Bushfires don't just have an adverse impact on humans. Photo: Jay Cronan
I took the Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide last July and one of the highlights was seeing flocks of green budgies wheeling and dipping across the red earth landscape. A beautiful sight. Which brought home to me even more the tragedy of climate change when, soon after, I saw on an ABC Catalyst program a number of dead budgies and endangered Carnaby's black cockatoos in Western Australia, all of which had died from heat stress. Birds and other animals can't escape to airconditioned comfort and Alice Springs is now sweltering under one of its longest heatwaves on record.
Last week's fires destroyed towns and properties nationwide, with the Tasmanian fires resulting in insurance losses of more than $50 million to date. The insurance industry reports billions of dollars lost through such fires, as well as floods and storms (for example, $1.4 billion for Cyclone Yasi, $1.2 billion for Black Saturday). These do not include the costs to governments, estimated to be about $12 billion for the 2011 floods. In the US, hurricane Sandy reconstruction costs are estimated at $60 billion. How many more at-risk communities will be refused insurance cover as Roma and Emerald in Queensland have been for flood events, putting further costs onto government? How will economies sustain such calls on resources? And with climate change, they will only get worse.
Unlike the directors of Whitehaven Coal, Jonathan Moylan gets it. His courageous action to call attention to the climate and community impacts of coalmining should be applauded, not condemned.
The finance sector is not immune from being held responsible for the consequences of its actions. How many coal companies such as Whitehaven are disclosing the climate risk to which they are exposed and how many investor organisations are telling their clients about the risks? The chairman of the Asset Owners Disclosure Project, John Hewson, says ''the first survey of the world's 1000 largest retirement funds', insurance companies' and sovereign wealth funds' management of climate risks paints a disturbing overall picture of greenwash and reckless mismanagement''. Yet spokespeople for the finance sector are calling for the full force of the law to be visited on a lone protester. The word hypocrisy comes to mind: the financial markets being outraged about a blip on their landscape and completely ignoring dealing with the overwhelming risk of climate change.
Globally, The Carbon Tracker - Unburnable Carbon report estimates that up to 80 per cent of the coal, oil and gas reserves upon which the valuation of companies depends are unburnable if the world is to have any chance of keeping warming at less than 2 degrees. This carbon bubble represents a systemic risk to financial markets and hence investors and the global economy.
It should be noted that ANZ, the bank that is backing Whitehaven, is the only one of Australia's big four banks not to have signed up to the Equator Principles, a framework for managing environmental and social risk in project finance transactions.
Sharyn Munro, in Richland, Wasteland and Paul Cleary, in Mine-Field, have both provided sufficient evidence for a royal commission into the coal and coal-seam gas industries and their impacts on both climate change and food security. The disclosures of payments into offshore bank accounts over coal licences in NSW should also be part of such an inquiry. The evidence of health impacts and the devastation of communities and prime food-producing land is such that it has spurred the creation of groups such as the Lock the Gate Alliance of farmers trying to protect their land and livelihood.
How much more evidence do we need that we must give our highest priority to reducing fossil-fuel emissions? Will the government wait until many more people are killed by fires, storms or floods before they decide to take this critical issue seriously?
The federal government has made a budget surplus an economic imperative. It can help achieve this, and also take first steps on the climate risk created by companies such as Whitehaven, by removing the annual subsidies of about $6 billion to the fossil-fuel industry.
Non-violent resistance to government action has been around for a long time and, where it is in the public interest, it has been vindicated by history. The fossil-fuel industry is dealing in peoples' lives and environmental destruction and should be held accountable. Governments should also be made accountable for putting vested interests and short-term expediency ahead of the national, that is, citizens' interests.
We're likely to see more non-violent civil action against the coal and coal seam gas industries - investors beware.
Kathryn Kelly is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University and producer/director of the documentary film The Inertia Trap about climate change and the oceans.