Senate debates

Monday, 3 March 2014

Bills

Clean Energy Legislation (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas (Import Levy) Amendment (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas (Import Levy) (Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013, Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas (Manufacture Levy) Amendment (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, True-up Shortfall Levy (General) (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, True-up Shortfall Levy (Excise) (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Customs Tariff Amendment (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Excise Tariff Amendment (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Clean Energy (Income Tax Rates and Other Amendments) Bill 2013; Second Reading

5:55 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I would like to take this opportunity to reflect while we are here having a debate about whether to repeal our clean energy laws. I do not think a debate about how best to respond to climate change is a bad thing—it is a good thing: there are many different views on the best strategies to tackle climate change, many of which are perfectly reasonable and worthy of debate. The merits of a fixed tax versus a floating price, the degree to which overseas emissions should be allowed, the role of direct industry subsidies, the role of a renewable energy target and complementary financing mechanisms are all important policy questions—and we should debate them. But that is not what we are debating today.

This is not a debate about the most appropriate economic response to the threat of runaway climate change. What is so disappointing today is that we have a debate because the Australian parliament is still divided on whether climate change is worth responding to at all, on whether climate change exists, on whether climate change is real. We have been over this issue many times, and there are many things I could say, but for me the most interesting question is this: how is it that something that is accepted as a scientific fact in most other developed countries is still the subject of such intense debate here in Australia?

I say that because the existence of climate change is not a matter of opinion. It is a scientific question that we can answer empirically. I do accept that science is messy. Scientific discovery is not really an event; it is a process—Eureka moments are the exception rather than the rule. It is messy: it involves real-world experimentation, it involves developing complex models, it involves repeating experiments, it involves publishing results and it involves testing your conclusions by publishing your evidence in the peer-reviewed literature. The conclusion of the scientific process when it comes to climate change tells us something unambiguously: that human induced climate change is real, that it is happening and that it is cause for enormous concern. Most countries accept this; they accept that climate change is a real threat to our way of life. They accept that not taking strong action is simply unthinkable.

In most countries this is not a political issue—it is not a left-or-right issue, it is not a conservative-versus-progressive issue. In fact, in many countries it is the economic dries, in the tradition of Margaret Thatcher, that are leading the charge, that are pushing for a robust response to climate change—because they know that the biggest hump in the road on the way to economic growth is now climate change; they understand that you cannot talk about jobs, housing, cost of living or taxes without taking into account the effects of climate change. So what is it in this country that makes it such a hot political issue? Why do we have so many armchair experts who claim to have some special insight into the science?

Reflecting on that question, the example of tobacco control is quite instructive because the parallels are quite stark. I would like to point to the work of the authors of a publication called The Merchants of Doubt, who have documented these parallels in great detail. It is now 50 years since the Surgeon General, in 1964, stated categorically that smoking was a cause of lung cancer. Yet it took decades before governments acted. Why the delay? Many of the same factors are at play when it comes to climate change. In both examples what you see is the role played by a small group of hand-picked scientists, the role of vested interests, the role of the media, and the lack of political leadership all coming together in a lethal cocktail, where the community are confused and where complacency and inertia are the result.

In the smoking example, we had the tobacco industry hand-pick and pay a small group of sympathetic scientists who believed that the attempt to establish a link between tobacco and lung cancer was part of some grand conspiracy to control people's lives and restrict their freedoms—no different to the way people with environmental concerns are seen today. We saw tobacco industry executives cultivate relationships with key journalists. They targeted journalists they knew were sympathetic, and they appealed to this notion of journalistic balance, as though there were two valid sides to this debate. Here, when it comes to climate change, we have people like our own Bob Carter, who is an adviser to the IPA. He is paid a monthly fee by their American counterpart, the Heartland Institute, as 'part of a program to pay high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist message'. And let us not forget that we have Morris Newman joining the tinfoil hat brigade as one of this government's chief business advisors.

When it comes to the media it is of course hard to go past News Limited's reporting of climate change. But it is not just the Murdoch press that should be singled out. We have a number of outlets, including our own ABC, who have bought into the idea that balanced reporting means giving equal time to opposing arguments, even when one argument has no basis in fact and has been comprehensively discredited. I have always believed that good journalism is not about subscribing to some misplaced idea about balance; it is about getting to the truth.

