Former Australian Coal Executive Calls For Clean Energy Amid 'Existential Threat' Of Climate Change

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The transition away from coal is a polarizing topic in Australia. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
The transition away from coal is a polarizing topic in Australia. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

The destructive wildfire season in Australia underscores how climate change is speeding up the spread of fires, and there are now increasing conversations about how coal has played a part in the devastation.

But just like in the U.S. — with a government downplaying the urgency of enacting climate change policies — the transition away from this fossil fuel is a polarizing topic in Australia with no easy solutions.

Coal is a big business in Australia. Economically, coal is Australia's most valuable export, with black coal resources occurring in a majority of the country’s states.

Politically, the industry is closely tied with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a vocal advocate for coal. Morrison has deemphasized the link between the raging bushfires and climate change.

The government, hand in hand with the country’s coal industry, has repeatedly chosen a denialist stance on climate change science, says Ian Dunlop, senior member of the advisory board for the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, an independent think tank based in Melbourne.

“There is no question that the continued use of coal is impacting the climate,” Dunlop says. “And obviously our coal industry has to think very hard about that.”

Dunlop is no stranger to the fossil fuel industry — he was once an international oil, gas and coal executive and former chair of the Australian Coal Association. He says he left his position in the late ‘80s after recognizing the science behind climate change and since then, has been an advocate for clean energy.

“As time’s gone by over the years, the science has improved dramatically and the evidence has gotten clearer and clearer, and there comes a point when you have to do something about it,” he says.

While coal is a major economic source for the country, there are different ways to initiate change, he says. For example, Australia is “blessed with a range of potential renewable options” that can be tapped into, such as their naturally high levels of sunlight and high wind conditions.

There will be a cost in making the switch to a low-carbon economy, but in the long run, it’s worth it, he says.

“It's not just going to happen easily. It is going to have an impact on economies all around the world,” he says. “But the costs of doing nothing are far greater, as we're now starting to see in Australia, because the impact on the economy of what is now happening in the last three or four or five weeks is going to be enormous.”

Dunlop is working toward making sure Australia’s political leaders and corporate executives aren’t allowed to “deny reality” — a delusion he says can be partially attributed to Rupert Murdoch-run conservative media outlets. Australian-born Murdoch, founder of News Corps which owns Fox News, has a history of political activity in Australia.

The more the country’s wildfires have become a worldwide concern, he says, “people like the Murdoch press have become ever more hysterical in trying to deny it.”

Despite this, Dunlop remains optimistic about the future of fossil fuel alternatives in Australia. He projects that climate change will dominate debate in the land Down Under for quite some time. It’s a crisis that can’t be ignored any longer, he says.

Australia can either address climate change and coal’s involvement, he says, or continue to do nothing while staring down the barrel of “an immediate existential threat to the future of human civilization.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on January 8, 2020.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.


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Serena McMahon was a digital producer for Here & Now.



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