Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some Hope Wildfires Will Change Australia's Relationship With Coal


Despite some recent rain, scores of fires are continuing to burn across Australia. And there is still a lot of fire season to go. Millions of Australians have already been affected by the unprecedented blazes. And as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, some hope this will change the country's relationship with one of its biggest and most controversial exports - coal.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Unlike in the U.S., coal is still king in Australia. The country generates roughly three-quarters of its electricity by burning the carbon-heavy fossil fuel. Here in the U.S., that figure is closer to one-quarter. But the real place that you'll see coal's power in Australia is in the country's list of exports.

ROD CAMPBELL: Australia has a larger share of the traded coal market than Saudi Arabia has of the traded oil market.

ROTT: Rod Campbell is with the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank down under.

CAMPBELL: So we are essentially the Saudi Arabia of coal, and our government is desperately trying to increase our coal exports.

ROTT: Last June, the government approved the construction of a coal mine in the country's northeast corner that developers had said would be one of the biggest in the world. A few months later, the bushfires broke out, adding heat to an already broiling fight over the project and the bigger debate around climate change.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Hey-hey, ho-ho - ScoMo has got to go. Hey-hey, ho-ho...

ROTT: Protests against the country's coal-friendly Prime Minister Scott Morrison - or ScoMo, as the protesters call him - have sprung up in cities around the country, with marchers holding signs that read climate emergency and koalas, not coal. In a recent interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Morrison said his government will work to reduce climate warming emissions. But, he added, it would do so...


PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: Without writing off, you know, $70 billion industries on which regional Australians depend on for their livelihood.

ROTT: That figure being roughly how much the country makes every year exporting its coal, mainly to fast-growing Asian markets. Energy analysts say that demand isn't going anywhere, at least in the short term. But climate experts say, as the bushfires make clear, action is needed right now. Here's Rachel Cleetus with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

RACHEL CLEETUS: We have a window that's fast closing in terms of trying to avert some of these very, very serious climate impacts.

ROTT: Cleetus says a transition away from coal is going to be complicated, as we've seen here in the U.S.

CLEETUS: In a country like Australia, where there are a lot of jobs that depend on the fossil fuel industry, it's not something that can happen without some careful policy intervention from the government.

ROTT: The question is whether that policy intervention will actually happen. A recent survey shows the bushfires are making Australians more concerned about climate change. But a majority of Australians already believed global warming was a major threat. So environmental groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation are now trying to help people connect the dots. Here's Gavan McFadzean.

GAVAN MCFADZEAN: The task we've got is to make sure that people understand what's causing climate change and the fact that the digging up and burning of coal, either for domestic use or for export, is the major driver.

ROTT: McFadzean says he doesn't expect to see change overnight. Plans for Australia's major coal mines show no sign of slowing. But he says, devastating as the bushfires are, they do provide a great opportunity to change public opinion about fossil fuel projects down the road.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.


Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.