Driving along the winding highways and roads that led to Mudgee last week was a study in contrasts. Coming from the Hunter to the Central Tablelands led us along the New England and Golden highways first, a set of roads taking you past the lunar landscape created by the overburden from the mines near Singleton and Jerrys Plains.
An hour later we turned onto the Bylong Valley Way. Appreciating this extraordinarily beautiful bit of country was tinged with the sadness of why we drove through it in the first place, and the hope that this valley will not come to resemble the barren stacks of mine waste we had passed by earlier.
In October, the State Department of Planning and Environment approved construction of a new mine in the Bylong Valley, to be owned and operated by the South Korean energy company KEPCO over 25 years.
Last Wednesday was the final opportunity for public consultation on the project: a meeting of the Independent Planning Commission to seek public feedback.
I attended to speak for Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), a non-profit grassroots organisation that works for the recognition of the public health impact from environmental degradation. And the public health impact of the Bylong Coal Project, and any expansion of coal mining in Australia, is alarming.
In years past, DEA has spoken to countless planning commissions and made submissions to state governments about the health impacts of coal and mining. We’ve addressed the impact that pollution to our air and water has on human health. But the evidence is louder and louder that the greatest public health threat of our time is climate change – and that our public institutions are unprepared to assess and manage it.
Climate change is a public health emergency. It affects us in obvious and subtle ways. You don’t have to be a doctor to recognise that increasing heat is going to affect us as surface temperatures inch up year by year, with more very hot days increasing the odds of dehydration and kidney failure. It’s always people on the margins who are most at risk: the very young, very old, and those with poor access to healthcare will feel the heat most.
Climate change is a public health emergency.
Even more alarming is the lack of notice the state government took of this unfolding public health emergency, shown by its approval of a new coal mine for NSW. There are few scant paragraphs with boilerplate reference to the NSW Climate Change Policy Framework. The policy neatly avoids the issue of how to deal with the climate change issue of exported coal by failing to mention it altogether.
Amazingly, the government’s approach to the impact of coal mined here is that if it is not burned here, it won’t affect us. We know this is not the case. We know, with increasing clarity year by year, that Australia is critically vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures. Ninety eight per cent of the state is in drought, a situation that the CSIRO has noted is in part due to climate change.
When food becomes scarce, it becomes more expensive, and people find it hard to live a healthy nutritious lifestyle. We know that more people die on very hot days, and more very hot days are coming. Natural disaster events are more likely with increasing climate change, and these can result in a range of negative health outcomes, from the trauma of the initial disaster, pollution from air and water and disruption to normal health service access. Infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever will have different habitats as the climate changes. And, not least, we know too that the mental health of the global populace is suffering due to climate change.
It’s amid this doom and gloom that we know, following the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that there is a “least bad” option should humanity choose it. If we can reduce carbon emissions starting over the next decade and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, there is a chance to keep the overall temperature rise from the pre-industrial age to 1.5 degrees C. The consequences of inaction, and a temperature rise closer to 2 degrees C, would present us with a starkly different future with even more dramatically negative health outcomes.
In the face of the evidence that we need to spend the next three decades reducing our emissions, the approval of a 25-year coal mine looks so starkly negligent. Over 200 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases will be released from Bylong Coal under the proposed project, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s burned in Korea or Australia – we’ll feel it all the same.
If the assessment of coal projects can’t take into account the impact on the greatest public health threat of the 21st century, we no longer have a planning process that works in the public interest.