‘The Adani Mine, Climate Catastrophe and the Promise of a Green Economy’ – Adrian Skerritt

The Adani mine will have a devastating effect on precarious equatorial environments. It will play a role in driving millions from their homes. It will further destabilise the economies of rural Queensland towns and consume state resources that could otherwise be spent on schools, hospitals, public housing and social services. It will ruin Aboriginal land. It will fatally pollute underground water sources and the Great Barrier Reef. If we discovered the Queensland and Federal governments were about to detonate a bomb that would have these consequences there would be outrage on the streets. The Adani mine is a bomb, an immense carbon bomb. Whether they acknowledge it or not, the Queensland and Federal governments have gone to war against some of the most vulnerable communities and environments on the planet. Time to march and blockade like we want to stop a war.

Climate chaos

Our planet is hotter than it has been for millennia, our weather more chaotic, dangerous tipping points are getting nearer. Record temperatures are routinely surpassed and we all feel the change. Steady warming could soon be replaced by a frightening momentum once the methane locked away in the oceans and the Siberian tundra is released. Former NASA scientist, James Hansen, provides the most recent science pointing to an impending catastrophe. And now our government is going to contribute 4.7 billion tonnes of carbon, nine times Australia’s overall emissions in 2014, to this situation, accelerating the suffering and political turmoil now being documented by a huge range of sources from environmental groups to the US military intelligence agencies.

For millions the catastrophe is already here

Already, climate change caused by capitalism’s insatiable appetite for fossil-fuel profits negatively affects 300 million people each year. 300,000 people die every year as a consequence of ‘natural’ disasters alone. By 2030 as many as 500,000 people could be killed annually by catastrophes associated with climate change, such as floods, droughts, forest fires and new diseases. Rising sea levels represent the greatest threat. James Hansen this year said that we face the loss of all the world’s coastal cities this century or at least next century. We have already seen climate refugees move in large numbers – 500,000 Bangladeshis were driven from their homes during floods in 2005. Seven million people from Pacific Island nations are planning for relocation.

Britain’s 2016 Stern report estimated that between 220 and 250 million people would become refugees because of climate change. This is 10 times the current number of refugees in the world. According to a Swedish government study there are ‘46 countries home to 2.7 billion people in which the effects of climate change interacting with economic social and political problems will create a high risk of violent conflict.’  The Pentagon is planning for the security challenges that arise from global warming. In East African countries like Uganda and Kenya, prolonged drought has led to intense competition over water for cattle. This competition has become militarised.

Climate change combines with existing political turmoil to plunge regions further into disaster. The consequences of chronic drought in Afghanistan since the 1960s is now being made worse by the melting of pack ice. Meltwater accounts for 70 per cent of Kabul’s dry season volume. And here’s the thing – drought destroys most crops but opium poppies survive quite well as the poppy uses only one sixth of the water required for wheat. Opium production has skyrocketed. Afghanistan now produces 90 per cent of the world’s opium. In Kashmir, a territory contested by India and Pakistan – two nuclear powers – access to scarce water is a key issue in the dispute. Ninety per cent of Pakistan’s agricultural irrigation depends on rivers that originate in Kashmir.

The great glaciers of the poles and the Himalayas are disappearing. The melting of the Himalayan ice pack could spell catastrophe for millions. The Himalaya’s 46,298 glaciers hold water in frozen reserve for hundreds of millions of people in Asia. Think about the water that flows through the Ganges, the Indus and the Mekong. Approximately 70 per cent of the water for the Ganges is from one glacier which is shrinking at a rate of 40 yards per year, nearly twice as fast as it was two decades ago. The Ganges is now considered among the 10 most endangered rivers of the world.

