Coalition climate change inaction; nothing has changed

Before the election of the Labor government in 2007, the Hon. Peter Garrett AM was opposition spokesman on the environment. As might be expected from a former President of the Australian Conservation, he was one of the few members of the larger (Liberal and Labor) parties who appreciated the seriousness and urgency of the challenges of global warming. It’s frightening to see how much of a speech he gave in Parliament on 9 October 2006, applies to the new Abbott conservative government.

The Prime Minister [Mr Howard] returned from another overseas trip earlier this year and, following his meeting at the White House and with a backdrop of drought and record temperatures attributed to global warming breaking out world wide, assumed a new role-that of nuclear champion. According to Mr Howard, nuclear energy is a proven clean solution to a problem he had previously failed to respond to but now grudgingly accepts as real—namely, impending climate change caused by spiraling greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet there has never been any indication … that this government is serious about climate change. Its posture has ranged from denial to incremental acknowledgment, with a high degree of scepticism from the PM.

The fact is that Australia, on a per capita basis, produces a lot of greenhouse pollution, and emissions will drastically ramp up over the next 20 years and beyond. And we have the highest per capita emissions of CO2 in the Asia Pacific region—17.2 tonnes per person compared with China’s 2.7. Report after report has identified the likely impacts of rising temperature on our farms, with nearly 40 per cent of this year’s grain harvest expected to be lost due to drought; on our coasts; on our health; and on our natural productive landscapes.

Today’s release of Australia Respond Helping our neighbours fight climate change,[1] by CSIRO scientists for aid and conservation organisations, is further confirmation of the expected impacts of global warming on the way of life of our Pacific neighbours who are struggling to retain a viable existence on their low lying island homes. It shows their future is now literally in jeopardy, and ours soon will be too.

But as things stand the … government’s climate change policy is a farce. There is no national climate change action plan, no time lines, no targets and no real policies to significantly reduce greenhouse pollution or slow energy demand. … The government, which champions the free market, is opposed to a national market in greenhouse gas emissions—so go figure.

The necessary policy initiatives that Labor is committed to, like increasing mandatory renewable energy targets and establishing a national greenhouse trading scheme, are needed now. Other measures the government should address, like applying energy efficiency standards as mandatory across all states and responding to the Sustainable cities report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage, are missing in action.

Alarmingly, there is every chance the permafrost of the Northern Hemisphere will start to thaw earlier than expected and increase the prospects of accelerated warming-as will significant recent melts of sheet ice in the Antarctic. Sea levels will rise; the only question is how soon and how high. But, as the CSIRO report shows, low lying delta areas in Vietnam, China and Bangladesh, as well as Tonga, Kiribati and PNG, are all vulnerable. The costs of relocation and protection of coastal infrastructure are astronomical.

Put simply, we are facing the prospects of a full blown global emergency which threatens to alter the conditions of life on earth in significant and possibly irreversible ways. This is widely acknowledged in most quarters except Canberra under the conservatives. Recently the Lowy Institute released Heating up the Planet-Climate change and security,[1] by security expert Alan Dupont and climate scientist Graeme Pearman. It also highlighted the urgent need to respond to climate change-a point re-emphasised in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth by former US Vice President Al Gore, and in today’s CSIRO report. And this points up how completely ill prepared the Howard government is for climate change. After going into some details to answer the question, ‘Is climate change real?’-answer: yes-the paper outlines a number of issues that need focused government attention now.

They include the prospects of an increasing spread of infectious diseases and, critically, the likelihood of climate change refugees-if that is the right term, and there may be a better term-on a scale that renders the trickle of asylum seekers the government is intending to divert to Nauru and resettle in third countries tiny in comparison. The fact of the matter is that with climate change we are likely to see large migrations of people fleeing their countries, which have been affected by global warming and rising sea levels, into our part of the world.

I was pleased to see that the authors of the paper had taken seriously what a number of climate scientists, NGOs and others, including myself, have been repeatedly saying concerning the cumulative effect of human activities on the climate. Their conclusions are amply confirmed by today’s CSIRO report, Australia Responds. In particular they raise the possibility of the emergence of climate wild cards-like the melting permafrost-and the need for policymakers to start factoring these kinds of risks into their thinking. And it is the case that each of the issues that flow out from climate change carry substantial security considerations for Australia that well outweigh the current difficulties we face in the long term in relation to fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. This government constantly talks security-it is the mantra in this House-and yet the implications of the Lowy Institute and CSIRO reports are that failure to start genuine planning, and organising now for a climate change future, is to compromise the national interest and to add greatly to the regional and international challenges that lie ahead as global warming begins to kick in.

Du Pont and Pearman argue—and I agree—that the federal government needs to adopt a more strategic approach to climate change, and that an interdepartmental task force should be constituted to look into the connections between climate change and national security with reference to food security, water, health and environmental vulnerabilities. Importantly, disaster planning and the key question of unregulated population movements would be crucial matters for review.

The unfolding tragedy is that the government’s acquiescence to foreign policy and culture wars, driven by an extreme right wing agenda, has left us poorly prepared for arguably the greatest threat we face. What stands out in the Lowy Institute report is the statement of the bleeding, but necessarily, obvious. Recommendation 6 read "The most effective way of ameliorating the security risk of prospective climate change is to reduce the level of greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet." There you have it. The experts are saying action is needed and the community, including those who gathered yesterday in front of Old Parliament House calling for ‘clean energy for eternity’, are demanding that action be taken.

So when is this government going to do something other than spin, divert, delay and embrace false gods masquerading as solutions on climate change and actually act to substantially address rising greenhouse gas emissions? Labor has serious policy here, but where is the big ‘whole-of- government’ plan on climate change from the Prime Minister? Where is the nation-building, nation-saving approach on increasing our use of renewables, on energy self-sufficiency, on demand management and on utilising our ingenuity and scientific ability to meet our energy needs-whether it is liquids to gas, hot rocks and tidal or, critically, in a country that receives on average more solar radiation per square metre than any other continent, fitting up in a substantial way solar cities and towns so that families and businesses can meet their energy needs and even sell their own surplus energy, green energy, which, unlike the nukes that the Prime Minister has now adopted as his first love, do not cost the earth and do not leave a legacy of toxic waste for eternity?

One of the world’s foremost climate scientists, Jim Hansen from NASA, has observed that failure to act on climate change means subsequent generations will inhabit a far more desolate world than the one in which civilisations have flourished and developed over the past several thousand years. The stakes are that high. I simply ask: when will this reckless government wake up to climate change, pull its finger out and stop jeopardising the lives of its citizens and our neighbours as we stare down the abyss of an overheating planet?

1. Australia Respond Helping our neighbours fight climate change, was prepared by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Orgnaisation (CSIRO) for the Australian Climate Change and Development Roundtable a group of NGOs formed in "recognition that developing countries are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and to highlight the need for international aid and development agencies to consider the implications of climate change for their programs and advocacy."
2.. Lowy Institute paper no. 12, Heating up the Planet-Climate change and security, by security expert Alan Dupont the Institute and Dr Graeme Pearman, former chief of atmospheric research at the CSIRO, canvasses the international security consequences of climate change especially for Australia’s Asia-Pacific neighbourhood. The paper examines the implications of temperature increases and sea level rise for food, water, energy, infectious diseases, natural disasters and environmental refugees and asks whether scientists may have underestimated climate change risks. The paper also looks at several low probability, but high impact climate events which might push the planet past an environmental tipping point from which there will be no winners.