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Abolishing the Climate Change Authority is a Really Stupid Idea

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 10 Dec 2013

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (18:31): I dedicate this speech tonight on the Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013 to all the people who were too young to cast a vote on 7 September 2013. I am proud to stand here today as a member of the Australian Greens in defence of the Climate Change Authority, an entity which most Australians could be forgiven for not even knowing existed until quite recently. The Climate Change Authority reviews Australia's emission reduction goals and progress towards the renewable energy target every two years from 2012. It performs this essential task free from interference from the executive and the parliament. This independence is essential. It operates in the same way as the Reserve Bank sets interest rates, independently of the superficial, political churn that can so often dominate debates in here. That independence is important precisely because the role of the authority needs to be guided by science and not by politics. In setting the pace of economywide emissions reductions, powerful interests are impacted-interests with open chequebooks and strong opinions, with direct access to this morning's cabinet meeting and tomorrow morning's newspaper headlines.

Does anyone remember the retro sounding phrase 'evidence based policy'? It sounds kind of quaint and naive as it rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? So far the government have abolished more than 20 expert authorities across the board, from the High Speed Rail Advisory Group to the National Housing Supply Council. They are like a pilot punching out the dials on the instrument panel one by one, even as the engines falter and the light fades. The Climate Change Authority though is the big one. With this single act of calculated stupidity they are smashing the only legislative guidance that they have got as to the speed and the urgency of the transition that is demanded of them. If they somehow wrangle the numbers to wreck the Climate Change Authority, they really will be flying blind. They are left waving around a feeble five per cent emissions target without the faintest idea of how to get there or what on earth they plan on doing with the other 95 per cent. So much for evidence based policy! We plunge headlong into the realm of 'making it up as you go along' based policy, except that when they fly blind and hit the wall on climate policy, they will take everyone else down with them.

I know the Prime Minister has been told by his minders to pretend that he no longer thinks climate change is crap. The government's tactical masterminds have settled on a rather more dishonest messaging strategy where they say: 'Sure, we believe in climate change. We just think we can tick it off more cheaply by shovelling money into the mouths of rent seekers and LNP candidates in marginal seats and calling it direct action.' They might as well just set fire to the money.

Yes, the climate has changed in the past. Senator Macdonald was at it again on Monday and a short while ago in this debate. I do not want to pick on my colleague from Queensland, because this attitude now corrupts the whole Liberal-National Party. It is the combination of self-confidence, stridency and breathtaking ignorance that makes it so difficult to have a sensible conversation. Yes, the climate has changed in the past. Some 240 million years ago Earth was a desert planet and 15,000 years ago Earth was in the deep winter of a planetary ice age with the sea level so low that you could walk out to Wadjemup, or Rottnest Island, which now lies 18 kilometres west of the port of Fremantle.

The climate can change profoundly and very rapidly relative to geological timescales. That is year 5 primary school science. So somewhere between year 5 and year 9 Senator Macdonald and a substantial number of his colleagues must have nodded off and missed some very important early high school science classes. Why would you want to take a system as delicately balanced as the global climate system, which you know can be thrown in a matter of centuries or millennia into quite a different regime, and put a blowtorch on it? Why would you want to take something as complex and powerful as the atmosphere itself and then dump tens of billions of tonnes of thermally opaque gases into it every single year and then when the place begins to heat up, more or less exactly as predicted, stand back and pretend that it is a total coincidence, because after all the climate has changed in the past without being shoved by fossil capitalism?

Joseph Fourier theorised about the insulating properties of the atmosphere in 1824, although the key role of carbon dioxide as a thermal blanket was not spelt out until Svante Arrhenius published his greenhouse law back in 1896. The work done by NASA, CSIRO and every single one of the world's national science academies on climate change research still rests on evidence that was tested more than a century ago. It is actually fine for senators in the Liberal and National parties to come in here and wave their scientific illiteracy at people as though it is some sort of strange badge of honour. It is actually fine, I mean it. You should not have to be an oceanographer or an atmospheric physicist to be a good legislator but, if you do not have these qualifications yourself, the least you can do is show basic respect to those who do have those qualifications and listen to what it is they are telling you. What they are telling you is-and I will break it down into smallish words-that burning coal, oil and gas is cooking the place. We need to stop doing that.

