Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Matters of Public Importance
I agree with the member for Groom on one point: rural Australians want practical action on climate change. I grew up on a farm. I live on a small farm now. Like millions of people in regional Australia, the climate has never been an abstract concept for me. In Indi, our grapegrowers know that a single night of bad frost in the winter can devastate a wine crop for the year. In the north-east of Victoria, we know that in a spring deluge we'll be out there sandbagging our houses from the floods. And all regional Australians know that a hot summer brings with it the threat of bushfires and all the devastation that that might mean. We also know that these things are getting worse. We know that last year was the second-warmest and fifth-driest year in Australian history. We know that average soil moisture was the lowest on record and that water storage levels in the northern Murray-Darling Basin dropped below seven per cent—lower than at any point in the millennium drought.
All Australians know that it is spring and that Australia is already starting to burn. Climate change will make all of this worse, all of this harder for our rural communities. And as a nurse, a midwife and a rural health researcher, I know that climate change is a threat to people's health. The Nipah virus, a bat-borne disease that causes fatal infections in people in South-East Asia, is largely unknown in Australia, but climate change is pushing it closer. Rural areas already have higher rates of hospitalisation for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. As bushfires get worse, so will this. Heat related illness already costs Australia $8.7 billion a year. In Victoria, our 2009 heatwave not only caused $800 million of damage to the state, but, far more importantly, it killed 173 people on Black Saturday and another 374 people that week, likely from heat stroke. A PwC report has found that by 2050, a heatwave in an Australian capital could kill more than 1,000 people in a few days, and the people most at risk are the elderly.
In an emergency, urgent action is needed. And here are three things the government could do today. First, start to develop a national strategy to deal with the impacts of climate change on agriculture and support the hard work our farmers are already doing. Second, tackle climate change as the public health crisis that it is. As the Australian Global Health Alliance has proposed, we should establish a health and climate change research facility in regional Australia so that we can better understand and prepare for the risks. Third, we should declare a climate emergency. When I worked in hospital emergency departments, we would plan for emergencies so when a crisis happened we knew exactly what to do. We need to do the same for climate—make a plan, do what we can to soften the worst of it, prepare for what we can't avoid and, when disaster hits, be ready.
When it comes to energy policy, a rational response to climate change means that renewable energy is not an obsession. The opportunities for renewable energy are too great to pass up. North-east Victoria has 151 sites that could host pumped hydro storage to provide dispatchable power to the grid. There is 6,500 gigawatt hours of storage potential in our mountain lakes, almost 20 times the capacity of Snowy 2.0. We need an energy policy that channels investment to capture these opportunities in storage and dispatchable power. In Indi, my electorate, where we have the most community renewable energy projects of any electorate in Australia, people are hungry for this, but across Australia this would create thousands of jobs for rural communities. Declaring a climate emergency not only means tackling one of the greatest threats to our farming and to our health but also brings these opportunities into focus. It would put a stake in the ground to say we take this seriously and we will stand up for the future of our farmers and for the health of our communities. Australians deserve no less than that.