House debates

Tuesday, 28 March 2006


Climate Change

4:52 pm

Photo of John MurphyJohn Murphy (Lowe, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

At the height of the Cold War, John Fitzgerald Kennedy famously said that the United States did things not because they were easy but because they were hard. In our time Australia also has to do things that are hard and accept its responsibilities as the world’s highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases. Despite the government’s mantra of denial and deception, global warming has become a very real threat to Australia’s prosperity and security. The need for immediate action grows with every report of the destructive effects of the increasing global temperatures.

While not diminishing the suffering of the people of Queensland whose homes and livelihoods have been devastated by Cyclone Larry, I have to report that statistical analysis by climate researchers has shown that hurricanes and cyclones like Katrina and Larry are becoming more frequent and more powerful. Climate researcher Judith Curry and her colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology investigated the records of hurricanes and cyclones in the world’s ocean basins between 1970 and 2004. They found after studying a number of factors linked to the occurrence of these storms that the trend to more frequent and stronger cyclones depended only upon sea surface temperature. Virtually every expert in the field says that these changes are being driven by global warming.

The alarming conclusion is that if carbon dioxide pollution continues unabated and greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase then cyclones like Larry and Katrina will become even more frequent and more intense. They may also reach parts of the country, such as southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, that have not previously been threatened. The evidence for global warming is showing up in every part of the world. It is not a problem for the future, it is affecting us now, and the time to start taking effective action to reduce emissions is today.

Global warming cannot be explained by increases in the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface. The sun’s output of energy is in fact remarkably stable over millions of years. Nor can global warming be explained by changes in the earth’s orbit or by other natural factors. But it can be directly linked to the 35 per cent increase in greenhouse gas concentrations since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The message is clearer than ever: we must act now to reduce emissions. As a former minister for the environment, Dr Kemp, warned, we must quickly cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 60 per cent if we are to avoid the more disastrous consequences of global warming.

This is worrying evidence of the effects of global warming that only the most ill informed could ignore. Most recently, the United States government’s top climate modeller warned that, under the influence of global warming, the Greenland ice cap could collapse many times faster than previously estimated. Dr Jim Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that the collapse of the ice sheet should be explosively rapid, with sea levels rising by a couple of metres this century and several more next century. To reinforce this warning, the United Kingdom government released a report in February, stating that the world’s climate was close to a tipping point that could trigger the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and cause a worldwide rise in sea levels of seven metres.

It is not as if there is no evidence for this process. Recent reports show that two of the largest glaciers in eastern Greenland, which together drain one-tenth of the ice cap, have both doubled their discharge speed in the last two years and are now dumping 100 cubic kilometres of ice into the ocean annually. In 1998, a similar increase occurred in the discharge rate of the Jakobshavn Glacier, which drains eight per cent of the ice cap. Adrian Luckman, writing in Geophysical Research Letters, warns that an increase in the discharge from other Greenland glaciers may also be under way and that climate change is the most likely common cause of these changes.

Does the government think all of these people are fools and that their findings are in error? If not, why is the government so determined to do all that it can to encourage increasing consumption of fossil fuels through schemes such as the diesel fuel rebate? As I have stated before, Australia is uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of increasing emissions of carbon dioxide. Firstly, Australia’s geographical location in the mid-latitudes makes us subject to changes in the global weather circulation pattern. I have previously explained to the House how global warming is shifting rain-bearing cold fronts further south and away from the southern states and reducing the long-term average rainfall in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. Furthermore, increases in the frequency of El Nino events appear to be driving up the intensity of droughts in the eastern states while Northern Australia is, as we have most recently seen, at an increased risk of destructive cyclones.

Secondly, Australia’s excessive dependence upon fossil fuel exports, particularly coal, for foreign exchange has left our already precarious balance of payments exposed to the measures taken by importers anxious to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by cutting coal consumption. Australia is the world’s single largest coal exporter. It is one of the few countries that exports more coal than is used locally. In 2002, coal exports of over 200 million tonnes brought in $13 billion in foreign exchange.

Thousands of workers are employed in the mines, on the railways that carry the coal to the ports, at the ports, and in the ancillary industries, such as engineering and construction, that support the mines and the transport infrastructure. Many jobs in New South Wales and Queensland are at risk as countries such as Japan prepare to take measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing coal imports. What will happen to these jobs if, as is quite possible, the rest of the world takes serious steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by cutting back on the use of coal? Does the government have any plans for this possibility? I doubt it. The government acts as if somehow the human induced changes to the world’s climate will not affect Australia, as if we can blunder on into the future just trusting on dumb luck to see us through the growing crisis. That was the attitude that saw Bob Menzies sell pig-iron to the Japanese before Pearl Harbour and still continues in this government with the exposure of the Australian Wheat Board’s corrupt scheme to pay $300 million in bribes to Saddam Hussein.

For many years Australian scientists and research workers have been putting forward proposals for making the kinds of changes to our economic infrastructure that are needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Amongst them, as I have previously reported, are scientists who work at the University of Sydney who designed and constructed an economically viable, large-scale solar collector attached to a Hunter Valley power station. This installation when completed will produce the heating equivalent of 24 tonnes of coal an hour and will allow the power station to generate approximately 30 megawatts of electricity from the sun. The government has no doubt been made aware of the potential of this project by the former Chief Scientist, Dr Robin Batterham, who visited the site last year, yet it chooses to squander hundreds of millions of dollars on an ill-conceived geosequestration scheme.

In 2004, the government released a white paper entitled Securing Australia’s energy future that promised $500 million in funding for geosequestration and renewable energy research. Dr Ben McNeil from the Centre for Environmental Modelling and Prediction at the University of New South Wales predicts that geosequestration will at best reduce carbon dioxide emissions by seven per cent by 2020. Over the same period, he predicts that Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions will increase by 40 per cent unless there are large-scale changes to our industry. It seems likely that most of the money allocated for Securing Australia’s energy future will be spent on useless schemes like geosequestration, while viable projects involving renewable energy will go begging. The net effect on our carbon dioxide emissions of spending under Securing Australia’s energy future schemes will be negligible.

I say today to this government that it is time to wake up and take the hard decisions to recognise that we have to change the way our industries operate and to realise that the key to Australia’s future is the skills of our workers and not just the products of our mines.