OPINION

Coal: a dubious friend now a deadly enemy

A power of the past: At what cost to the future do we continue to mine coal?
A power of the past: At what cost to the future do we continue to mine coal?

I grew up around coal.

In my part of Yorkshire great seams of it ran under the sea, and the mines followed for miles underground.

Often after a storm we would go to the beach and scrape "sea coal" into bags.

The coalman came each week with sacks to every house, and it kept us from the cold.

There was iron ore too, and our town was where the Sydney Harbour Bridge was made, and shipped to Australia to be assembled like a giant Meccano set.

All that ended when Margaret Thatcher stopped the subsidies which had propped up the industry in its dying days, not for any climate reason but because of cold, hard economics.

Nobody mines coal in England now.

Nobody's dad dies in his forties with a hacking cough and blackened handkerchief.

All this came back to me when Scott Morrison hefted a lump of coal in parliament, in a stunt for which its fair to guess he will best be remembered.

Because coal today represents death for billions of people.

Coal was once a friend to the human race but those days are gone.

It was never a wholly good friend - the World Health Organisation estimates coal-related deaths - from breathing its residues, not from climate - to be a shocking seven million a year, and they were close to that for most of the 20th century.

But its an entirely different problem - the heating effect of its natural product, CO2 that now alarms almost every scientist on the planet.

Coal is carbon, pure, dense and black.

Burned cleanly it makes carbon dioxide, the gas that wraps our planet in a warm blanket.

Oxygen, by comparison is a kind of summer shirt that lets excess heat escape.

On our neighbouring planet Venus, where carbon dioxide predominates, you can melt lead on the surface of the ground.

Burning coal and oil, along with deforestation, and methane escaping the arctic tundra, will heat up Earth by four degrees in the lifetime of children being born today.

We know that in such heat, agriculture in most countries will collapse, famine will lead to war, and war to massive refugee flows.

One in 100 human beings today is a refugee, but in 50 years that figure will be one in 10.

Both the Brexit disaster, and the Trump ascendancy can be credibly sourced to the ongoing fear of refugees.

Indeed the refugee issue has dominated, possibly even decided, three of our own federal elections.

This summer, bushfires tearing through communities are making refugees out of some of us as well.

If science delivered a miracle, and found a way to capture carbon from the air, compress it densely and put it somewhere safe, with as little energy cost as possible, it would look exactly like coal mining in reverse.

Its the ultimate carbon capture, and all we have to do is leave it where it is.

If we want a world that our kids can live in, then we shouldn't mine another piece of it.

But even a five-year plan to shut it down, with no new mines opened, and the workers cared for properly, would be a reasonable start.

Currently coal employs 0.4 percent of the workforce, and they need help, but so do those in drought-starved farms and waterless communities across the country, and people facing death and destruction from fires.

The countries our coal goes to are harmed by it too - 130 million Indian farmers abandoned their land in the last year due to climate change. Its almost beyond conception how much trouble we are in.

The coal industry has been good for Australia - just as clearing forests was once good.

The problem of being human is of knowing when to stop. In a static world, we would not need politicians at all, and so conversely, in a world that keeps changing, we need them for one core purpose - to manage transitions.

The problem of being human is of knowing when to stop. In a static world, we would not need politicians at all, and so conversely, in a world that keeps changing, we need them for one core purpose - to manage transitions.

We need to take on board expert advice and prepare for the future.

This is where our leaders have failed in their gravest responsibility, and people are dying.

Coal had its time, we can no longer afford its terrible cost.

Steve Biddulph is the author of 10 Things Girls Need Most, Raising Girls, Raising Boys, Complete Secrets of Happy Children, and The New Manhood.