Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Bills

Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013; Second Reading

9:31 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | Hansard source

As I was saying, this is another example of the coalition hacking away at another body that is vital to Australia's effort in combating climate change—that is, the Climate Change Authority. Last year, as I said, I spoke in this chamber about the scrapping of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and I also spoke about the fact that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation makes the Australian government four per cent profit above the government's bond rate, and that has leveraged $1.5 billion worth of private funding in a very short period of time. But those considerations obviously have not been taken into account by this government.

The abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation makes no sense, and I am here today to say to you that the abolition of the Climate Change Authority does not make any sense either. The Climate Change Authority provides expert advice and information on carbon pollution and climate change issues not only to the government but also to business and to the public at large. I am far from convinced that this could be handled by the environment department within its existing resources. It is not that simple. The Climate Change Authority fulfils a distinct role and the government needs to recognise that. Just like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, this body is comprised of highly respected individuals whose opinions and expertise should be afforded proper respect.

As the shadow environment minister pointed out, few seem to recognise that it is chaired by former Reserve Bank Governor Bernie Fraser and that the board is made up of highly esteemed business leaders, economists and scientists. Their advice is valuable, but I think many of us have given up on the coalition acting so sensibly in the nation's interest when it comes to climate change. If the coalition are to prove that they are not just a bunch of closet climate change deniers and that they have some interest in fighting climate change, then surely they should retain the Climate Change Authority. It was very audacious to lump the bill repealing this body along with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation in a package of 11 repeal bills. The coalition should really reconsider whether they are willing to dispense with such an important outfit, and one that will continue to assist Australia in acting responsibly to limit emissions. The government's determination to scrap the authority is part of a broader trend of shutting down debate, limiting transparency and treating the Australian electorate with nothing short of contempt.

The Prime Minister obviously does not want advice from the authority on emissions targets because he is afraid of just what that advice might be. Well, I have news for him: every day we see new advancements in renewable and cleaner energy technologies in this country, and it is because of the work that Labor did; it was what we did when we were in government. We have, of course, committed to move from a fixed price on carbon to a floating-price emissions trading scheme. This is sound policy, because an ETS will take advantage of market mechanisms to decarbonise our economy.

But I would also like to say that it is easy to forget what pricing carbon has already achieved. It has been widely reported that companies are clambering over each other to take advantage of the carbon price while it is still in place and to gain a greater share of the total electricity market. The result is that the renewable energy sector has its largest share of the eastern seaboard electricity market for many decades, and black coal fired power plants have lost market share. So, there we have it: greater use of renewable energy, fewer harmful carbon emissions. It is that simple.

As I have mentioned before in this chamber, my home state of Tasmania is going from strength to strength when it comes to hydro power. We have seen hydro take close to 10 per cent of the National Electricity Market. Wind technology, which is another form of renewable energy that Tasmania is particularly well placed to develop even further, has just under 4½ per cent of this market. This is a fantastic development for renewable energy and it is a clear sign that Labor's climate change policies are repositioning our economy to take advantage of new technologies that will reduce emissions.

In fact, a report from a leading multi-specialist consultancy, Pitt & Sherry, released recently clearly states that Labor's policies have had their intended effect. The principal consultant Hugh Saddler has clearly stated that:

Carbon emissions have dropped by 15 million tonnes, or 8.5 per cent, across the NEM since the carbon tax kicked in at the start of July last year…

'But what about the enormous cost to households in Western Sydney?' is the frequent refrain I hear. Well, again, the report numbers do not lie, and they do not support the sort of statements that we frequently hear from the coalition. The report provides that, whilst real average power prices rose 17 per cent from 2009-10 to last financial year, actual electricity spending rose by only 2.4 per cent—that is right: just 2.4 per cent achieved a drop in carbon emissions nationwide of 15 million tonnes. At the same time, research indicates that people are paying close attention to their electricity bills and reconsidering how they can use their energy more efficiently, something that should certainly be encouraged, right across the developed world in particular. But facts like these are ignored by the coalition. They refuse to challenge their mentality, to think critically and to heed the advice of experts.

In the mist that drives the coalition's stubbornness on this issue, that is so troubling. It goes without saying that this mentality is enormously frustrating for those of us who try to think through policy issues rationally and reasonably and with a reference to expert opinion and established scientific evidence. Let us take the example of the former Prime Minister John Howard, who recently told an audience in London that those who accept that climate change is real are a bunch of religious zealots and that he will trust his instinct rather than expert opinion. What I would say to Mr Howard is: imagine if each of us applied this same sort of thinking to our everyday lives. Just consider: a doctor informs you that your illness requires a particular prescription and you respond that your instinct says that another treatment would help better; a mechanic advises you that your car needs a new part, but you tell him that your instinct tells you differently and you do not heed his warnings. This is exactly the same as ignoring the expert opinion of climate scientists who inform us that climate change is not only real but also man made.

If you will allow me to adapt the six aspects of denial from Sean B Carroll's book The Making of the Fittest to present circumstances, I think we can understand the coalition's approach to climate change policy a little better. The first step is to doubt the science.

There is, of course, ample evidence here—but, just as alternative health practitioners claim the science that lacks the effectiveness of their treatments is at fault, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has rejected the very basics of climate change. He notoriously told a community gathering near Shepparton in 2009 that the science behind human-induced climate change was 'crap'. When introduced on the ABC's Four Cornersin August 2010 he was asked if he still questioned the science behind climate change and responded by saying, 'Sure, but that is not really relevant at the moment.'

