Clive Hamilton

5 November 2009 – Don’t ask Clive Hamilton about Plan B. Burning coal is the single biggest threat to the planet, and as far as he is concerned there is no point even discussing a second biggest threat or a third. If you persist with the question Hamilton, the Greens’ candidate for the 5 December  by-election for the Federal seat of Higgins in Victoria, is likely to simply terminate the conversation.

It’s a tough stance. And it’s a tough view to take from the property industry’s perspective, armed as it is with McKinsey & Co’s analysis, and that of others, that says the built environment offers the cheapest and quickest way to make fast cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

But Hamilton, one of Australia’s leading climate campaigners, founder of the Climate Institute, and author of several books — the latest of which, Requiem for a Species, is due out next year — makes no apology for his attitude.

He recently returned from a briefing in Britain by scientists whose mood, he told a Royal Society of the Arts meeting in Sydney last month, was verging on despair — for their children, and for themselves.[See his report at his website or at TFE ]

At the RSA presentation, Hamilton showed chart after chart that proved it will be almost impossible to avoid a 2 degrees Celsius average warming and that once temperatures reached 4 degrees higher, runaway climate change would be triggered, making it close to impossible to reverse a trajectory that would make this planet virtually uninhabitable. See Hamilton’s full story on this under “Articles” at

But if coal is the single biggest enemy, it is also the hardest to stop.

Hamilton dismisses the frequent comparisons of the coal industry with the tobacco lobby, which funded so-called scientific studies to cast doubts on the dangers of smoking.

“[The coal industry] is much more powerful than the tobacco lobby, and if you look at the Garnaut Report and Treasury report on the impact of the ETS [emissions trading scheme], both predict expansion of the coal industry in the next decade, not an attempt to close it down,” he says.

It’s a dangerous cocktail of business demands and political support for coal. Even China, with all its determination to become the world’s clean-energy leader, will not be able to halt the growth of emissions until 2030, largely because of coal, Hamilton showed in his RSA presentation.

Yes, we could go onto a war footing, he says: “It’s what we need but we’re not going to get it because we don’t have an enemy massing on our borders.

“[Climate change] is a threat and a disaster creeping up on us but human beings are masters of averting our gaze and that’s what we’re seeing in our political system.”

So why bother? Why take a political route at all?

In an interview with The Fifth Estate recently, Hamilton revealed a frank and bleak assessment of his outlook, for which he has become well known. There is a glimmer of hope but you have to dig for it.

“It seems to me that each of us faces a choice in response to the truly dire warnings of the climate scientists: we can capitulate and become apathetic and do nothing to try to preserve a reasonably liveable planet, or we can try to become more active and take on an obligation to do everything we possibly can to alleviate, or at least delay, the effects of climate change,” he says.

“And clearly whilst despair is natural and even necessary, perhaps we need to move through the despairing phase and attempt to do whatever we can to try to change the political situation.”

How does Hamilton now read the political scene? Does he not agree that the message is finally seeping through?

No chance. “I think it’s getting worse,” he says blankly.

What angers Hamilton is the spin that is placed on the need to balance the competing interests in climate change.

“I was dismayed to hear Mr [Kevin] Rudd say that he had to balance the claims of the coal industry and the climate sceptics against the climate scientists. As if scientists were a lobby group for putting forward ambit claims.

“In Australia, the Rudd Government is more pretense than real commitment in tackling global warming. Its priority is obviously to protect the coal industry when, in truth, we have to phase out burning coal very quickly.

“And of course the Opposition is trying to outdo the Government in protecting the dirty old energy industry.

“I don’t think the major political parties get climate change at all and they don’t listen to what scientists are saying. It’s heartbreaking political betrayal.

“In 20 to 40 years’ time they will look back and say, ‘who is responsible? Who could have acted and failed to in that list of political failures?’”

What about a change of thinking in the voters, or consumers as they are more often known? Here, too, Hamilton worries about token gestures and the massive spin, as he might put it, of believing that individual action by ordinary people can change the course of events.

He has not detected any change in the attitudes of ordinary people because of widespread insulation programs, solar panels and green grants to commercial real estate, he says.
“The serious danger is that these voluntary actions, albeit with incentives, actually work the other way: to reinforce the perception that consumer actions will be sufficient when it’s manifestly a problem that needs government intervention.”

He says it’s a mistake to think that ordinary consumers can make a difference by changing their habits and their buying preferences. This plays right into the hands of the coal industry and their allies, and helps them shift the responsibility off their own shoulders, he argues.

A shift in thinking by the banks, however, could be much more powerful because they have already started to view investments in coal as far too risky.

“The banks and finance sectors certainly should see investment in coal-fired power plants as much more risky because the science of climate change is all going in one direction and that’s a scarier and scarier prognosis,” Hamilton says.

It’s possible that governments could step in and widen their current protection to underwriting the industry. This would be a “craven thing to do”, Hamilton says, but it would be “no surprise”.

“It would be absolutely outrageous if, instead of imposing penalties on coal in order to make other energy sources more competitive, they started to subsidise it. It would be the height of irresponsibility. It would be a betrayal, an attack and a total lack of appreciation of global warming.”

The Government has already shown it will go a long way to protect coal, he says. “We’re already seeing draconian legislation imposing extraordinary penalties on those who set foot inside [coal power stations in Victoria] and really it’s an attempt to protect coal-fired power stations.

“The Federal Government has already shown it is willing to take on the risks of carbon capture and storage.”

Certainly he thinks the days of building new coal-fired power stations may be over. “The political risk of that would be substantial,” he says. “Imagine the protests.”

Ah, an element of hope.

Hamilton concedes there is some progress. “Though I think the politics of climate has stalled for a time, there is no question that there is a drift for demanding government taking more actions will only intensify. It might take five years, it could take five or 10 years, but there’s no question that in several years’ time there will be much more demand on government.”

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