1) Coal usage and burning is the problem, not coal itself.
People often write as if coal has imperatives in itself. If this was so, then everywhere with coal would have the same trajectory as happened in the UK. This did not happen independently, but as a matter of emulation and conflict. Taking coal as having imperatives, may move us into technological determinism, and coal useage is political at many levels.
2) If a post-coal future is to arrive, it will arrive through political struggle
Politics, to a large extent, is about people in struggle using narratives and scripts, where scripts are semi-automatic formulations and associations of ideas and actions.
Politics involves persuasion – whether this is through words and ideas, through force, or the imposition of risk for dissent.
Various groups argue about the meaning and value of coal. In other words the value of coal is tied to the meaning of coal, which is tied to a family of scripts or narratives which are being used to change, or reinforce, that meaning.
Without reinforcement of established meaning and action, there would be no struggle.
3) In considering the politics of coal, we are exploring how the meaning and value of coal can be challenged and change.
This ongoing political struggle is why commodities are not “stable entities.” For example, ivory, slaves, uranium. Commodities are unstable in capitalism anyway; very few people buy typewriters nowadays – and if they do, they do so because the typewriters are ‘collectable’ not high-tech.
Coal is not inherently valuable, useful or whatever. For example, it can be classified as dirty, poisonous, dangerous, and old-fashioned.
An item only becomes a commodity in a particular type of pattern of social action.
4) Coal is burnt because of:
5) This recognition implies that: Economic relations are fundamentally political and about meaning.
6) The State is not monolithic.
There is struggle in the State, as elsewhere, which is why scripts, policies, and markets, can change. The state is a site of legitimate conflict. It gains its power like everything else gains power, through a combination of violence, wealth, persuasion, organization, communication etc.
7) Developmentalism can be a tricky term. Not all developmentalisms are the same. However, the type of developmentalism we are describing, means aiming for material prosperity, economic growth, emulation of Western nation-states in terms of power and prosperity, ‘modernity’ and military power/security.
Those forms of life which are classed as traditional which impede this ‘progress’ are classified as obstacles to be sacrificed for the greater good.
Cheap and plentiful energy is at the heart of development, as is steel production. Hence importing, production and burning of coal has been a key developmentalist operator.
8) Relationships between developmentalist states spur developmentalism.
9) The expansion of thermal coal production and burning occurs in response to these scripts, and relationships, of development.
Reducing thermal coal apparently could leave people in life-threatening poverty, unhinge the eternal increase of development, and weaken the State with respect to other States.
10) The main conflict or struggle is between:
There can be alliances between b and c, but not necessarily.
Groups in c, can lift local struggles into the national and even international field.
Alliance between b and c, is potentially useful, unless people in b feel it alienates them from the holders of State power, or attracts State hostility or State support of the mining companies.
11) The force in ideas arises because people use them, or because they reinforce, or challenge, a way of life or way of dominance.
People often write about things like the contradiction between ideas of coal use and climate policy, as if the ideas have force.
But the force in ideas comes from struggle between people with different ideas. These ideas were developed or utilised in that struggle, or in the politics before the struggle.
For example, arguments do not become ‘anachronistic’ (this is an evaluation which assumes that the change is happening), they become challenged by other people.
When making an analysis, reported statements should be anchored in the groups making them. Statements do not exist without context or makers.
12) That climate change is happening could be irrelevant to coal use, without the idea of climate change being used by politically active groups opposed to coal use.
In other words coal supporters do not have to necessarily worry about pollution or climate change; they can just keep burning and denying, or not recognizing, the problems. Just as renewable energy people do not have to see the problems that come with particular organizations of renewable energy.
People who are opposed to coal “in their backyards”, do not have to care about climate change. So people who do care about climate change, need to be careful not to make everything about climate change, and alienate these people. Both groups are opposed to more coal mining and/or burning.
13) Climate change often seems used as a mode of ‘Framing’ arguments and attempting to change meanings.
While climate change is real, it is also part of the mode of scripting used by some of those opposed to coal.
