You might have noticed that all of a sudden, Australians are supposed to be appalled by foreign interests getting in the way of us digging up as much coal as we want, thanks very much.
Last weekend the Australian newspaper started running stories based on a “revelation” from the inbox of John Podesta, the chairman of Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.
One email forwarded to Podesta showed the philanthropic group the Sandler Foundation, based in San Francisco, was a funder of Australian group the Sunrise Project. The emails were published by WikiLeaks.
Sunrise, run by the former Greenpeace campaigner John Hepburn, has been involved in supporting some of the court cases brought against proposed coal projects – chiefly, the massive Adani coalmine in Queensland.
According to an editorial in the Australian, “thinking Australians” should be “appalled” by this news.
On the back of these stories, there have been shouts for more transparency, while Turnbull government ministers have used the coverage as a pivot to call for environment groups to be stripped of their charitable status. The climate change impacts of burning coal, meanwhile, have been summarily discounted or ignored.
So let us count the ways that Australians should not be “appalled” and, on the way, examine some of the bald hypocrisy that has been on display this week.
We should start with the way that while the “foreign influence” of a US philanthropic organisation concerned about the impacts of climate change counts as “appalling”, apparently the “foreign influence” exerted by the Indian-owned mining company Adani doesn’t.
This, despite the way Adani has cajoled, wined, dined and lobbied the Queensland government.
Both the Minerals Council of Australia and its regional counterpart the Queensland Resources Council have also been “appalled” at the foreign influence, despite both groups having a board with directors from foreign-owned mining companies and taking annual membership fees from foreign-owned companies.
The Queensland Liberal National party MP George Christensen said he found it “concerning” that Sunrise was getting funding from a foreign source.
“What are their motives? I just think something stinks about this,” he told the Daily Mercury in Mackay.
So Christensen is concerned about foreign funding to support environment groups fighting fossil fuel expansion but is more than happy to have the US-based Heartland Institute pay for his flights and hotel so that he can hang around with climate science deniers in Las Vegas?
Brendan Pearson, the chief executive of the MCA, wrote in the Australian that: “This episode should prompt a rethink of the oversight of environmental groups that operate as charities and that have tax-deductible recipient status.”
Why only “environment groups”? Why not take a look at the tax-deductible recipient status of all charities, such as the Institute of Public Affairs?
I’m picking on that particular Melbourne-based “thinktank”, because it has been producing reports of questionable quality about the “life-saving potential of coal” and, this week, released research claiming legal challenges brought under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act had cost “up to $1.2bn” since 2000.
If we want to pick reports from thinktanks to bolster arguments, then we could point to the Australia Institute’s Great Barrier Bleached report suggesting that about $1bn in tourism income could be lost every year in Queensland if severe bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef continues in the years ahead – bleaching clearly linked to the burning of fossil fuels including coal.
None of the Adani cheerleaders seem bothered about where the IPA’s funding comes from, or how it uses its charitable status.
Like the Australia Institute and most other thinktanks, the IPA does not reveal its funders (because it doesn’t have to) but one supporter is reportedly Gina Rinehart, who holds a stake in another proposed Galilee basin coal project.
Foreign interests? Bad. Potential vested interest? Nah.
Meanwhile, the IPA is using its tax-deductibility status to raise cash for a third edition of its climate science denial book Climate Change: The Facts, with contributions from US-based and UK-based contrarian scientists, alongside the likes of Clive James and Bjørn Lomborg.
Tax breaks for climate science denial? Sure. Tax breaks for fighting the causes of climate change? No way.
One of the fundamental things about climate change and an aspect that makes it such a diabolical bugger is that it does not discriminate.
Once you’ve burned the gas, oil or coal, the waste carbon dioxide mixes in the atmosphere and hangs around for a century or more, impacting people around the globe in all sorts of generally unsavoury ways.
In short, it’s a global problem. That means that “foreign interests” have a legitimate concern if Australian governments want to support the rapid expansion of fossil fuel exports, as they clearly do.
The very existence of United Nations conventions on climate change, to which Australia is a signatory, is the most obvious example of this global interest.
Either the coal boosters really do want to turn Australia into some sort of North Korea that cuts itself off from the rest of the world, or we find ourselves agreeing with the words of George Christensen. Something really does stink, and it’s appalling.