Fossil fuel profits affect people in even more direct ways too. Adani is poised to seize Aboriginal land with the enthusiastic assistance of the Federal Attorney General, George Brandis, and the Queensland Labor government. Brandis aims to change federal Native Title law to prevent the Wangan and Jagalingou people, key traditional owners in Central Queensland, from waging an effective legal battle in the courts. The brave Wangan and Jagalingou campaign has taken them to the United Nations, the boardrooms of banks, community meetings around the state and protests outside the gates of Queensland’s Parliament House. Their 40,000 year custodianship of their land in Central Queensland, its water and wildlife, could soon be brought to an end by a company that has demonstrated itself to be hostile to the welfare of those living near its operations.

The challenge before us

Stopping the Adani mine will give a tremendous boost to the global climate movement. To prevent runaway warming we must stop temperatures rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This would involve keeping 10 trillion dollars’ worth of fossil fuels in the ground, an immense task given the way the fossil fuel industry has fought to maintain its super profits. There can be no incremental change that can respond adequately to this task. The entire capitalist economy needs to be transformed into something infinitely more rational, democratic and egalitarian.

Burning fossil fuels has been an essential part of capitalism. Industrial growth did not have to be based on coal. The myth generated by classical economists and standard textbooks about the Industrial Revolution is that the deficiencies of water power, namely the expense, lack of availability near expanding industrial towns, and inefficiency, compelled cotton mill owners to turn to coal. This was not the case. In the 1840s, several years after coal was used for the first time to create steam, water power remained the cheaper, more abundant, more efficient option.

This point is not only of historical interests. It reminds us that the Thatcherite invocation of TINA (There Is No Alternative) when the energy needs of the economy are discussed is designed to protect vested interests and has no basis in fact. Today’s renewables, like the water-powered mills of the 1830s, are the most intelligent way to power our homes and workplaces.

The fossil fuel giants, integral parts of global capital, are not the shy and retiring types who will tolerate being denied 10 trillion dollars in profits. They have reshaped political institutions and been associated with the carve-up and attempted domination of entire regions, especially the Middle East.

Their behaviour in Australia follows the same pattern. The close relationship that exists between the Queensland government and coal lobbyists has comprised democratic processes in this state. Former National Party deputy prime-minister Mark Vaile chairs the board of Whitehaven Coal. Former Queensland Labor Treasurer Keith De Lacey became chair of Macarthur Coal. At board level, there is bipartisanship, with former parliamentary secretary in the Howard government Peter Lindsay chairing Guildford Coal while Alan Griffiths, a former federal Labor Resources minister, serves as a director. Former Labor Mayor Tony Mooney is the general manager of ‘stakeholder relations’. Overall, a situation that has much in common with Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America.

In Queensland both Labor and LNP find a future without coal inconceivable. ‘We are not going to see the economic future of Queensland shut down…we are in the coal business. If you want decent hospitals, schools, police on the beat, we all need to understand that’, said former LNP premier Campbell Newman, deriding the UN for suggesting that port development along the Queensland coast might threaten the Great Barrier Reef.

Queensland Labor has always matched these pro-fossil fuel sentiments. ‘There’s win-win for everybody in this’, said former Labor premier Peter Beattie about coal seam gas. ‘We need the royalties for schools and hospitals and policemen and all the rest of it.’ In late 2015 Queensland Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk endorsed plans to develop up to 400 new coal seam gas wells in the Surat Basin—an unequivocal indicator of where Labor stands.

The business case for such bipartisan support for coal is very shaky indeed. Mining royalties represent only five per cent of Queensland’s state revenues. Just one major extreme weather event as a result of global warming would more than wipe out any royalties received. Furthermore, mining companies on average pay just 14 per cent in corporate tax.

Adani is a global polluter

The Adani Group and its executives have not been subjected to the required scrutiny, either by the Queensland or Federal government. Both governments have deliberately looked away when confronted with Adani’s appalling history of environmental destruction and violation of local laws.

In India, the national government is investigating Adani’s use of what is known as ‘black money’, a term used to describe the way a company will spread false information in order to receive tax advantages or launder money. The Adani Group is accused of deliberately inflating the value and the quality of the coal being imported from Indonesia in order to receive additional compensation from the government, a manoeuvre that will result in higher electricity prices in India.

