Anna Krien & Pete Hay in conversation
Fullers Bookshop, Hobart - 21st August, 2017

Anna Krien talkAnna Krien is no stranger to Tasmania. Her first book, Into the Woods: the Battle for Tasmania's Forests (Black Inc, 2010) offered an expose of the state's timber industry and was awarded both the Queensland and the Victorian Premiers' Literary Awards in 2011.

Pete Hay is a Tasmanian environmentalist par excellence and author of Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought (University of New South Wales Press, 2002).

Together, they discussed Anna's recent Quarterly Essay contribution, "The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia's Cimate Deadlock" (Quarterly Essay Issue 66, 2017 - Black Inc.)

I’m going to start with a question that’s a sort of a preamble: the question before the real questions start. You strike me Anna as a researcher who is always on the move; you’re buzzing about. Perhaps you might tell us why you choose to do your research in this way when surely good old Doctor Google would provide you with all the information you need.

Google is helpful, I won’t deny it assists me in my line of work. I actually faced that conundrum when I was going to the Great Barrier Reef, thinking: what do I know? I don’t have any expertise to make any judgements of sorts!

I am someone who needs to immerse myself in my topic and to not make a value judgement or an expertise judgement so much as to really feel the landscape, the people, the dialogue. I think - particularly with environmental and climate change subjects: they’re such dense topics, so potentially gloomy, so laden with statistics - that the craft of writing is so important.... You can’t write it from your armchair and not bring in the sound, the colour: no-one’s going to read it. I wouldn’t want to read it.

All right, let’s get to the real interview. This is not really not an essay is it? This is a book! This is far bigger and far more reasoned from start to finish, far more nailed down than an essay.

Very much so. There’s probably about three quarterly essays in one in this issue, and about four quarterly essays that I wanted to follow in this work that I didn’t have the room for. And included in each Quarterly Essay is correspondence, and of course my correspondence was all like 'So why didn’t you talk about this … and this', to which I equally feel those omissions. But for the sake of clarity and length, it had already been stretched to the limit of a Quarterly Essay.

I’m going to start with Adani: talk us through the economics. Does Queensland need it? Does Australia need it?

Oh my gosh….

It’s not going to get any easier….

Well I think what’s really important to remember is that … if it wasn’t Adani, it’d be Gina Reinhardt or Clive Palmer, or someone else. I do sometimes get worried that Adani’s become the focus of a campaign when I really think we should be focussing on the Galilee Basin as a coal seam. But no-one should be doing it: not Adani, not anyone!

And yet there are nine supermines …

That’s right. The Queensland state government has this fascinating situation where in 2012 the Premier Campbell Newman said - in response to people saying, what about the reef? The reef is struggling, it’s in decline, you need to protect it! - he said, look! Queensland is in the business of coal. We can’t have the schools and the hospitals if we can’t support the coal industry. Yet a year later the Queensland treasury put out a statement saying - as a result of excess spending on coal-related infrastructure - money hasn’t been going towards schools and hospitals.

Basically over the past ten years the state has laid out ten billion dollars on coal-related infrastructure - so they are very much stuck in the business of coal, when we look at that kind of outlay of money. You have a state government – a federal government as well - captured by this industry, so to speak. The absurdity of it, when you think about Adani, is that the former minister - now our Italian minister: I do love Di Natale’s point, if you’re a real Italian you’d have never blamed your mum – spoke out and said that Adani had been unfairly scrutinised. With which I agreed, to the extent that every company should have the scrutiny that’s on Adani at the moment, every mining company. In Tasmania, Gunns should have had that scrutiny; a lot of the facts that have come out has been the result of ordinary people, ordinary groups going to courts which is when really quite serious details have leaked out into the public.

But I’ve been speaking to an economist who has confirmed a really creepy feeling I had when writing this essay, that the Adani project is potentially a fiction, potentially a mirage. It’s scary when you think about it, the Adani group just trying to maintain the value of the coal mining asset on its books – not really to roll out the thing in reality. And to keep that fiction as long as possible while they shift into renewables. I find it scary to have ministers, senators, mayors going around to areas that have serious problems of unemployment, talking about a ten thousand job bonanza. What can that do to a kid who can’t get a job, when the cards being played could well be backing up a mirage? And the fact that they will eventually have to roll out something that’s real, using real money; the real money being Australia’s money in the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund. We may actually end up with a half-way built railway to nowhere.

