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Coal Companies and the Media Need to Wake up and Smell the Smoke

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The Debate | Opinion

Coal Companies and the Media Need to Wake up and Smell the Smoke

Record profits for coal companies shouldn’t be reported on without the necessary climate context.

Coal Companies and the Media Need to Wake up and Smell the Smoke
Credit: Depositphotos

Sometimes it seems as if I am living in a parallel universe. 

Late last week, Whitehaven Coal, one of Australia’s largest coal miners, announced record profits and forecast growth plans completely incompatible with global climate goals. Yet not a single media outlet writing on the subject mentioned climate change.

Something is wrong with the media business. Why would media outlets and journalists be silent on climate when writing about coal on the same day the Australian government’s 2023 Intergenerational Report estimated that the country’s economy faces $423 billion in loss of productivity in coming decades due to climate change?

Has much changed since the day former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison brandished a lump of coal in Parliament? 

Surely it’s time for some balance in the conversation about whether thermal coal has any place or viability in the future of Australia’s economy. After all, climate change is one of the biggest threats to the future profits of all businesses. Indeed, an increasing number of coal company shareholders are requesting that cash be returned to investors rather than wasted on expensive, polluting new projects. It’s sensible economics.

It’s also rational to speed up the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, playing a key role in preventing ever worsening and costly climate catastrophes.

The same day that Canadian political leaders thanked Australian firefighters for helping battle the worst bushfires in the country’s history, Whitehaven executives discussed plans to ramp up production of the world’s dirtiest energy source. Those plans will add more carbon emissions to the heating atmosphere for decades to come.

The same day families in the U.S. state of Hawaii mourned their dead while others searched through the ashes for the missing, Australian media companies omitted the fact that shareholders are calling for Whitehaven to turn its coal expansion plans around because the fossil fuel must be phased out to tackle climate change.

The same day more people died in record heatwaves and fires across Greece and southern Europe, media played a game of speculating about Whitehaven coal’s growth options. There was no mention of emissions; no mention of climate change.

This narrative must change. Editors and reporters need to take more responsibility for providing a balanced, well-rounded picture of the current and future status of the coal industry.

The fossil fuel sector does not live in a vacuum. Expansion of coal, oil, and gas comes with the unfathomable cost of abandoning climate targets, which science confirms must be met if we are to avoid the worst impacts of global heating.

Climate change is like the elephant in the room for the coal industry. The writing is on the wall; in fact the house is on fire. Yet coal executives are carrying on as if it’s business as usual and most media are failing to call them out on this big deception.

There is nothing usual about the worst ever fires, floods, and heatwaves shattering records worldwide. Coal companies must be held to account for their contribution to global heating.

Fifty years ago, Australia rode on the back of sheep exports. In recent decades, coal and gas along with iron ore have become the major earners in overseas markets. But this must change. Combustion of Australian-produced fossil fuels generated at least 5 percent of all world sources of global emissions, according to Climate Analytics’ most recent research from 2019. And fossil fuel exports are climbing. 

Yet Australia has the potential to reduce global emissions by up to 8 percent by tapping the country’s advantage in solar and wind energy, and green hydrogen to produce green iron, agricultural products and other more sustainable industries, according to the Superpower Institute.

Much more investment and urgent effort is needed to boost renewable energy generation, storage, and infrastructure, according to a report released this week by the Clean Energy Council. Experts and business leaders agree that Australia has the resources to become a renewable energy superpower. The International Energy Agency forecasts Australia’s renewable energy capacity to expand by 85 percent by 2027, helped by ambitious new targets and increased clean energy funding by state and federal governments. There must be a faster shift away from fossil fuels to an economy based on renewable energy and more sustainable industries.

Australia faces one of its most dangerous bushfire seasons in many years, fueled by global heating. Fire chiefs have sounded the warning. Our economies and lives depend on facing and fixing this hot mess.