For 150 years, industrial activity, mainly powered through fossil fuels like coal, have pumped billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Almost half of the world’s coal and oil reserves have been mined, extracted and burnt and 90% of the world’s old forests have been logged. Coal is almost completely made of carbon, so when it is burnt, it turns into carbon dioxide. The lion’s share of this coal is not burnt to keep people’s houses warm or lit, but to power steel mills and aluminium smelters to make cars, industrial machinery and jet-fighters.
It has often been said that climate change is mostly caused by rich countries like Australia, the US, Canada, Europe and Japan, and that as the main causes of the problem, we have the greatest burden of responsibility to act. What is less mentioned is that although Australia could easily be powered by renewable energy and production could mainly rely on recycled materials, it is large corporations like Port Waratah Coal Services, Rio Tinto and Xstrata that make these decisions on our behalf. These companies have a single responsibility, which is to maximise the profit to their shareholders. While politicians find it hard to stand up to multinational companies with combined budgets larger than Australia’s total wealth, it is up to us to ensure that our children and grandchildren, Indigenous peoples and the people of the Pacific, South-East and Central Asia, Africa and South America still have a liveable planet to live in, with access to clean water, food and shelter.
Scientists have known since the 19th century that without carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, our world would be ice-cold and uninhabitable for human beings. For hundreds of thousands of years the Earth has maintained a careful equilibrium of greenhouse gases in which human beings have survived. Human activity, particularly the burning of coal, has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by over 35%, and if no action is taken, that concentration will double or triple by the end of this century, upsetting the climate that human beings have enjoyed. Unmitigated climate change would destroy 90% of the world’s species to form a world we no longer recognise. Even low-level sea-level rise, parts of Newcastle would end up underwater.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to coal that produce 24-hour reliable power around the world today – energy from the wind, the sun and the waves. Reports produced by the Centre of Full Employment and Equity at the University of Newcastle and by Beyond Zero Emissions have shown that a transition to 100% renewable energy would not only create jobs and turn Australia back from a primary-resource hole-in-the-ground economy to a manufacturing hub, but it could do this within a decade more cheaply than the tax cuts before the 2007 election.
This change will not happen on its own. While governments are still captured by the influence of the fossil fuel lobby, it is up to us to break those links and create the future we all need.