Senate debates

Monday, 30 November 2009

Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Australian Climate Change Regulatory Authority Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (Charges — Customs) Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (Charges — Excise) Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (Charges — General) Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS Fuel Credits) Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS Fuel Credits) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Excise Tariff Amendment (Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Customs Tariff Amendment (Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) Bill 2009 [No. 2]; Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Amendment (Household Assistance) Bill 2009 [No. 2]

In Committee

10:56 am

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

by leave—I now move Australian Greens amendments (13) to (16) on sheet 5786:

(13)  Clause 14, page 35 (after line 8), after paragraph (5)(a), insert:

           (aa)    must have regard to the principle that reducing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalence as quickly as possible is in Australia’s national interest;

(14)  Clause 14, page 35 (lines 14 to 17), omit subparagraph (5)(c)(i).

(15)  Clause 15, page 37 (after line 8), after paragraph (4)(a), insert:

           (aa)    must have regard to the principle that reducing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalence as quickly as possible is in Australia’s national interest;

(16)  Clause 15, page 37 (lines 14 to 17), omit subparagraph (4)(c)(i).

I did not call a division in that last vote but I note that it was only the Australian Greens supporting that amendment.

This is an absolutely critical amendment and it goes to the heart of the discussion that Minister Wong and the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Senator Joyce, were having a moment ago. It relates to the science, because this amendment inserts into the legislation a mandatory requirement to take into account optimal atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. The actual amendment inserts that the minister ‘must have regard to the principle that reducing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalence as quickly as possible is in Australia’s national interest’. So the minister must have regard to that principle that 350 parts per million CO2e is in Australia’s interests.

This is absolutely critical because, tragically, what we have in this debate in Australia are the climate sceptics who deny the climate science. They are deniers, actually, not sceptics, because sceptics ask the questions to test the substance of the argument and then, if they are persuaded, they change their minds; if not, they have a sceptical position. Deniers are people who cannot challenge the science but just deny its reality. Tragically, the media has confused the notional view of scepticism with climate change denial. What we have here is climate change denial, because if you really believed in climate change then you would know that we are in a global climate emergency and we have to take emergency action.

Equally problematic—in fact, more insidious, I think—are the people who know the science and who do not have the courage to do what the science demands. That is the position of the government. And it is not just the Australian government; it is the government of the United States and most governments in the developed world. They use the rhetoric of the climate crisis and they use it very well. The minister is quite right to say in the chamber this morning that there is a small window of opportunity to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change. Absolutely right—there is a small window of opportunity to reduce that risk. But symbolic action out of step with the scientific projections of looming climate tipping points does not cut the mustard. None of the targets are anywhere near the minimum effort required to reduce increasing emissions and deforestation globally.

The government should have the honesty to say to the Australian people that the science demands that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million CO2e to reduce the risk of going beyond two degrees above pre-industrial levels to less than 50 per cent. That is not a matter of opinion; that is what the science says. It is what Graeme Pearman and James Hansen say. Scientists throughout the world are now saying that 350 parts per million is what we should be aiming for, and our policies should reflect that.

We have national leaders standing up and saying: ‘We have a climate crisis. The Great Barrier Reef is at threat; the Murray-Darling Basin is at threat.’ That is all absolutely true, but the action they are proposing will not do what it takes to prevent a climate catastrophe. That is the issue. Would you get on a plane if there was a more than 50 per cent chance of it crashing? Of course you would not, yet the government is asking us to believe that locking in targets out to 2020 which deliver us a greater than 50 per cent chance of going beyond two degrees, driving us into the high-risk scenario of going over the tipping points, is an acceptable response to climate change.

I do not know whether it is more dangerous to have climate deniers or to have people who say climate change is real and try to pretend that the action that they are proposing is anywhere near what is required to address the problem. You might say: ‘Well, at least they acknowledge it is real. That is a start. And they are doing something.’ But what they are doing is locking in failure to reduce emissions by the level that is required to avoid the tipping points. That is not just my view; it is the view of Sir David King, adviser to the British government; Sir Nicholas Stern, who brought out that incredible report on the economics of climate change; and Kofi Annan. All of those people are now saying that it is better to give ourselves a chance of getting a realistic target than to lock in a weak target and guarantee we go over the tipping points.