In July 2011 the ombudsman of the Indian state of Kanataka reported that Adani was ‘actively involved in large scale illegal exports of iron ore causing huge loss to the government’. Documents seized in police raids of the Adani offices revealed that 7.7 million tons of iron ore were illegally exported between 2006 and 2010. Unlawful methods were also used in their Indian coal operations. The company used political connections and paid local officials bribes in order to export coal illegally.

Adani has demonstrated itself to be equally indifferent to environmental regulations. In Mumbai in 2011, Adani sank a coal ship that had not been properly cleaned. This caused significant damage to the local environment, people and tourism. The company was taken to court and fined US$975,000. In the Indian state of Gujarat they were responsible for the widespread degradation of the environment and massive disruption to the local fishing industry. A 2013 Indian government report found ‘incontrovertible evidence of violations of environmental clearance conditions and non-compliance’.

Adani is a big player in the Indian coal business, which puts them at the centre of India’s deadly air pollution crisis. Greenpeace estimates that more than 100,000 premature deaths in India are due to emissions from coal-fired thermal power plants. Tony Abbott might think coal is good for humanity but for the millions on the streets of Delhi, coal is toxic.

Adani’s assault on the environment and local economies has not been confined to India. In 2010 KCM copper mines broke Zambian law and later pleaded guilty to environmental offences. At the time, the KCM company director was Jeyakumar Kanakaraj. Since 2013, the same Jeyakumar Kanakaraj has been director of Adani operations in Australia, including the Carmichael coal mine and associated rail project.  A Canadian engineering company indicated that the mining firm run by Kanakaraj discharged sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals into water sources in Zambia causing death, sickness and loss of agricultural land. The High Court of Justice in London has determined that the case brought before it by 1800 Zambian villagers has ‘a real prospect of success’.

At the start of the approval process, the Australian Federal Environment Department requested that the company supply details about all Adani executives. However, Adani did not comply; it did not share information about its new executive and his responsibility for the pollution of Zambian water. The Environment Department told the media that they ‘elected not to take further compliance action on this matter’.

We have here, then, a company that destroys the environment and makes people sick. It has been taken to court and fined for breaking environmental laws in India and there are more court cases pending. Both the Queensland and Australian governments have decided to ignore this track record and give this global polluter untrammelled access to vulnerable ecosystems. It is hard to see how the precious water of the Great Artesian Basin and the magnificent bio-diversity of the Great Barrier Reef will survive Adani’s regular business operations.

 Cool the planet, challenge capitalism

Given capitalism’s historical addiction to burning fossil fuels and the ease with which fossil fuel companies influence political institutions and diplomatic relations to achieve their ends, it is clear that the only way to cool our planet is to challenge capitalism itself. The sea levels will continue to rise unless the profit imperative is torn out of the heart of the economy.

Naomi Klein reached the same conclusion in her extraordinary book, This Changes Everything. In order to stop the planet boiling, she argued, the global economy has to become infinitely more egalitarian. The book’s opening chapters examines the attitude of the neo-liberal Right. Klein starts there because she wants to makes the point that the Right understands the connection between actually doing something about climate change and the necessity to completely reorganise the economy. The implication here is that parts of the Left don’t appreciate the connection. For the Right, giving any ground to climate science would mean jeopardising their economic and political power. This is why we encounter a common response from the corporate elite and their ideologues – fanatical and disingenuous denial.

The belief that unites them all is the understanding that shifting from a global economy powered by fossil fuels to one powered by renewable energy will not be done with only a few modifications to the market. It will require massive intervention on the part of the state and on the part of politically confident and incredibly well-organised communities. It will feature bans on pollution; laws against the extracting fossil fuels from the ground; new investment in mass transit technology not roads; renationalisation of privatised industries. Arriving at a green economy will involve rejecting market solutions, such as putting a price on carbon, and the illusion of the techno fix.

