FIGHTING ''energy poverty'' should be a bigger priority than combating climate change, according to the world's largest private sector coal company.
Addressing the Melbourne Mining Club, Peabody Energy chairman Gregory Boyce said Australia had lost its way in recent years, and that ''extreme policies'' - such as carbon and mining taxes - were threatening to undermine Australia's leadership position''.
Mr Boyce said it was ''tragic'' that decades after a man walked on the moon, billions of people were living without access to electricity, and resolving that inequality was a much bigger moral cause than reducing carbon emissions.
When asked if he accepted the mainstream science that carbon emissions were causing aggressive climate change, Mr Boyce gave a mixed answer.
''We've got rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, that's a scientific fact, and then you have to translate that into whether you have belief in computer modelling and what impact that's going to have. My view is those are just models,'' he said.
''What I accept much more is energy poverty … that's a much greater environmental problem for the Earth to be dealing with than looking at how we impact computer models 50 years out. The No. 1 way to improve the environment in this world is to decrease levels of poverty, and that's our focus.''
The comments differ from another major coal producer, BHP Billiton, which on Thursday reiterated that it accepted mainstream scientific opinion that carbon emissions were unnaturally altering the Earth's climate. BHP expects the world to increasingly opt for lower carbon fuels such as natural gas over the next 50 years.
Australian Conservation Foundation spokesman Tony Mohr said the world was already starting its evolution towards even cleaner sources. "Coal is a sunset industry,'' he said. ''Last year global investment in renewable energy was greater than investment in all fossil fuels.''
Review of the carbon tax, mining tax and royalties would be the first task of a new commission proposed by Mr Boyce into maintaining competitiveness in the resource sector.
Mr Boyce said Australia needed an organisation - staffed by politicians, academics and business people - that took a 30-year view of a sustainable resources industry rather than through the prism of boom and bust.
Commenting on the US presidential race, Mr Boyce said there was a perception that Republican candidate Mitt Romney was more focused on developing the energy industry than rival Barack Obama.
He said the US would increasingly emerge as an exporter of coal and gas now it had energy security through shale gas.