Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What connects Holyoke, Massachusetts, with floods in Australia, and explosions in La Preciosa, Colombia? The answer is coal.

As the January flood waters subsided in Australia the governor of the state of Victoria, medical researcher Professor David de Kretser, pointed the finger directly at climate change. Referring to the spate of record-breaking climate events de Kretser commented “everyone says this week [is a] one in 100, one in 200 years [event] but they are happening pretty much more frequently now.”

Australia’s Greens went further, connecting a few more dots between coal-burning, ocean temperatures, and flooding. In the months preceding the floods record heat had warmed the seas off northern Australia leading to increased evaporation and rainfall, explained the Greens. Then, pointing out that coal is a major contributor to climate change, party leader Senator Bob Brown called on the coal-mining companies to pick up the tab for the flood recovery and other climate-related disasters via a 40% surtax on their profits.

“We know that climate change is due to the burning of fossil fuels, primarily coal,” said Brown. “I’ve called on the Australian Government to ensure that the tax on super profits on the coal industry [should] be levied in full to help the country pay for future flood, bushfire and drought disasters caused by climate change.”

There is no sign that the Australian government will adopt Senator Brown’s proposal, which is hardly surprising in view of the fact that last year when the Prime Minister, Labor’s Kevin Rudd, tried to impose the same tax the mining companies spent $20 million to defeat him. Mr. Rudd is now the former Prime Minister, by the way.

But the floods have certainly had an impact on the availability – and, therefore, the price – of coal. Because flooding inundated so many coal mines and railroads in Australia, the price of coal rose 4.5% in the first week of January. Rising coal prices were good news for mining companies like the one that owns La Preciosa mine in northeastern Colombia, where management has long been cutting corners on safety measures. An explosion (the second in four years) tore through the mine at La Preciosa on Wednesday, January 26, killing 21 mineworkers. Today (Tuesday, February 1) another blast killed five more miners, this time at La Escondida coal mine, north of Bogota, Colombia.

Last year, more than 100 Colombian coal-miners died at work. Just five weeks into 2011, the death toll already stands at 26. Other than the ties that bind us all together as humans, what do these deaths in Colombia have to do with us in Massachusetts? The connector is coal: The coal we burn at Mount Tom, Holyoke, comes from Colombia.

How does the coal get from Colombia to Massachusetts? Helpfully, the Wall Street Journal provides the names of the major companies that own coal mines in Colombia. One of them is BHP Billiton, an Australian company that dedicated $4 million to crushing Kevin Rudd’s surtax proposal. BHP Billiton’s shares were up 0.8% today. Others include Xstrata (up 1.26%) and Anglo American (also up by more than 1%).

As connect-the-dots puzzles go, this one is not very elaborate. GDF Suez imports Colombian coal from companies like BHP Billiton. It burns the coal in power stations like Mount Tom, Holyoke. A lackadaisical approach to workplace safety in Colombia leads to the deaths of miners, and a cavalier attitude to climate safety leads to floods in Australia. What are the common factors joining the Australian and Colombian tragedies? We are. And we are doing something about it.

Let’s ponder the dots connecting our Massachusetts campaign for climate justice to the floods in Australia and the struggle for workers’ rights in Colombia. When we join the dots together and look at the picture, we see that ours is a just cause.

If you want to take action right now and do something to stop GDF Suez burning coal at Mount Tom, sign this petition in support of the Act to Phase Out Coal-Burning in Massachusetts. The proposed law would force power companies to move beyond coal, either by retiring their coal-burning plants or repowering them to run on cleaner energy.

Will signing an online petition fix the problem? No. But it's one step. And if you would like to do more, let me know: email peter@petervickery.com.

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