This list of social and economic measures is, for the very powerful, simply offensive and cannot be tolerated. As the Heartland president put it, ‘climate change is the perfect thing why we should do everything the Left wanted to do anyway’. The huge battalion of lobbyists employed to distort democratic processes in Russia, the United States and Queensland will aim to thwart any moves to make the economy more responsive to community need and more egalitarian. Our movement needs to arrive at the understanding that there’s no possible accommodation with fossil fuel companies. They must be defeated. If they’re still around in 10 to 15 years we will be in the centre of climate turmoil 200 years in the making. It really is them or us.

What a green economy would look like

One of the key features of a green economy will be the renationalisation of industries. This trend has gone furtherest in Germany. Entire cities have had a referendum on shifting to renewable energy by 2030. Currently 25 per cent of Germany’s electricity is from renewables and this is dominated by wind and solar. Developments like these point to an entirely different economy free of any dependence on fossil fuels. The academic Mark Jacobson from Stanford University has demonstrated how these initiatives in Germany could be applied globally. He and other colleagues have put together a roadmap for how 100 per cent of the world’s energy could be supplied by wind solar and water as early as 2030.

A green economy will be achieved through massive taxation of the rich. Ratcheting up the tax rates on super wealthy individuals and the corporations is not simply morally appropriate, it also makes sense in terms of penalising those people who contribute most to global warming. The well-heeled consume far more on a per capita basis than the rest of us. One German case study of consumers indicated the travel habits of the most affluent section of society have an impact on climate 250 per cent greater than that of the lowest earning neighbours.

A green economy would not fund the military. The US military is the single largest consumer of petroleum in the world. Klein makes the point that the global financial crisis presented the United States government with an opportunity to recreate the American economy, to create millions of new green jobs and end the dependence on fossil fuels. The Obama administration was in a position to reorganise the banks, the auto companies and fashion a stimulus bill to create a very different economy. It was much the same historical moment that the Franklin D Roosevelt administration occupied in the 1930s when it was driven by a huge coalition of trade unions and unemployed groups to introduce the New Deal. This could have been a New Green Deal.

Academic Sam Girvan, closely associated with the Canadian auto workers’ union, has said that the GFC was a time when the equipment and skills within car factories could have be redirected away from the manufacture of cars and towards the expansion of public transit. Retro-fitting factories on that scale would be expensive but that’s where the banks could have helped out.

Obama missed the opportunity – instead he supported Wall Street. But the point made by Sam Girvan remains. Retro-fitting existing industries to allow them to be leaders in the creation of a green economy offers huge promise.

In the United States there is now the very impressive Blue Green Alliance, an organisation which has drawn together trade unions and environmentalists. It has argued that a US$40 billion annual investment in public transport and high speed rail for six years would produce 3.7 million jobs. A study by an organisation called Smart Growth America found that public transit programs created 31 per cent more jobs per dollar then investment in new road and bridge construction

In a green economy there would be more physical community building. Upgrading and protecting infrastructure, building sea walls to protect coastal communities, fixing up stormwater systems. On one estimate, improving stormwater infrastructure alone would put about two million Americans to work. A 2011 report submitted to the European Transport Workers’ Union Federation by climate activist Jonathan Neale found that reducing emissions in the transport sector by 80 per cent would create seven million new jobs across the continent while another five million clean energy jobs in Europe could cut emissions by 90 per cent. Cut emissions – create jobs. A coalition in South Africa called ‘One million climate jobs’ argued that by placing the interest of workers and the poor at the forefront of strategies to combat climate change we can simultaneously ‘halt climate change and address our jobs bloodbath’.

Our campaign needs to shift the perception that unions and workers are natural allies of those who run the fossil fuel companies. The campaign for climate justice should be fighting for workers who are currently in extraction industries to receive their wage until work can be found in renewables. For example, offshore oil workers could build and maintain wind farms. Until the transition takes place they should be paid their full wage.