Then there was Senator Bernardi, in June last year, providing us with the following:

… I have never bought the alarmist hysteria attached to carbon dioxide as driving climate change. And there is, you know, no consensus of scientists I'm afraid. There are literally tens of thousands of people - scientists who have a different view on this.

The next step questions the motives and integrity of the scientists. The evidence abounds here as well. Senior coalition figures have suggested on numerous occasions that expert scientists on climate change are part of an organised conspiracy and that their motives should be questioned.

The Prime Minister commented on the Today show in July 2011 that consensus on climate change was been driven by:

… a draconian, new police force chasing an invisible, odourless, weightless, tasteless substance.

Yes, you heard me correctly: the Prime Minister is frightened of an imaginary police force.

But, of course, the coalition go even further than that. After a United Nations assessment that the recent New South Wales fires were linked to climate change, the Prime Minister mustered all of his maturity and composure and accused the United Nations climate chief of 'talking through her hat'. How statesmanlike! Meanwhile, the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, used Wikipedia to contradict her opinion in a BBC interview. It is moments like this, when Greg Hunt speaks to the BBC, or the Prime Minister is interviewed by the Washington Post that I think we should have a moratorium on conservative politicians speaking to global media outlets—because every time they do, they embarrass themselves and, more importantly, they damage this fine nation's reputation overseas.

The third step is to magnify disagreements amongst scientists. It does not matter that the tiny percentage of actual scientists who express scepticism, such as Ian Plimer, are outnumbered by the thousands of experts who renounce their arguments. The Prime Minister has tried this on numerous occasions, telling Alan Jones in June 2010 that 'there are credible scientists who don't think the UN Climate Change Panel has got it entirely right.' But I note that he did not actually name any of them. He also said, in a speech back in 2009, that 'what is a scientific fact should not be determined by a majority vote, even of scientists. That just leads to experts shouting at each other.' 'Experts shouting at each other' is how the Prime Minister characterises the consensus of climate experts who warn that immediate action on climate change is needed.

The fourth step is to look at the potential harm of acting on climate change. In Australia we have seen this in spades, with the then opposition leader, now Prime Minister, having repeatedly questioned climate change wherever he has gone. As the Prime Minister we have not seen him act in any more responsible way.

The fifth step is to appeal to personal freedom and claim that acting on climate change is somehow an unnecessary and overblown government intrusion. The new member for New England said at a doorstop in late 2011:

We've had pious Penny Wong and gravitas Greg Combet coming out here telling [us] if we don't do this, the kiddies will drown in sea level rises or instantaneously combust or get eaten alive by spiders.

I think a few of these public statements have been totally ridiculous but, unfortunately, we have come to expect nothing less from those on the other side.

The final step is accepting that the science behind climate change repudiates key philosophies underpinning the party's direction. I guess this is what the coalition's stance is really all about. Even if some senior figures accept the science behind climate change, they are not willing to embrace market mechanisms because they just cannot adapt their thinking. For them, markets should be left to their own devices even if this means that urgent action on combating climate change cannot take place and even if it means spending billions and billions of dollars on grants and planting trees under the laughable, ineffective Direct Action Plan.

We need to act on climate change. It is a threat that looms larger every day. The evidence keeps mounting that we need to act urgently. I just want to give you one example, but in many respects I think it is most alarming. In the last six months in particular, research has emerged about the melting permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere and what this means for climate change. Permafrost covers the lands north of the Arctic Circle and can range from a few metres to over a kilometre deep. It is spread through Siberia, northern North America and northern Europe, including Scandinavia. What we are learning is that it is melting, with the elevation limits of the permafrost decreasing rapidly. This is of the highest concern, because the melting of the permafrost across the Arctic promises to radically speed up the greenhouse effect. The Arctic tundra basically acts as a giant carbon sink. When the permafrost melts because of high temperatures, micro-organisms begin to biologically break down matter stored in this sink, and methane and carbon dioxide are released. This not only disturbs the Arctic carbon balance but greatly accelerates global warming. Then it becomes self-perpetuating. As the temperatures continue to rise, the permafrost continues to thin, with more carbon dioxide and methane released, which causes the temperature to rise further, which leads to further thinning, and on and on it goes. The situation really is quite desperate.

What is particularly terrifying about all of this is just how difficult it is to predict what will happen, but in almost any scenario the results will be catastrophic. In short, if the tundra gets warmer and drier, it will likely release mostly carbon dioxide. On the other hand, if the region grows both warmer and wetter, more methane will be released instead of carbon dioxide. The latter scenario may actually prove far worse. Our focus in Australia on the climate change debate has almost always been exclusively on carbon dioxide, but methane does not linger in the atmosphere for anywhere near as long as carbon dioxide. That means that it traps energy more efficiently. It is actually 22 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. So, if action is not taken on climate change and the weather in the Arctic is warmer and wetter as some predict, the melting of the permafrost could accelerate climate change to an even worse situation than we are currently aware of. It is an environmental time bomb, and as I stand here today no-one can make any promises as to how dire the situation is.

Some may say that it is not Australia's concern and that it is the responsibility of Northern Hemisphere countries, but climate change is a global problem. We must recognise that and acknowledge it. We know that there are many on the other side who are still very sceptical, but we on this side, when we were in government, took action to show the leadership that Australians expected of us. As the member for Wentworth noted, how can we honestly lecture developing countries like China and India on reducing emissions when, per person, we have a significantly larger carbon footprint?

The reality is that we need to act on climate change because we are running out of time. Scrapping bodies like the Climate Change Authority is a backward step that shows just how out of touch the coalition is on climate change. I certainly hope the moderates within the coalition who understand the science behind climate change and realise the need for action will stand up, do something and speak out, because we are running out of time.

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