When coal burns

In The Art of Travel, 4. Politics, Sydney by Sasha3 Comments

North of the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland lies the site of Adani, a proposed coal mine. A $16.5 billion investment, the mine would produce 60 million tonnes of coal per year and rank as one of the largest coal mines in the world. Adani Group, the entity putting the project in motion, claims that the mine will be economically fruitful.

About 800 km north of the site, the Great Barrier Reef, which many consider to be Australia’s greatest treasure, adorns the beaches of Cairns. Tourists snorkel. Corals and bivalves maintain symbiotic relationships. Clownfish and lemon sharks swim. The reef can be seen from outer space, its 600 species of coral like specks of fractured glass.

Coal is formed in swampy environments when dead plant matter undergoes about 300 million years of heat and pressure. This is to say that a piece of coal, that seemingly innocuous black rock, is dense with the temporal accumulation of carbon-rich materials. Like shrink wrapped clothes tucked under a bed, coal holds more than it appears to.

When coal burns, the contained carbon is emitted as carbon dioxide. This carbon is the reason coal has an energy potential, but like most things, it does not come without externalities. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, carbon dioxide emissions, primarily from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes, account for 65% of global greenhouse gas emissions. When carbon molecules are released into the atmosphere, they ‘trap’ heat, causing the planet’s temperature to rise. As the earth heats up, ice melts and sea levels rise, weather conditions become more extreme, and oceans warm and acidify.

As oceans warm, corals bleach, or lose the vital zooxanthellae in their tissue. As oceans acidify, corals cannot absorb enough calcium carbonate to maintain their skeleton. Consequently, an ecosystem pulsating with life becomes something like a ghost town.

Researchers estimate that over 20% of the Great Barrier Reef is dead, and the rest could be entirely extinct by 2050. Beyond the reef’s obvious aesthetic value, it is important to consider the severe economic and environmental implications of its demise. Some poor island nations nations rely on reefs for up to 80 percent of their GDP, whether via tourism or fishing. Unhealthy corals cannot support healthy fish communities, which disrupts the well-being of marine ecosystems. Coral reefs are carbon sinks—organisms with the ability to store carbon—storing about 2% of the anthropogenic CO2 output. As corals perish, their carbon-carrying capacity diminishes.

That we are able and willing to destroy something so beautiful, generous, and useful warrants some contemplation of ideas around ‘value.’ In a (mostly) capitalist world economy, all that yields economic progress and development at the lowest possible input cost is deemed valuable. Untapped coal and oil fields are valuable, but a forest with carbon-storing, oxygen-releasing trees is not; we prove this when we cut those trees down to make room cattle ranches and to collect timber for consumer items. Similarly, to burn coal transcends a healthy reef in terms of ‘value.’ And for what? So that we can eat palm-oil containing snacks and power our iPhones to play Candy Crush and keep the thermostat at the most comfortable temperature?

When coal burns, it is slowly violent. Nature has a delayed but vicious type of agency; everything is alright until it isn’t. The ruin of the Great Barrier Reef is an appealing anecdote because we can see it, and the loss of beauty is poignant. All that we cannot see is harsher, mostly because we exploit the invisibilitywe cannot see the nitrogen imbalance in soil, or the depletion of groundwater, or the melting of polar ice with high surface albedo. These are processes that will pose an existential threat to humanity in the coming decades. Most people, especially those privileged enough to afford invisibility, are only vaguely aware that these processes are occurring.

Australia is the most viscerally stunning place I’ve ever seen. To put that magnificence at risk, along with the systems which support life on earth is, in my opinion, plainly idiotic. The Australian affinity with coal has come as a surprise, because the adverse impacts of its use should be obvious enough to motivate the pursuit of alternative options. As David Foster Wallace once said, “the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” I hope that the Australian government can overcome the difficulty involved with seeing and talking about these realities.

(Image: Coal; Source: US News Money)


  1. Sasha, this is so beautifully written, and you focus on such a pressing and important issue. I love how this is filled with facts and stats but you make it easy to understand at the same time. I also loved the way you opened this post– it drew me in immediately!! Reading this gave me a whole new level of understanding on an issue I thought I had known about. Keep up the good work 🙂

  2. Your words, “When coal burns, it is slowly violent,” really stuck with me. My province in Canada, Ontario, is one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban coal. When I was growing up however, there was a massive coal-fired power plant proposed in the same neighbourhood as my brother’s school (yes, a power plant in a totally residential area…. crazy, right?) It was amazing to see how some people could put aside concern for the environment, air quality, or safety, because they assumed that we “must need the energy.” Thankfully, the power plant didn’t go ahead, but it is interesting to me how people put blind faith in the necessity and supposed convenience of these traditional but insidious practices. Disappointing to hear that this is happening in Australia, particularly in such a rich ecosystem.

  3. So I copied down “When coal burns, it is slowly violent” and then scrolled down to see the above comment. But really, it stuck with me, too. I think your post discusses the idea of value really well, and I would add that the idea of violence is also really relevant here. This is another example of power leveraging violence against the vulnerable and the marginalized: the reef, which obviously cannot defend itself, and the communities which rely on it and have largely (and often purposefully) been excluded from economic development as the rest of us know it.

Leave a Comment