Let me go through the tipping points. The first tipping point that people think we are very near, if we have not already passed it, is in relation to the Arctic summer ice. We are going to lose the Arctic summer ice sometime between 2015 and 2025 if things continue as they are. That means we will have increased warming of the oceans through thermal expansion, and we do not know what it will do to the great ocean conveyer, the thermohaline conveyer. We cannot know that. If you lock in weak targets and massive compensation to the coal-fired power stations such that there is not the transformation to 2020, you are locking in failure. You are locking in going beyond those tipping points, and we cannot take that risk.

I want the minister to acknowledge to the Senate and to the Australian people that her target of a five to 25 per cent reduction on 2000 levels, which is actually a four per cent reduction, gives us more than a 50 per cent risk of going beyond the tipping points, pushing us over into catastrophic climate change. That honesty is required here. The hypocrisy of the government position was highlighted by the Prime Minister at the Pacific Islands Forum. The Pacific Island countries wanted to put in the communique a 40 to 45 per cent reduction in developed country emissions by 2020, and the Australian Prime Minister blocked it, as did his New Zealand counterpart. They did not want the Pacific Islands to put that in, and the Pacific Island countries have adopted a 350 parts per million CO2 target.

Also, we have just had CHOGM. At the CHOGM meeting there was a communique again. What happened there was a rerun of the Pacific Islands Forum. I read from an open letter from 26 environmental groups, and I agree with their position:

The most recent credible assessments of climate change impacts make it clear that reaching climate temperature goals by 2050 is decades too late …

They are arguing for the 350 parts per million. The communique that came out from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting said:

We stress our common conviction that urgent and substantial action to reduce global emissions is needed and have a range of views as to whether average global temperature increase should be constrained to below 1.5 degrees or to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

That difference of views reflects the difference between the developing countries in the Commonwealth and the developed countries in the Commonwealth, in particular Australia and New Zealand. I do not know what Prime Minister Rudd’s contribution was, but I can tell you now: he would have been blocking the 1.5 degrees being the consensus position out of that communique, and would have been arguing for no more than two degrees, because that is the position that he has taken here with his legislation.

I really want to stress here that what we are looking at is a question of risk. It is not about making the perfect the enemy of the good; it is about making the necessary the enemy of the convenient or the politically expedient. That is the point here. We have political expedience rather than science. And I think it is time we heard the government actually acknowledge that. Instead of standing up and saying, ‘Your party has a view; the government has a different view,’ why don’t we just have a straight exchange on what the scientists say? Let us have an acknowledgement from the government that to aim for 350 parts per million reduces the risk of exceeding two degrees to less than 50 per cent; that the government’s commitment of a minimum five to 25 increases the risk of going beyond two degrees—in fact, I would argue, it drives it over two degrees and drives us towards the tipping points.

The second tipping point that I am going to mention, after the arctic ice, is ocean acidification. That is the next one that the scientists are worried about. They argue that 450 parts per million is the tipping point for acidification. That is what the government thinks is a safe level, but it is a tipping point where you have the oceans turning acid to a point. Microscopic creatures that have shells lose their calcium carbonate shells and cannot form new shells at atmospheric concentrations of 450 parts per million or greater. There is scientific proof that is occurring. If you cross that tipping point, you lose the ocean food chain, you lose biodiversity and millions of people around the world—billions, in fact—who rely on the oceans as their source of protein will suffer as a result of that shift.

This is a critical tipping point. We cannot take these risks of exceeding what the scientists tell us gives us a chance—not a guarantee, a chance. Three hundred and fifty parts per million CO2e gives us a greater than 50 per cent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. I for one would not get on an aeroplane with a 50 per cent or greater chance of it crashing. And I am not prepared to get onto a piece of legislation that gives us a 50 per cent or greater chance of going to catastrophic climate change and locking that in, when we know what we have to do and we know we can do it.

James Hansen, a very well known scientist in America—he was the one who really blew the whistle on the fact that 550 parts per million was completely useless, that 450 increases the risk way too much and that we should be going to 350—has just put out an opinion piece, which is basically talking to the future. In that piece he quotes his five-year-old grandchild, who says: ‘I don’t quit, because I have never-give-up fighting spirit.’ The Greens have that never-give-up fighting spirit, and we will not run up the white flag, as the government is doing in the Copenhagen negotiations, as President Obama is doing. They have run up the white flag of political expediency. They know what the science is. They know what they need to do to address the science. But they do not have the political courage to actually tell people the truth about the fact that we are in an emergency, that we need emergency action and that what they are proposing locks in fossil fuel power till 2020. In the Australian context it locks in coal fired power and billions to the polluters to keep them there, and it takes us beyond the tipping points. (Time expired)

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