And as it is for Adani, is it so for these other mines that are set to be rolled out in time?

Nothing can happen unless they’ve got a railway, and Adani is basically leading the way in terms of building this railway from the coast inland to central western Queensland. If it were to come about, yes, the other mines would follow. It really does rely on the railway, and as Adani has said themselves the railway relies on an Australian loan of a billion dollars.

Adani is an Indian company, and in the essay you spend quite some time describing the shifts in energy policy in India and the role that Adani itself is playing in that. I wonder if you could describe that for us.

The problems in India are very real, there’s about 300 million people without access to electricity. That said, hooking up the Galilee Basin doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get electricity, quite a lot of villagers have power poles that have been built out to them but they’ve never been strung up with cables. Repeatedly, the coal industry in India has been captured by industry but not rolled out to people. There are schools of thought on how it is going to be rolled out in India and China, how to make it in developing countries and bring them up to a widening middle class; that what they’re doing is a leapfrogging movement similar to the mobile phone network in Africa where there were no communications before the mobile phone came in and leapfrogged all of that, leapfrogged literally into the twenty-first century. There are ideas renewables could do that in China and India. And to a degree I think that they will and that they are. But in terms of India, they’re constantly announcing that they’re not actually going to proceed with the numbers of coal-fired power plants that they originally thought, they’ve announced that they want to stop their thermal coal imports by 2020 - which makes everyone wonder where the Australian coal is going to go after that. They have repeatedly announced a shift of energy policy. Adani, when they did apply for coal projects in Australia were very much aligned with Indian energy policy - but now they’re very much in complete conflict with energy policy, hence the shift to the balancing of the books, trying to shift into renewables very very quickly. [Footnote # 1]

I’m going to read you a passage from page 17 of your essay, and in this section you were chatting with the Mayor of Townsville. And she says

"These cells multiplied in the oceans and some put out oxygen and this oxygen changed everything." (To which you wrote), I was confused. I'd asked the mayor of Townsville, Jenny Hill, if she accepted the science of global warming, making a conscious effort to say "accept" rather than "believe" - because in truth I struggle to believe in fax machines, let alone 3D printing, but I accept that these machines and their results are real, even if I don't understand the science and technology. Hill has a background in science, so I was aware the mayor could run rings around me if she wanted to, but I was trying to keep up.

"Are you talking about the beginning of life on Earth?" I asked in a squeaky voice. Hill nodded - a little sheepishly, I thought. Three and a half billion years seemed pretty far down the garden path to lead me. She quickly changed tack. "Technology," she surmised, "will overcome these problems."

So I want to get away from Adani, specifically - at least for the moment - and ask this more general question. Why do we have such faith in the capacity of technology to solve problems of planetary reach, especially if – as is the case – misconceived applications of technology are usually, at least in large part, complicit in the production of those problems in the first place? Why so? It seems to me to be an act of religious faith by people who claim to be proceeding from precisely the opposite norms. How can we be sure that if there are ninety-nine planetary crises, and technology solves ninety-eight of them, that we won’t fall at the ninety-ninth hurdle? What’s your response to that?

Firstly I don’t think the mayor really believed in that either. She kept laying obstacles in my path to avoid the fact that she was only listening to a campaign of jobs … technology is only as ethical as its user. The idea that technology will save us, or that technology is the solution, is I think hugely problematic because … again, it’s only an argument used in certain instances, if we were such avid believers in science and technology then why is climate change still being feted? It’s also a refusal to acknowledge that we live in a place that requires ethical considerations, requires governance and a system that needs trust: and trust has been seriously eroded over time. Look at how trust in the system and in democracy has been so eroded that we have those throw-away lines such as 'science can fix it', I think the only thing that can fix it is a strengthened and rehabilitated democracy, maybe only then can we afford to have trust in scientific solutions....