I am sorry that it offends your donors in the coal industry. I understand that it is also quite inconvenient for your benefactors in the gas industry.

The problem is that allowing them to continue to undermine international climate agreements and poison domestic politics here, as they have done in the United States and elsewhere, is going to end up being quite inconvenient for everybody else. Let me explain what I meant by inconvenience.
In the 30-year campaign to sabotage meaningful international negotiations, your donors and your benefactors in the coal and gas industry have already committed us to dangerous global warming: the increased violence of storms as we have loaded more heat into the atmosphere and ocean; the perceptible sea level rise; the droughts; and the consequent insecurity, instability and war in places like Darfur as Lake Chad disappeared off the map. If we had followed through with the concerted efforts to front up to global warming in the 1980s and 1990s, when the issue first hit real global political prominence, we might have been able to avoid some of the storms that we are now sailing into. But instead the coal, oil and gas industries did everything they could to attack and undermine that global consensus as it was emerging. So now we live in a world in which dangerous global warming is a reality.
To get a sense of what this government is driving us into, look no further than today's approval of the Abbot Point coal terminal. This government is pressing on regardless, flying blind-not into a world with two degrees of average warming but potentially into one with four or more. Whether it be Abbot Point, whether it be the beach at James Price Point in the West Kimberley where a huge gas proposal is afoot, whether it be the multiple gas fracking operations that are underway or planned right around this ancient continent, whether it be the predominance of freeway building over public transport or the proposal to increase logging in old-growth, high-conservation-value forests in the south-west, all around us we see the same sad expressions of business as usual. They are taking us away from a world where we could potentially survive, a world of 1½ or two degrees of global warming. That would be a very damaging and difficult place to live in, but it would be manageable, not end-of-civilisation staff. It would be something that we could deal with if we moved into it with our eyes open.

But I want to talk now about what happens if we continue with the kind of business as usual that was on display this afternoon at Abbot Point and is on display everywhere else around the country, and that is four degrees of global warming. I commend to senators a book called Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a Hot World, edited by Peter Christoff. This book tells us that, according to the best models that we have-and it is like predicting the weather: it is not a precise science but it is nonetheless a science-and the best depth of expertise that we have, with a four-degree average temperature rise there will a quarter of a million coastal properties inundated by rising sea levels, at a total cost of around $63 billion; 17,200 heat related deaths a year, up from 5,800 today; snow just a distant memory in all but the very highest of alpine peaks on the east coast; a quarter of a billion people in the Asia-Pacific region displaced; and, by 2100, we will have locked in irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet, which effectively buys you seven or more meters of sea level rise, not in this century but in those to come.

I am glad that Senator Macdonald has joined us again. I want to tell him that I fully understand and the Greens understand that maintaining the Climate Change Authority and maintaining the carbon price and ramping it up-guiding that transition here in Australia-will not prevent those things if that is all we do. This needs to be internationally coordinated action. We need the kind of sabotage that is occurring here in Australia tonight to cease and desist in the United States, in Western Europe and in the emerging economies in India and Asia. We fully understand that this is a global problem, a global issue, and so we call on those industries in Australia-and their advocates in this very parliament-who say we should not do anything here until a global agreement has been reached, to cease and desist sabotaging those global agreements.

