Lithgow is ringed by destruction. The apocalyptic wildfires that swept across much of Australia have turned the eucalyptus forests around the mining town near Sydney’s Blue Mountains into valleys of ghostly black poles.
So fierce was the blaze that the fires still burnt when the Financial Times visited weeks later. At least five “chitters” — mounds of waste from previous mines — were smouldering and spitting sulphur close to homes where children played. “Be careful where you put your foot or you might lose it!” warned resident Rod Taylor.
Ray Thompson, Lithgow mayor, described the December 21 inferno as “like an atomic bomb going off”. But he also fiercely rejects demands for Australia to close the coal mines that contribute to carbon emissions and global warming.
“I’m one of the people that believes the climate is changing . . . [but] if we close our coal mines down, they’re going to buy coal elsewhere,” said Mr Thompson, a former miner. “You can’t live without an economy.”
Australia is the new global climate change villain. Critics accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National coalition of frustrating global action to lower greenhouse gas emissions at the UN climate summit in Madrid late last year. His senior ministers have regularly slammed those who link the devastating blazes to climate change — contrary to scientific opinion.
But the influence of the powerful mining lobby on Australia’s politicians and the economy’s dependence on minerals — evident in Lithgow, a stronghold of the ruling conservatives — underscores the government’s reluctance to rapidly shift away from coal and pursue more ambitious climate targets.
“The coal lobby is very powerful, whether it is exerted through the Minerals Council or directly through various entrepreneurs, donors to the Liberal and National parties,” said Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister. The Minerals Council of Australia is the country’s main industry lobby group.
Fossil fuel companies donated at least A$85m (US$57m) to Australia’s political parties ahead of what was a knife-edge general election in May — a record figure that green campaigners say blocks effective climate action.
A company controlled by mining mogul Clive Palmer donated A$83.6m to the billionaire’s own political party ahead of the poll. He later did a vote transfer deal with Mr Morrison’s Liberals, which helped them to get elected.
Woodside, a gas producer that successfully lobbied against curbing emissions from big projects, donated A$283,340 to the coalition and opposition Labor in the year to June while Chevron, the US oil major, and Indian miner Adani were among a host of fossil-fuel companies to also donate money.
“This data explains why, even in the face of a rolling national emergency driven by climate change . . . the government continues to defend and promote the industries that are the root cause of the problem,” said Matt Rose, of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Attempts by a succession of Australian prime ministers to introduce measures to cut emissions or increase taxes on mining have been hampered. Mr Turnbull was removed by his own party, and replaced by Mr Morrison, after proposing an energy scheme that included emissions reduction targets.
Internationally, Australia is accused of siding with the likes of Brazil, India and China to thwart global efforts to reduce emissions under the Paris climate deal. Canberra also refuses to rule out using “carry-over credits” from the Kyoto protocol more than 20 years ago when requirements were less onerous.
“You can imagine how ironic that appears to the rest of the world as they see Australia now plainly in the front of the consequences of climate change,” Mr Turnbull said, referring to the wildfires.
As the fires raged, Mr Morrison defended his government’s stance on climate change, making the point that Australia’s 1.3 per cent direct contribution to global carbon emissions was small. He has also stressed that reducing coal exports would badly damage the economy. Coal was Australia’s most valuable export in 2018, equivalent to 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product.
“I wouldn’t say [the mining lobby has a] disproportionate influence, I would say it reflects a material sense of the significance of that sector . . . to the Australian economy,” said Patrick Suckling, former Australian environment ambassador.
He said it was unfair that Australia had become a “global whipping boy” for climate change when fossil fuels made up 80 per cent of the world’s energy mix.
The Minerals Council pointed out in a statement that green technologies such as solar required materials from the mining sector and that it supported action to meet the Paris accord.
One sector that has been badly damaged — as images of burning forests and smoke-obscured Sydney were beamed around the globe — is tourism, which employs many more Australians than mining.
“Perhaps at times we just haven’t had that weight of finances behind us,” said Simon Westaway, head of the country’s tourism lobby. “Whereas the minerals sector is very well resourced and . . . more adept at government engagement.”
Any changes in policy, however, will come too late for the 33 people who died in the wildfires, the thousands who lost their homes or the estimated 1bn animals that have also perished. “Nothing can survive,” said Lynleigh Greig, a volunteer from a Sydney charity helping the animal rescue efforts in Lithgow. “Even the ones you come across can often be so badly burnt . . . it feels futile.”