I wonder whether that’s possible? Because so much public decision-making these days requires a huge amount of technological competence. We elect a parliament – shopkeepers and schoolteachers and lawyers - and I don't think we have that technological competence, the capacity of mastering all the technological niceties that would go into most public policy decision-making now. I think there’s a democratic deficit which is almost intractable, and that what we have here – the reflex to say technology can fix it - is almost a mental throwing-up-of-the-hands-in-the-air at the incapacity of the people we elect to deal with the complexity of the problems we expect them to manage.

Yes, and there’s also a reprehensible morality to that kind of response as well.

After writing that essay I tried to take a deep breath and immerse myself into Newscorp … I figured I’d try not to stay in a bubble … and I found myself having this to and fro over various editorial opinion pieces where I thought a line was being crossed with so many of them. The obvious arguments kept popping up, of ‘we can fix it up later’ or ‘if we don’t do it, other people will be digging up their coal and selling it to other countries’. But when you think of the Great Barrier Reef, which is in decline and will continue to be in decline because of our inaction - to say that we should keep kicking it while it’s on the ground and dying because others are kicking it, is a vile state of affairs. You do wonder how to return a sense of integrity back into government.

On the question of coal in particular, the Right of Australian politics seems to have this almost pornographic love affair with coal. I wonder where this lurid love comes from, I wonder why it is that the mere mention of renewables seems to invoke in Coalition MP’s this visceral hatred of the very notion…

Yes, I’ve been thinking about our appreciation of the use of fossil fuels over the last 150 years, and of what progress and industrialisation has taught us. Coal has given us not only a glimpse of the past but also a glimpse of the future, the way scientists have used fossil fuels to find out the science of climate change. That’s a fascinating thing in itself even if it's incredibly gloomy. Bizarrely, I don’t think those so-called appreciators of coal really appreciate coal at all, they’re not listening to what coal is telling us. They're more worried about ideology, coal is just there to symbolise it all, to represent it. I don’t think Tony Abbott cares about coal or coal miners, so to speak, I think he cares about his relevance – this is the only way he can stay relevant. If you think about Q & A and describe it as a sort of Punch and Judy show between the Left and Right.... If you think about Brian Cox, a physicist who delivers indisputable evidence of climate change to Malcolm Roberts, of One Nation, leaving the Left cheering, as if something was achieved.... Nothing was achieved! The Left continues to think as it does, the Right continues to do the same, there’s absolutely no way - no matter how irrefutably better placed the physicist is to understand the science - that Malcolm Roberts will ever change his mind. Because this is not about science, it’s about world views, it’s about ideologies. You have two camps with one side saying climate change is scary but will also present opportunity – an exciting opportunity – to not just replace various forms of energy generated, but also to change the system’s priority with regards respect for the environment. And the other world view is not scared of climate change, but scared shitless of the solutions because basically it’ll undermine their relevance and their status quo. [Footnote # 2] I don’t really think coal has anything to do with it. I think if Scott Morrison truly looked at that lump of black coal in his hands when he brandished it in parliament, if he truly looked at it and tried to understand its place in geology, he would have said we need to discuss this, appreciate it - and we need to leave it in the ground.

Can you tell us why the question about the future of the Adani mine has also become the question of the future of the reef? What’s the link here, what are the comparative economics at work here, reef economics vs coal economics?

I met quite a few punters in North Queensland pubs who would quite genuinely, without malice or any idea of conspiracy, say ‘the mine’s not a threat to the reef, the mine’s too far away’. And I would have this feeling of panic, oh my god, this person doesn’t know about coal and burning and carbon emissions. But then you have a situation where Minister Frydenberg says the exact same thing to Charlie Veron, one of the world's best coral scientists. Charlie Veron wrote him a letter saying the reef is in serious, serious trouble and you need to re-evaluate the approval for that mine. Josh Frydenberg wrote back saying, the mine’s too far away from the reef. So you had one man with all the information at his fingertips, one man who we also know understands climate change, against.... Sometimes I think it's a bit sordid because it’s become this idea of jobs and the economy versus the environment. It's a kind of false choice.