In a world with four degrees of global warming, our cities and entire climate systems will be basically unrecognisable. There are some various interesting studies in this book about the closest analogues of climates in future decades. Sydney, in one scenario, ends up like Rockhampton, in subtropical Queensland. Melbourne looks a bit more like Griffith, in regional New South Wales. Alice Springs mirrors the modern day Sudan, and the vast majority of the interior of Australia becomes effectively uninhabitable. The average annual temperature at Alice rises to 35½ degrees, in the hottest, driest scenario. That is the average. Darwin there is no analogue for. Darwin will be like no other city on earth. There is no climate system or climate zone on planet Earth at the moment that matches what Darwinians will be living with in in the year 2100 with four degree of global warming. Perth, my home town, will be an entirely different place-three to 4.8 degrees warmer; 50 per cent less rainfall on top of what we have already lost in the south-west; five to 16 per cent greater range of evaporation, which will exacerbate the frequency of droughts; increased heatwaves. It is effectively the depopulation of the northern wheatbelt, which destroys a $2 billion industry and wipes out communities that have existed for more than 150 years.

That is what we are buying and that is the choice that is before us. At 3½ degrees, this most recent collection of essays tells us, up to 67 per cent of frogs, 87 per cent of mammals, 64 per cent of reptiles and 72 per cent of birds are committed to extinction. Eighty-five to 90 per cent of suitable habitat is lost. So we are setting in motion mass extinction through actions like the one the government proposes to take tonight. But it is not just our action here in the Australian parliament; it is actions in the Western Australian parliament, the United States congress, the Japanese diet and the Indian parliament. All around the world, these actions collectively are committing us to a mass extinction.

I want to raise this issue tonight. This is something that has come to me from the internet. It emerged online. I do not know who invented it. It is called the extinction symbol and it is meant to stand for the species that we are thoughtlessly dispatching to the silence of geology. It also speaks to us of the choices that we have made that brought us here and the choices that we will make in votes like this tonight, and those to come, about what kind of a species extinction we lock in for those decades to come. I think it is about time that we put the extinction symbol on the Hansard record, as a reminder to all of us who make decisions in votes like this one today. I checked this with the whips a few short time ago. I seek leave to table it now.
Leave granted.

Senator LUDLAM: And, against this imperative, Prime Minister Tony Abbott posts a YouTube video on his way overseas, demanding that the Senate do the right thing.

Are you serious? Sorry, Sunshine, but the sound bites and shallow slogans that carried you through the election campaign and into the Prime Minister's office have just hit the wall.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Whish-Wilson): Please refer to the Prime Minister by his title.

Senator LUDLAM: Are you saying that calling the Prime Minister 'Sunshine' is unparliamentary?


Senator LUDLAM: I will withdraw if that is the case. I could think of other things, but that felt like it would suffice.

In 2008, in the very first speech that I read in here, I told an apocryphal story that seemed appropriate at the time. It was about a group of washer women at a riverbank who noticed a child floating past on the river, in trouble. One of them wades in and rescues the child. A short while later they see another child floating past and go out and rescue that one. Then another one floats by, and another. Before long, they are overwhelmed. Then one of the women turns and makes her way up the riverbank. The other women demand: 'Comrade, where are you going? We need you here.' Without looking back she says, 'I'm going to find whoever it is who's throwing them in.' And I feel as though I have spent with my colleagues five years in this place working my way upstream to find out who it is throwing these kids into harm's way-who is making these repetitive, short-term decisions that set such long-term disasters into motion. And here you are; we found you.

If anything that we have said tonight reaches any members of the coalition with a flicker of conscience, join us when we put this bill to a vote, cross the floor and vote for a bill that will give us a fighting chance to meet the challenges that our country has only just begun to confront. You can join the Greens.

You can join the Labor Party. You will also be joining the solar industry-companies like SolarReserve, which just established an office in Perth and is hoping to roll out some of the projects at scale like those they do in the western part of the United States. You will be joining the wind energy developers. You will be joining the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. You will be joining campaigners and ordinary people all over the planet who are throwing everything they have at changing course while we still can. So, when we commit this bill to a vote, I know where I will be sitting. I thank the chamber.



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