canada who are deeply concerned about the risk of runaway climate change. There is a broad scientific consensus that we must begin to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions this decade to avoid climate change becoming irreversible. At the same time, governments and industry are eager to increase the production and export of fossil fuels, the very things that will ensure climate change gets worse.

These two things are irreconcilable, and since we can’t dispute the scientific findings or change the laws of nature, those of us who care about the future must do what we can to reduce the production, export and burning of fossil fuels – especially coal.

Since we know what is at stake we feel a moral obligation to do what we can to help prevent this looming disaster. On Saturday May 5th that means stopping your coal trains from reaching our ports.

Our actions will be peaceful, non-violent, and respectful of others. There will be no property destruction. We are striving to be the best citizens we can. We will stand up for what we believe is right and conduct ourselves with dignity.

They acknowledge Buffet has cancelled plans to have his utilities build coal fired power plants. They also acknowledge his recent call for the super-rich in the US to pay more tax.

But with all respect sir, when it comes to climate change it appears that other people are doing all the suffering while you profit from the very causes of the problem. That’s not fair, and we urge you to apply the same moral reasoning to the climate crisis as you have to the problem of economic inequality in your country.

You are in many ways an important figure of conscience in the world. We appeal to you to seize this opportunity and make a bold decision on coal. With your support we can ensure a healthy future for our children and people around the world.

The other piece of writing was a blog by KC Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions. In it he discusses the question of tactics in communicating the climate message and stresses the importance of not overdoing tactical manoeuvres to the point of avoiding the direct statements that the seriousness of climate change demands. In this context he says this about the export of coal from the US:

In the coal export battle, we often confront the question “Somebody’s going ship the coal to Asia, so why shouldn’t we get the [purported] economic benefits?” We can’t definitively promise that if we stop a particular coal export terminal, the same coal won’t be shipped from somewhere else. But we can and should make the case that the whole damned business is wrong – not just environmentally costly but unconscionable – no matter what anyone else does.  And we can only make that case if we lean into the climate conversation.  We can’t draw a credible moral line in the sand – let alone get more folks on the right side of it – if we avoid or minimize the climate implications.

These pieces of writing struck me as relevant to New Zealand. Raise the question of the export of fossil fuels with a Minister in this country and the reply you get is that we are responsible only for our own emissions, not for those of other countries. That’s an intolerable evasion of the central issue. If we are going to mine and export fossil fuels we should say that we accept full responsibility for the fact that they will be burned somewhere and will add to the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Then we know what we are talking about and what is to be debated.

There are complexities around the issue, of course. The exploitation of fossil fuels can’t be halted overnight. But it’s a far cry to claim that means we can count on our fossil fuel reserves for a good slice of our future prosperity. The Government must continually be challenged on the ethics of such a position.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

tom May 4, 2012 at 3:26 pm

“unconscionable” looks rather harsh, Bryan.

Mebbe for coal, but as James Burgess reveals – http://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/New-Propulsion-System-cuts-Fuel-Consumption-of-Cargo-Ships-by-75.html – for fuel oil the darker properties can spur both willingness and finding ways to overcome/obviate them.

viv May 5, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Just double checked in the concise oxford- “unconscionable” is the right word.
Harsh is the world we will get if the coal and oil is not left in the ground.

andyS May 5, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Ok, so how are you going to smelt the steel to make your beloved windmills?

Thomas May 6, 2012 at 8:27 am

Every chemical has its rigthful uses. Using carbon to reduce iron oxide is unlikely to change any time soon. But burnin carbon to make electricity to run your lights, your fride and your towel warmer…. that is another matter. But I guess you love to know that the power coming out of your socket at home has that nice smell of coal dust…. ;-)

MFD May 9, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Coal exported from NZ is almost entirely coking (metallurgical) coal. The bulk of it is coked and used in blast furnaces to reduce iron oxide to iron.

In that context is it valid to state that it’s a fact that they will be burned somewhere? Is it valid to state that metallurgical coal used as a reductant is a fuel?

viv May 6, 2012 at 7:59 pm

You start by not wasting stuff and that means not pouring steel and concrete kilometres underground to carry out hydraulic fracking- bloody stupid to mine coal to make steel to use to extract more fossil fuels.
Same goes for all the infrastructure and energy used to mine the tar sands and blow the tops off mountains in North America, or to drill kilometers into the seabed for oil & gas.

It is similar to the problem of hunger, there is enough food worldwide, but it is not distributed fairly, lots is wasted and people starve. Energy and resources are not being used in a just way, especially when you consider the effects on future generations.

Guess you have been ignoring the wisdom that tells us we have to change our way of life before it is changed for us by runaway climate change. And no, I’m not suggesting we go back to living in caves, which seems to be the common denier response to any discussion about energy efficiency and scaling back the western world’s materialistic lifestyle.

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