A Guide to Talking to Coal Miners About Climate Change

If you cop abuse, don't take it personally.

In 13 years of climate activism, I’ve done a lot of the same things: been to protests, signed petitions, shared things I was angry about on social media, and even made a career for myself making documentaries about climate impacts. 

But I’ve been really frustrated. Because a lot of the time it feels like nothing is changing. Certainly not enough to halt the unfolding climate catastrophe, and certainly not in my country, Australia, where the coal industry is still so powerful. 

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So I decided I had to do something different. I traveled to Australia’s climate battlegrounds in central Queensland, to talk to coal miners directly and find out if there was any way we could work together. 

Here’s a basic guide on what to expect if you decide to tackle any of this yourself.

If you cop abuse, don’t take it personally.

Waiting on anyone willing to chat about climate change.

Setting off on my journey was a little scary. I’d never spoken to a coal miner before, despite many years of trying to shut the industry down, and I’d seen the clashes between coal miners and activists - like in Clermont in 2019 when the Stop Adani Convoy was greeted by vitriol and violence.

Lisa Maree Williams

But I still needed to try, because protecting coal mining jobs has been the main argument the Australian government has used to prevent climate action. So if coal miners could work with climate activists on an energy transition, we’d have no reason not to do it.

But, yeah, some of the responses were kind of heavy if you’re a bit of a greenie. My conversations with three guys in particular are still stuck in my mind.

“Get all them greenies and bundle them all together and shove them down, plug the volcano with them,” John Klaus, a knife making ex-coal miner in Collinsville, told me. “Climate change? It’s bullshit.”

Kim Paul Nguyen

“To get political, I hope that they run the greenies off a cliff,” Warren Whitton, another ex-miner, said.

Kim Paul Nguyen

“I think ‘Black Coal Matters’ is way more important than criminals dying in jails,” said Roger Vine, the owner of the Commercial Hotel in Clermont, drinking a glass of whiskey in front of the Black Coal Matters sticker on his pub van.

Kim Paul Nguyen

For most of these guys, it seemed part of a tough facade they put on to show which side they were on. Most of the time, as we kept talking, the facade would fall away.

Listen to their coal mining story.

Through the heart of Australia’s coal country, from Clermont to Collinsville, people told me their stories about how they ended up with a job in the coal mining industry and what it had been like. 

If I’m honest, it was actually really interesting. Most were from multigenerational coal mining families and didn’t know anything else. 

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They were proud of their fathers and grandfathers who’d worked in awful conditions underground, when wages were low and fatal accidents frequent, who’d unionised and fought the mine owners to get the pay and safety rules the miners have now. 

Brett Murphy, the President of Collinsville’s Coalface Experience, said the town was known as Little Moscow back in the 30s and 40s because so many miners were in the Communist Party.

Kim Paul Nguyen

It doesn’t seem like Communists have much presence anymore, but the miners are still very proud of the role they’ve played in powering the world the last 100 years. 

I think they appreciated my genuine interest. It made them feel valued, respected and worth something, and that really helped when I tried to challenge them later on.

Explore how the industry is fucking them over.

As much as they were proud of the past and the importance of coal, people were really angry about the way the industry had been treating them in recent times. 

I’d heard so much about the mining boom and nouveau-riche miners I expected the coal mining towns to be flush with money. They’re not. Most of them are collapsing. 

Brett Murphy worked in the mines for 35 years before buying a service station. The price of egg and bacon rolls is still etched on a blackboard and the slushie machine still propped on the counter. But Brett can barely contain his sadness. 

“What happened was the mining industry went into a slump,” he said. “Price of coal went through the floor, so basically, everything slowed down to such a stage we couldn’t hang on any longer.”

Checking out an abandoned station.

“Yeah, I miss it, I just can’t bring myself to be here,” he said.

At least half of Collinsville’s shopfronts are empty and many of their houses are for sale. But even for dirt cheap, no one is buying. With so few permanent coal mining jobs the town’s population just keeps shrinking.

Houses for sale.

Most miners are now casual, non-union labour-hire, who fly-in or drive-in and out, and stay in work camps for the duration of their 7-day shifts. They don’t spend any of their income in the nearby towns. And with coal prices swinging up and down so dramatically - and so often - the miners have no idea when they’ll get or lose work.