‘Pro-capitalist or neoliberal economics’ and ‘Development’ are also ways of framing the argument. These framings are used to favour coal use, the profit of particular groups of companies, and reinforce the established meanings of coal as commodity and useful resource.
People who use these economic or developmental framings tend to suppress awareness of the destructive parts of actual developmental and economic processes as part of their politics and framing.
Hence it is useful for opponents to emphasise those necessarily destructive parts: ‘sacrifice of the less powerful for the general good’, or more theoretically, ‘accumulation by dispossession’ ‘capitalisation of nature,’ Luxemburg’s vision of capitalist ‘primitive accumulation’ as ongoing, etc.
14) There is no apparent consensus on climate change and policy.
This is despite the science and political necessities of survival appearing clear.
That is why there is struggle going on.
If there was consensus, there may well be no need for struggle.
I think it is clear the Australian government does not worry about climate science as a reality, only as an argument it needs to dismiss, and as pointing to people it would like to suppress.
Likewise I’m not sure that the Australian government recognises transition as a necessity or is arguing that transition should happen later on, when we are ready. it may well prefer to stop transition. Likewise, in Australia Labor seems to be moving to a ‘do little’ and support coal mines position.
While some coal mines have been stopped, not all mining has been stopped. The Adani mine is being speedily approved. New coal mines are opening in NSW and QLD for example, despite water problems, and the Australian Resources Minister Matthew Canavan is aiming to promote the sale of an additional 37 million tonnes of coal. He said:
That is the equivalent of three or four new Adani Carmichael–sized coal mines. If this investment occurred in the Galilee Basin, it would open up a new, sustainably-sized coal basin in Queensland.
Villages seem to be continuing to be destroyed in Germany to make way for coal.
Trump is actively encouraging pollution, ostensibly for economic/developmental purposes. He does not accept any climate consensus, unless the consensus is “burn away and be damned”
China is actively encouraging coal power in the rest of the developing world.
Coal, itself, has probably not been ‘discredited’ in India by the corrupted privatisation process. Some people may have utilised this position in political struggles. Others used it to redistribute coal licenses to other companies – and the second process seems to have been more effective.
Forests are still being cleared for coal, and villagers thrust into heavy pollution or complete loss of land.
India would, at best, seem to be ambiguous. Sure they have a good renewables programme, they also have an increase coal programme.
It is pretty clear by now, that IEA recommendations for a decline in coal consumption by 2020 will not happen in most of the world.
We cannot ignore this if we want to understand what is going on, and the stakes involved. Yet many people opposed to climate change talk as if there was a real and universal consensus. This is not correct.
15) The fight is not won.
It is not inconceivable that the appeal of known scripts of development and profit will win out over the appeal of survival until it is way too late.
16) The politics of waiting works both ways.
While the strategy of delay has been used by coal protestors, in the hope that the mine will become uneconomical, as the problems of climate change become clearer, the politics of waiting work both ways. Companies can wait until protest becomes unfocused, or people assume that no one can be crazy enough to open a mine, and then move in and open up those mines or whatever. We have been waiting for climate action for decades. Waiting is not just an anti-coal strategy.
17) Solar and wind power use is small throughout the world
When people are discussing transition to renewables they need to be careful, as biofuels are often classed as renewables, although they are not as clearly beneficial, and this hides the low level of progression towards transition to solar and wind.
For example in the Key World Energy Statistics for 2017 the IEA points out that only 1.5% of World total primary energy supply by fuel is “geothermal, solar, wind, tide/wave/ocean, heat,” 2.5% is hydro and 9.7% is biofuel.
If you look at ‘Electricity generation by source’, in the same publication, then, 7.1% of Electricity is generated by “non-hydro renewables” – this includes biofuels – it is not just solar and wind.
Elsewhere they say: “Modern bioenergy (excluding the traditional use of biomass) was responsible for half of all renewable energy consumed in 2017 – it provided four times the contribution of solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind combined.”
So the percentage of low GHG renewables is tiny. It could appear that currently there is no significant move to solar or wind throughout the world, only in certain places.
This makes the struggle even more important, but it does not make it easy.