This is the promise of a green economy – save the planet and install policies that actually reduce inequality.

Adani won’t create jobs in Queensland – renewables will

A massive injection of state investment in renewables can create sustainable employment and restore hopes to rural communities wracked by decades of fluctuations in the price of resources. Mining has never really delivered on its promised jobs bonanza. In late 2012 before the end of the coal boom, the coal industry employed 45,700 in a national workforce of eleven million.  There are four times as many jobs in the university and tertiary education sector and almost as many in the diary and milk processing industry.

Coal has only ever destabilised rural Queensland and prevented the development of more sustainable kinds of employment, free of the boom-bust cycle that plagues the coal industry. Currently, the global coal industry is close to bust and very few commentators are predicting a long term return to boom years. Michael Roche, chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council, is a prophet of doom. He argued in 2016 that ‘these are some of the worst conditions they have faced in decades. Some companies are teetering on the brink.’ The commercial intelligence company Wood Mackenzie corroborates this grim assessment. Its study reveals that 65 per cent of global coal operations have been running at a loss for the fifth consecutive year. Queensland coking coal fetches about $US74.45 per tonne whereas during China’s seeming endless boom it fetched $US300 per tonne.

The coal industry in Queensland is edging towards the abyss. The Commonwealth and the State of Queensland should let it fall but do everything in their power to rescue those communities who depend so heavily on the jobs big polluters provide. This would mean an historic investment in social housing and social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and community centres. These projects would employ hundreds of thousands of workers. The design, manufacture and maintenance of renewable technology would create hundreds of thousands more.  Economically, we have been here before. The existential threat governments perceived during WW2 demanded an abrupt shift of resources towards munitions manufacturing. A similar historic and abrupt transfer of resources towards renewables and sustainable jobs must occur now.

What kind of movement?

Shifting state support from coal to renewables, however, will not be enough. Here in Queensland and across Australia we will have to fight to keep the coal and the oil and gas in the ground. The German experience is instructive. It is true that Germany is leading the world in the uptake of renewable energy. Communities and cities are voting to renationalise energy industries. But extraordinarily, Germany’s emissions have not been reduced because the use of coal power continues to grow. It is clear that creating an economic environment where there is serious investment in renewable energy, where there is the creation of tens of millions of green jobs, will not be sufficient. Alongside the massive expansion of renewable energy we also need legislation to keep the coal and the oil and the gas in the ground.

Here is where struggle is unavoidable. The question is how do build a movement that can stand between the companies so determined to make huge profits from burning fossil fuels and the $10 trillion worth of fossil fuel that must remain in the ground so that the earth will not warm more than two degrees. The movement cannot be about asking for those companies to comply with environmental laws – Adani’s own history demonstrates the limitations of this approach. Our movement can’t involve begging fossil corporations and government backers to think about the interests of their own children –  that is not a realistic option. The realistic alternative is to survey history and try to work out which of the huge social movements of the past can be used as a model to shape the movement we need keep the $10 trillion of fossil fuels in the ground.

The examples to look at would be the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s in the US which achieved historic political gains for African-Americans. There is much to learn from the women’s movement around the turn of last century and then also in the 60s and 70s which went a long way towards creating more political freedom for women and some significant material gains. We should reflect on the heroic battle against apartheid in South Africa which resulted in democratic elections in 1994. However, as inspirational as they were, these movements, as Klein points out, failed to make economic breakthroughs. Dr King summed up the situation when he said that the Civil Rights movement had made it possible for a black person to go into a restaurant in the South but they still did not have the money to buy the hamburger.

The movement for climate justice must be one that can achieve both political and economic victories. Naomi Klein, following the lead of Chris Hayes author of the essay ‘The New Abolitionism’, suggest that we look towards the abolitionist movement, that massive transatlantic movement against slavery which achieved powerful political and economic results. Slavery was ended at a huge cost to the plantation owners and to the textile manufacturers in Britain. It landed a tremendous blow against the economic interests of an economic elite and that’s what our movement has to do but on a much more fundamental level. We have to democratise economics. We have to gain the kind of democratic control over the economy that would allow us to look at a proposal –  whether for a bridge, a road, a railway, a retirement home or some kind of industry –  and ask the question: Do we need this?, and collectively make a call on what happens next. This is the kind of power we need.