I do find people furious when we see the lack of respect for the reef, I mean the fact that Queensland’s been living off that asset for decades now. It has about 69,000 jobs on the reef, turns over about sixty million dollars each year. Australia-wide the coal industry has about thirty thousand jobs – that’s Australia-wide, in Queensland it’s about fifteen thousand jobs. Why would you kill one asset that will live for ever and that will be always creating an economy, for something that is very short term? It beggars belief. I do struggle with that. The Australian Conservation Foundation announced that they had done a cost-analysis of the reef and that they figured it was worth as an asset fifty-six million dollars, and it kind of made me feel sick cos what if the money didn’t stack up? If it turned out that the Galilee Basin could produce more money, would that mean the reef would die? The economics may be out there, the numbers are in the reef’s favour; but I think it’s a bigger argument than economics.

The very last sentence in the essay is ‘The reef isn’t dead. But it can’t breathe.’ Can the reef be saved?

There’s the conundrum that both journalists and scientists are trying to deal with at the moment, which is how to maintain hope, keep hope alive - whether that's an objective thing? I often have marine scientists telling me all the details, and then saying look, to be honest, I’d like this to be off the record: but even if we do act, only ten per cent of the reef will stay alive. There's the weirdness of that being off the record, climate change has introduced a strange phenomenon into a journalist’s world. What do we do with hope, what’s our responsibility towards hope and despair? There was a recent, devastating article talking about a future climate change scenario, I remember reading it and being very angry, thinking 'this guy: he’s just killed off hope'. Even if his science and scenarios are valid, I felt like he had a responsibility to hope and he's squashed it, lost it. That was strange for me.

To answer your question … if warming's kept under two degrees, the reef will not be what it was - but it will still be there. [Footnote # 3]

This might be an urban myth; I’ve heard it said that if the Adani mine went ahead it would have an ecological footprint larger than the whole of the New Zealand economy. Howsoever that be ... we’re a proud signatory to the Paris Climate Accord. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I always understood that the purpose of the Paris Climate Accord was to transit – transit: not transition – transit economies out of coal. And we’re a proud signatory to this landmark global accord. Am I missing something here? How come what the Queensland Labor government and the federal Coalition government is doing, does not breach our Paris Accord undertakings?

I think what you will find is that you have a Coalition that totally doesn’t respect the Accord and the signature that it made. There was even talk when Trump said he would disengage from the Accord, does that mean we should too? In the year 2015 - in the same breath as signing the Paris Accord - the coal company Peabody Energy in America started to email Canberra politicians and our ambassadors saying look we’d like to meet with you, they got emails back within ten minutes saying of course, here’s your slot, doors are always open. Peabody Energy was quite insistent in asking the Australian government to go to OECD global agreement discussions and fight against the proposal America and Japan and most other countries were leading which was to stop funding coal-fired power stations. [Footnote # 4]

Australia was quite happy to play that role. We held up those OECD discussions for about a week, and afterwards people were quoted in newspapers all around the world saying, if it wasn’t for Australia and South Korea we would have come out with a stronger result. This was done in the same year as the government signed the Paris Accord. We have a completely disingenuous government. There’s no sincerity in adhering to the Paris Accord, which is largely why the democratic system has completely lost trust. I was recently asked, what’s the solution? And I think one of the solutions … there’s one movement in Canada called The Leaf Manifesto, looking to changing to renewables but also radically changing the way society is run. I actually don’t think we even need to be that radical, there’s a NSW Anti-Corruption Commission that should be rolled out to every state and federally…. All these things are already here, there’s the Extractive Industries Protocol which numerous countries have signed up to, which required federal governments to be transparent about land agreements, money royalties – how it flows back into government, where it goes from there. Australia pledged its support to the EITI, but it was never implemented. All these things that are meant to catch and strengthen the democratic process are already there, it’s not even a radical leap, it’s just that we have a political system that loathes to implement it.

Last question, and I can’t see the point of Morry Schwartz commissioning another Quarterly Essay, because any topic that is commissioned will look silly when compared to what you’ve just written. I can say the same thing to you: you said you’ve been involved in these little rapier thrusts with news editors … how can you face up to another large project after the enormity of what you’ve done here?

I don’t know, actually. I have this strange experience after this Quarterly Essay where I’m incredibly tired and all I want to do is sleep. But also ... the rage has been maintained, I’m still quite fired up. So I don’t think I can leave this. A great American journalist, David Roberts, talks about how the problem with climate change in my world - the media, journalism – is that it’s snuck in under the environmental bureau’s banner and it's been pushed to that niche corner of, one species clinging on to survival; when the reality is climate change needs to be the backdrop for every story. So when we’re talking about Grenfell Tower and cheap cladding and corrupt urban town planning, we need to be talking about climate change as well. It needs to be the background, I think, for most journalism – which is why when you think about that, you’ve got to think about education, and democracy, all those things that need to be equally strengthened and tackled. It’s a big problem....