Then there are the health impacts of breathing in the coal dust, which causes Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (otherwise known as ‘black lung’). Elaine Batchelor, a local in her 80s, has lived in Collinsville all her life in a family full of coal miners. “I’m always coughing,” she told me. “I  cough every afternoon. I used to get around with a mask on. Wouldn’t be so bad now because everyone has had to wear a mask the past year.”

Talking about this stuff, a lot of the miners are keen to leave the industry anyway, even before any mention of climate change.

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“A lot of people would just jump ship,” says Herb Koppensteiner, who operates one of the massive coal-digging machines. “If they get paid the same money for doing something else that was a cleaner job, they’d jump at it.”

Kim Paul Nguyen

Challenge their evidence on climate matters (or lack of it).

When I finally ask about climate change, the responses are quick and brutal. 

“It’s a big money-grabbing fraud,” says Herb. 

“I think it’s the biggest rort in the world. The biggest scam in the world, man,” says his best mate Chappy.

Ashley Murphy, Brett’s 30-something-year-old son - the youngest coal miner I met - tells me “The climate is changing.”

“But whether it is caused by us, and whether it’s a bad thing or not?” He just shrugs.

It’s when I ask about their information sources that things get interesting. 

“I do believe that we’re affecting the climate, we have to be with the amount of industry,” says Herb, slowly beginning to u-turn on the point he’d made just moments earlier.

“There’s more and more pollution being put in the air.”

When pressed, most of the coal miners admitted they didn’t have evidence the climate wasn’t changing, it was more just a feeling. But they didn’t trust the media or scientific sources that were telling them it was real. This is both a really hard and a really interesting path to follow, as they examine your sources and you examine theirs. I wouldn’t say I convinced anyone that I knew the more “factual” facts, but the process certainly led the coal miners to question why they thought what they thought.

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Clinton McDonald, a labour-hire coal mine worker who rode a horse into the Stop Adani Convoy camp in 2019, knocking a woman over, putting her in hospital, and getting a conviction for assault in the process, tells me he does believe in climate change. 

McDonald thinks this is the last generation of coal-fired power, but was angry at the activists for coming to his town to tell the locals how to live. 

Most of the miners put on a defensive front when climate is first mentioned, but sitting with them, talking it out and examining the evidence meant most of the time the front fell away. 

Look for common ground and something to work on together.

Most of my conversations went for at least an hour. It’s a long time, but it felt worthwhile, because it felt like something had changed, however small. 

Eventually, we tried to identify something we could work on together. Every single person I spoke to (bar Roger) wanted to sit down with climate activists and talk it out. They felt screwed over by the coal companies and the government and wanted to be involved in discussions about their future with anyone who cared, greenies included. They thought that was actually the only way their towns and families had a future. They were crying out for it. 

And that’s the uplifting, hopeful part. But it’s also the hardest. It’s where the real challenge starts. Because what is the plan? What can these coal miners do if they’re not mining coal?

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Before I went on my journey, I thought they could probably swap over to solar farms pretty easily, if only solar farms could be built near enough to the coal mining towns. Well, it turns out they already have been - there are massive solar farms close to both Collinsville and Clermont. They just don’t employ many people.

Coedie McAvoy, an anti-coal mining activist and Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owner of the land on which the controversial Adani Carmichael Coal Mine is being dug, used to be a coal miner himself. 

“You can’t just take their job away from them, because they’ll lose everything,” he said.

“In Queensland, there are over 16,000 unrehabilitated mines. That’s a lot of work. It’s transferable skills. They can rehabilitate all these mines that are around in the country, keep them in their skills and their machinery, but instead of digging up, you’re putting back.”

My time with the coal miners showed me that all of us should be having these conversations, sitting down with the people we disagree with on the biggest issues, listening to them, challenging them and talking it out. If you take the time, there’s a very good chance you will find commonalities, and you might even make friends.

But for climate change, this isn’t a choice. Action has been far too little and too slow for 20 years. We have to do this and we have to have these conversations, so together we can come up with real solutions and put them into practice.

So what are you doing? Go find a coal miner, or that conservative uncle you always avoid at your mum’s birthday parties. Pull up some chairs and start talking.       

Tagged:

Australia, NEW ZEALAND, guide, climate change

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