Unions and climate change

In 2007 a strike by 73,000 workers in General Motors crossed national borders and shut down GM car manufacturing in North America. A dock workers’ strike in India, involving 150 million workers from 10 key unions, immobilised Indian shipping. This is the power that can keep 12 trillion dollars of fossil fuels in the ground and save the planet from capitalism. There is no other force that can match it; not governments, NGOs , or green investors. Only workers can act globally and impose on the economy a different set of priorities: human welfare, not profits. There is no green economy, indeed no liveable future, without the global intervention of workers in energy politics. The German experience shows that coal mining communities, justly proud of their long history of providing the energy that lifted the living standards of all Germans, were able and willing to embrace a renewable energy future. The Blue-Green alliance in the United States goes one step further, putting workers’ organisations in a position to lead the struggle to make our planet liveable for future generation.

We need such an alliance here in Australia. New South Wales firefighter and a leader of the Fire Brigades Employees’ Union, Jim Casey, puts the case this way:

‘The intersection between the labour movement and the environmental movement is critical to both. Climate activists need allies – especially allies with the structural power that the unions still hold. And union activists need to connect to the environmental movement, not only because climate is an issue that affects us all, but also because transitioning to a cleaner economy is an opportunity to move to a fairer one. The fight against Adani will be the strongest where the relationship between union and climate activists is strongest.’

Such an alliance can start with Adani. Here are some things trade unionists can do immediately:

  1. Demand that your union opposes coal mining. In Queensland this means condemning the Palaszczuk government for approving the Adani mine. The Queensland Teachers’ Union has already done this.
  2. Demand that your union calls on all levels of government to support a just transition to other forms of employment for workers and families directly dependent for their livelihoods on fossil fuel extraction and energy generation.
  3. Demand that your union support the roll out of renewable energy infrastructure in rural Queensland.
  4. Demand that your workplace be air-conditioned and that this be powered by solar panels. Workers should not suffer the effects of climate chaos.
  5. Demand that the superannuation fund that covers your industry divest from fossil fuels.
  6. Fight for a maximum temperature for workplace operations. Once this is exceeded, work stops.
  7. Unions should demand that local councils and the state government integrate their own workplaces directly with public transport systems, commit to an expansion of public transport to service all major employment hubs, and set cheap fares.

Together, these would be first necessary steps to prepare our unions to intervene decisively in energy politics. When unions do move they will enter a field populated with courageous climate activists.

Blockading, marching, boycotting, disinvesting

Our strategy for change needs to be grounded in the climate movement before us – the gathering of spirited opponents of the Adani mine and the decision by 30 local councils to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Boycotting and divesting starves the polluters of legitimacy –  an essential part of the climate justice movement and complements strategies to confront Big Coal directly. Naomi Klein writes about Blockadia, a global phenomenon –  people all around the world taking action, often led by Indigenous activists, often in remote rural locations against the extraction of fossil fuel. Blockadia has arrived at an understanding that there is no techno fix. Big Coal and the like are organised gangsters who are very determined to protect their profits. They want to get at that $10 trillion we need to keep in the ground. A dusty remote road leading to the proposed Carmichael Mine could be the site of the genesis of our own Blue Green Alliance; the point where climate activists and unionists forge a formidable pact to reshape the economy and cool the planet. Blockadia, the climate justice movement engaged in battle right now, demonstrates that what is required are tremendous levels of courage and a clear-sighted understanding that time is running out and that what we do next must lock away the stored carbon forever.

Further reading

Klein, Naomi, 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).

Malm, Andreas, Fossil Capital (London: Verso, 2016).

Parenti, Christian, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011).