Footnote # 1.
In 2010, when Gautam Adani bought his Carmichael coal deposits, India had a supply deficit of almost 15 per cent, and that was just for those hooked up to the grid. At the time, his plans aligned with government policy: coal was India's future. India's outlook has since shifted. Last year, India's energy minister, Piyush Goyal, announced plans to see almost 60 per cent of the country's electricity derived from non-fossil fuels by 2027. He also announced that apart from those already being built, India would not be approving new coal-fired power stations. Adani has shifted accordingly
[Anna Krien, Quarterly Essay 66, 2017, page 50.]

Footnote # 2.
It does not matter because Roberts does not see the science; he sees a scenario in which all the Brian Coxes of the wotld are infinitely more powerful than all the Gina Rineharts. He sees a future in which a lauded Greens senator might say, I told you so. And this is scarier than a planet with a fever. When Rinehart says the sky will fall in on an Australia if attempts re made to regulate and rein in the mining sector, she's right. Her idea of Australia - the country her father, grazier and iron ore magnate Lang Hancock, showed her, and what lies underneath it - is at risk. Laying out the red carpet isn't just about profit and growth, it is about entitlement. Climate change lays all these bones bare. It cannot be summed up in a policy. It is a bright fluorescent light in the middle of the night from which no hypocrisy can hide. It is impossible to take a stand on climate change without making a value judgement - which is why politics has become so inert and why the Rineharts of the world are fighting with everything they've got.
[Anna Krien, Quarterly Essay 66, 2017, page 22.]

[Footnote # 3]
I re-read the Authority's report - it was good. Thorough. I check again at the front - yep, the Great Barrier Reef is definitely still dying. I realise what was making me sleepy. Reichelt has been pragmatised. He briefs the minister, he briefs the Senate, and he's sleepwalking. It's not fair, but I want to zap him. Wake up! You have to! You have to fight! You are in charge of one of the most beautiful underwater creations in the world, a vast turquoise structure made up of living corals, a section of the earth that is essentially gills, and it can't breathe.

When I was a kid, my mum sat up for long nights with me as I tried to breathe. Asthma, it tightens everything, it feels like being strangled, like a great weight being rolled on top of you, you have the tiniest pinhole through which to draw breath, and all night I would focus on that pinhole, trying to suck up air, tired, so tired. They were long nights, my mum saying, "Breathe, breathe." Then, finally, the sun would rise, warm me up, the weight would release me and I could breathe.

The reef isn't dead. But it can't breathe.
[Anna Krien, Quarterly Essay 66, 2017, pages 115, 116.]

Footnote # 4.
On Peabody's website, you can watch an interview with Brendan Pearson of the Minerals Council of Australia discussing Australia's devotion to the cause of reducing energy poverty in the poorest parts of the world. Peabody's vice-president at the time, Fred Palmer, is good at campaigns. He was one of the brains in 1990 behind a decade-long push by a coalition of coal companies to "Reposition global warming as theory (not fact)."

In February 2015 American coal lobbyist Bernie Delaney emailed Australian ambassador Sam Gerovich at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra on behalf of two Peabody Energy executives, who were planning an Australian visit. Delaney wanted a meeting for them with the ambassador and "relevant colleagues" to "discuss US moves to have the OECD enact a policy guidance document which restricts funding for coal-fired power generation projects." Ten minutes later, Gerovich emailed back with a slot on Peabody's requested date.

The next day, Delaney made contact with another DFAT official, Brendon Hammer, asking for a meeting. Hammer replied, "Always happy to see you and Peabody. Hope the new year has begun well for you." The emails are a glimpse into a concerned campaign run by Peabody Energy to undermine global talks - and the Coalation responded with gusto. (These emails were released after a canny Freedom of Information request and reported by Graham Readfearn in the Guardian.)
[Anna Krien, Quarterly Essay 66, 2017, page 47.]