Coal mining communities in the Hunter Valley and Latrobe Valley are keen to transition away from an industry has no long-term future, says visiting American environmentalist Bob Massie.

Speaking to Crikey towards the end of a two-week speaking tour, Massie said he had been “very moved” by the reception he received in Newcastle and Morwell, where he gave lectures to audiences including mining families.

“They are eager for a well-organised transition to take place,” said Massie. “They know coal is coming to an end. I’ve actually run into very little criticism. I did not discover a radical ‘jobs versus environment’ argument. It’s an invention of politicians to polarise people. There is an understanding there needs to be a transition, and they are wanting to be a part of it. Communities are saying, ‘don’t let us just be dropped’.”

Massie, an ordained minister, Harvard Business School PhD and unsuccessful Democratic Senate candidate in 2011, has had a distinguished career campaigning for business sustainability including as onetime president of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), co-founder of the UN-backed Global Reporting Initiative and initiator of the Investor Network on Climate Risk, which now claims over 100 member companies, and funds and combined assets over $11 trillion.

On his first trip to Australia, Massie says he found communities in the coal regions disillusioned after job cuts following power-industry privatisation, and the Latrobe Valley was still reeling from the recent Hazelwood mine fire.

Massie says if federal and state governments were to offer a well-planned and funded transition away from coal, including retraining and mine remediation, “there might be more support than they suspect”.

In NSW, however, on the weekend The Sydney Morning Herald revealed plans for 16 new or expanded coal mines covering an extra 45,000 hectares in the Upper Hunter Valley. In Victoria, new Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio has been speaking with Latrobe Valley workers and business groups about assistance to diversify the local economy, and support for renewables, but union and mining industry spokespeople are still talking about growth in the coal sector.

Massie did not have time to meet with state governments but did meet with Australian Greens leader Christine Milne and Labor environment spokesman Mark Butler. Climate group 350.org, which organised the tour, tried to arrange meetings with the federal government, but Massie said “apparently they’re not wild keen to hear my message”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “coal is good for humanity” comments have been widely replayed, and the federal government is pushing hard to open up a new thermal coal province in Queensland’s Galilee Basin — with New York consul-general, climate sceptic and former Coalition industry minister Nick Minchin lobbying Wall Street banks, which have reportedly refused to fund the expansion of Abbot Point coal export terminal.

Massie, who has been closely involved in the fossil fuels divestment movement, says Minchin will find those banks are under specific pressure over the financing of Abbot Point from their own big shareholders.

“There are 10 or 12 major investors — some religious, some pension funds — that are trying to block the Galilee Basin. I’m sure he is going to do his best — he may be a very persuasive guy — but there are objective forces, human forces, against him.”

Peter Fray

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