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Climate, coal and famine

Blog post by Senator Lee Rhiannon

Last Friday in Newcastle, two members of local community group Rising Tide climbed onto the coal conveyor belt at the coal port and hung a banner saying “We’re sorry Somalia. Coal = climate change and starvation.”

I put out a media release that afternoon congratulating Rising Tide for their peaceful direct action and echoing the community’s message that coal expansion in Australia is directly contributing to worsening impacts of climate change around the world.

Enter The Australian, again putting into practice their editorial stance that the Greens should be destroyed at the ballot box.

Today’s edition of The Australian ran an article criticising me for supporting the action and for linking the drought in the horn of Africa and the famine in Somalia to climate change.

What is happening in Somalia right now is a human tragedy and the number of lives lost is devastating. In the article, Opposition climate action spokesperson Greg Hunt accuses me of saying that coal from Newcastle is directly causing famine in Somalia. The link is not that simple and I did not suggest it was. Severe drought has clearly laid the ground for the devastating scale of this disaster, but the famine crisis must be traced back to politics and leadership as well as weather patterns.

I accept that it is difficult to definitely attribute any single extreme weather event to climate change. In the Guardian this week Oxfam Great Britain’s Head of Research, Duncan Green said that it is difficult to prove that the current drought is directly attributable to climate change because Africa lacks the reliable long-term weather data to prove the case. But Mr Green goes on to say that:

The current drought conditions have been caused by successive seasons with very low rainfall. Over the past year, the eastern Horn of Africa has experienced two consecutive failed rainy seasons. According to surveys of local communities, this is part of a long-term shift. Borana communities in Ethiopia report that whereas droughts were recorded every six to eight years in the past, they now occur every one to two years. Meteorological data back up the picture on temperatures: mean annual temperatures increased from 1960-2006 by 1C in Kenya and 1.3C in Ethiopia, and the frequency of hot days is increasing in both countries. Rainfall trends are less clear: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report, there are no statistically significant trends in rainfall. However, more recent research suggests that rainfall decreased from 1980 to 2009 during the "long-rains" (March to June).

Oxfam’s research report ‘Horn of Africa Drought – Climate Change and future impacts on food security’ is here.

Just last week the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Head of the African Development Bank Danald Kaberuka attributed the famine in the horn of Africa to climate change and a collective failure to end the Somali civil war. David Orr of the UN World Food Program has been similarly reported as saying that “It is extremely alarming that the incidents of drought seem to be occurring more and more regularly ... The general view was that extreme weather events were occurring every 11 years. Then it came down to five or six years. But the last drought in this region occurred in 2007 and 2009. So they do seem to be happening with increasing regularity, undoubtedly as a result of climate change.”

While no single extreme weather event can be attributed to climate change, it is a fact that these events are becoming more frequent and more extreme due to climate change. And we know that unless we take urgent action to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse pollution, the situation will become more and more tragic. It does not help to collectively put our heads in the sand and deny any link between the drought in the horn of Africa and climate change.  Greg Hunt is merely aping Opposition Leader Tony Abbott with his denial of the seriousness and urgency of climate change.

The Australian article also criticised me for supporting Rising Tide’s peaceful direct action. In the media release I said ‘Non-violent actions are a courageous way to underline the urgent need to combat the global impacts of climate change by constraining the growth of NSW’s coal industry’.

 I stand by that statement and have long been on the public record supporting peaceful direct action and the role it has historically played from Ghandi, to Martin Luther King, to the Suffragettes achieving women’s right to vote. My colleague ACT MP Shane Rattenbury explained his support for civil disobedience last week in Canberra's CityNews. 

There is no doubt that climate change is the overwhelming challenge facing the planet today – the role of coal and fossil fuels in driving climate change is clear, the predictions of extreme weather events are worsening and the implications for food security and for biodiversity around the world are dire.

Newcastle coal port is the world’s largest coal port and it is growing. The Australian Rail Track Corporation works on the assumption that the expected combined port capacity at Newcastle will be around 209 mega tonnes of coal per annum in 2014, and could reach 300 mega tonnes of coal per annum by 2016, which when burnt would create about 720 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. For context, Australia’s current domestic emissions sits at about 550 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

In 2006, as part of my work as a Greens MP in the NSW Parliament, I actively opposed the T3 expansion of Newcastle Harbour, a 66 million tonnes per year capacity coal terminal expansion at Kooragang Island. At that time, when I started attending the annual community blockade of Newcastle Harbour, a successful and peaceful community climate action organised by Rising Tide, our message that coal equals climate change was still met with some resistance. Today there is widespread community acceptance that to be serious about climate change means developing a transition plan away from the coal industry.

Rising Tide have engaged in all formal channels to communicate their concern to the NSW government about the expansion of coal in the Hunter including letters, submissions, meetings with politicians, presentations to government expert panels and court actions. They have attracted a significant community support throughout the Hunter region. In the face of inaction by the NSW government, which continues to give the go ahead to coal mine and coal port expansions, Rising Tide have chosen peaceful direct action as a means to play their part to stop the expansion of the coal industry. I congratulate them for taking this stand and will continue to support their efforts.

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