Sun Setting On Coal, Rising On Democracy
This article first appeared in The Guardian, Nov 17, 2017
Events on opposite sides of the globe in recent days should give us real hope that coal’s deadly stranglehold on our health, our planetary home, and on our democracy, is finally slipping.
At the UN climate meeting in Bonn, 19 nations led by the UK and Canada officially joined together last night in a Powering Past Coal Alliance, committing to a swift phase out of coal. In making this commitment, they put front and centre the key argument I made two months ago: that coal kills people. No longer couched in obscure language, these governments declared that coal is already killing some 800,000 people a year due to air pollution, and many more stand to die thanks to climate change-driven droughts, storms, floods and fire.
Meanwhile, back home in Australia, not a single audience member in a Sky News Queensland election forum supported government funding for the Adani Carmichael coal mine. Not one single person raised their hand to back this idea championed by our Federal Government and the Queensland Opposition, and until very recently supported by the Queensland Government as well.
While this is an incredibly stark demonstration, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Australians have long told pollsters that we oppose coal and want to see our country powered by renewable energy. We’ve taken action ourselves in extraordinary numbers to install rooftop solar and solar water heaters. And yet coal maintains a deep hold on our electoral politics, with the Liberals and Nationals tightly bound to it and Labor still engaged in a complicated dance, ducking and weaving, contorting itself into intricate positions to express both support and opposition.
Of course, electoral politics is only one small part of democracy – and by no means the most important part in a truly democratic system. Voting is a complex process – a mix of consideration of a broad range of policies, old habits and allegiances, emotional attachments, and basic tribalism. I’ve lost count of the number of times polls have shown overwhelming support for an environmental issue – from renewable energy to forest protection to marine sanctuaries – but the same people have voted to install a government which declares its intention to actively undermine and destroy those precious things.
Here in Australia we’ve just had a demonstration of another way of doing democracy. The deeply misguided and unnecessary postal survey on marriage equality, despite enabling appalling hate speech, has actually ended up showing that, when the people speak clearly enough on an important issue, politicians have no choice but to follow.
Out of a very different process indeed, Adani may well lead us to the same conclusion. Here, community groups from all across the country have been working hard to build a groundswell big enough to overturn the pro-coal political consensus. Occupying banks and politicians’ offices, interrupting press conferences, locking onto mining equipment and sites, writing songs about it, many thousands of people have made this an issue that can’t be swept under the carpet. Politicians have been forced to answer questions about it day in day out, despite wishing they could just quietly get it done.
Both of these battles are far from won, but they both point to the deep desire of Australians to seize back the right to make decisions that matter to us from a political class that would prefer we let them take care of business.
And it’s exactly the same processes that have led the UK and Canada to the point where they can commit to phasing out coal in the very short term. In the UK, grassroots protests against coal, adoption of renewable energy technologies, and the tremendous democratic energy behind the Scottish Independence referenda, Brexit and Corbyn, all contribute to a politics where a quick exit from coal has become political common sense. In Canada, increasingly passionate anti-fossil fuel protests, feeding in to the development of the Leap Manifesto led by Naomi Klein and others, helped create the political atmosphere where Justin Trudeau could not only be elected but also see a strong mandate to phase out coal.
Again, just as our battles here in Australia are far from won, both the UK and Canada are very far indeed from democratic wonderlands. Their electoral systems are both far less representative than our own. But, even within those limits, they show that it is possible to prise coal’s fingers from off our necks.
We’re at a moment of incredible opportunity and risk. The deep democratic deficit inherent in late capitalism is sending too many people into the arms of the avowedly anti-democratic extreme right. But it is also invigorating those who are ready, willing and able to reclaim and rebuild democracy for all.
The sun is setting on coal as it rises on democracy.