On February 9, 2014, as temperatures climbed to 104 degrees and wind gusts exceeded sixty miles an hour, abandoned coal mines on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, began to catch fire. By noon, blazes raged across sixty-two square miles of the coal-rich Latrobe Valley. The worst nearly engulfed the small town of Morwell, population 14,000, home to the ancient Hazelwood coal-fired power plant and an immense open-cut mine abutting the town.
For weeks the fires burned with unabated intensity, sending up plumes of black smoke that darkened the sky. The people of Morwell appealed to the owners of the coal plant and to the government, but the authorities responded with bland assurances that the toxic smoke would have no lasting impact on their health. The residents also received a shipment of face masks and plastic buckets to sweep up the black ash that blanketed their homes, cars and furniture.
“It was like hell without the heat,” said one of the mothers who endured it. “I couldn’t see five feet in front of me.”
After more than six weeks, the fire was brought under control, leaving a community traumatized not only by the event, but by the conviction that their leaders had no intention of freeing them from the grip of the dangerous and dying coal industry.
Australia is in the midst of a desperate battle for its energy future. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, head of the archconservative Australian Liberal Party, has staked the future of his party, his country and in many ways the world on a plan to nearly triple coal exports. In doing so, he has boldly defied international efforts to slow carbon emissions and undermined his own country’s efforts to play a leading role in the fight against climate change.
“Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world,” Abbott proclaimed at the opening of a new $3.2 billion mine last October. “Coal is good for humanity.” Rejecting the scientific consensus that to avoid overshooting the critical two-degree Celsius warming threshold, 90 percent of proven Australian reserves must never be mined, Abbott told a gathering of minerals industry executives last May that he could think of “few things more damaging to our future” than leaving coal in the ground.”
Since winning office in 2013, Abbott has systematically dismantled the previous party’s support for renewable energy. He repealed the fledgling carbon price, which had consistently lowered emissions in the two years during which it was operational. He has tried to shake off Australia’s international emission commitments and reduced government investment in renewable technology. He is currently seeking to reduce the hours of renewable energy production required by the country’s mandatory renewable energy target (RET), a benchmark set to move Australia to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. Many of Australia’s state governments have followed suit, abolishing the key incentives that helped enable 10 percent of Australian households to install solar photovoltaic units on their rooftops. When it was Australia’s turn to host the G20 economic meeting last year, Abbott lobbied hard—though unsuccessfully—to keep the topic of climate change off the agenda.