I want to say something about the creeping censorship that has emerged in this debate—for example, the howls of outrage when someone has the temerity to link extreme weather events with climate change. Soon after the typhoon in the Philippines, for example, I made a simple ,very factual observation that extreme weather is the face of climate change. My colleague Adam Bandt made a similar point when discussing the unseasonal bushfires in New South Wales in October last year. And, of course, we got the mock outrage from the usual suspects, with people like Andrew Bolt saying it was disgraceful that the Greens used a natural disaster to pursue a political agenda, that we would seek to gain political advantage out of this event; that cheap opportunism of this sort is to be deplored, that our comments were insensitive and hurtful, and that we were ideologues who would use any human tragedy for our own selfish political ends.

The ultimate disrespect here is not by those people who are prepared to state what is a simple fact. The disrespect here to victims is by self-appointed censors who indicate that it is now inappropriate that we say when we are seeing something that harms people around the world. Is it the wrong time to talk about road safety if a bus goes off a cliff? Is it wrong to be talking about the responsibility of the coal mine operators in Morwell while the town is blanketed in smoke? Should we not talk about alcohol related violence when someone is in intensive care? Of course we should. That is precisely the time to talk about it. At a time when these things occupy the public consciousness, that is precisely the time to talk about it.

It is not just the Greens who say that. Listen to what the delegate to the Warsaw climate conference said days after the typhoon in the Philippines:

To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of your armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific, the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods, to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling polar ice caps …

Likewise, people living in rural communities affected by bushfires—such as people in my community; I live in an area that is and has been affected by bushfires—have expressed their gratitude to me for daring to say that climate change is a factor in bushfires.

It is easy to blame the media and focus on vested interests, but what we cannot ignore here is the complete lack of political leadership we have seen. I was disappointed when Labor walked away from what was then the greatest moral challenge of our generation and proposed a citizen's assembly. But of course the great criticism here must be directed at the Abbott government. The real political opportunism here was Abbott's seizing the leadership on the back of his party's division over the issue of climate change and suddenly turning an environmental catastrophe into a cost-of-living debate.

What we needed during the last parliament was someone from either side of politics to talk about the reality of climate change in terms of what it really is: a looming environmental catastrophe—one of the great health challenges of the coming generation. Then there is the impact it will have on our neighbours and what it will mean in terms of rising oceans and creating a new class of climate refugees. That is the sort of debate that was missing, because we had two parties falling over each other to tell Australians just how tough they have it and that this was simply a cost-of-living issue.

I could say that many of the actions of the various players in this—that is, the media, the hand-picked scientists, the business advisers and some of the politicians—are motivated by greed or malice. I think that might be true in some cases. But, for the most part, I think something more powerful is at play when it comes to the climate change debate.

What unites most of the opponents of action on climate change is that they live in denial—and I have spoken about denial before. It is a powerful defence mechanism because it helps us deal with uncomfortable or, dare I say it, inconvenient truths. I saw it many times in my medical practice—the smoker who coughs up blood but refuses to go and see a GP or the lady who has a lump but refuses to go and see a GP. They do not see their GP because they worry about what the implications might be.

When it comes to climate change, something very similar is going on. We have people who are ill-equipped, or perhaps simply unable, to deal with what is a very uncomfortable truth. It is uncomfortable because climate change challenges, at its heart, the conservative world view, this world view that grants humans dominion over the earth. It challenges conservative notions of progress and, above all, it forces people on that side of politics to admit that the market has failed. Almost exclusively, people on the conservative side of politics have an almost blinkered world view when it comes to the infallibility of markets. They see any challenge to the primacy of markets as a heresy and that any government intervention is an evil to be avoided at all costs. It is a belief system, an article of faith—no different from any other sort of fundamentalism.

The irony is that opponents of putting a price on pollution are actually arguing against market principles. It might surprise people to know that many of us over here understand the importance of markets. But we also recognise that markets fail. Where there are monopolies, where there is information asymmetry or where there are externalities—as we have seen with climate change—markets do not operate efficiently. Climate change represents the most spectacular example of market failure our generation has ever seen. That is why most economists understand that putting a price on pollution is the most efficient way of combating climate change—and it is why the coalition's Direct Action Plan has no support among the mainstream economic community. Tony Abbott once said that carbon dioxide was an odourless, colourless gas. The Direct Action Plan is friendless and it stinks.

I will now move on to the carbon tax bills.    Australians have every right to be proud of the package of clean energy legislation that was introduced in the last parliament. The clean energy industry was bolstered by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and by the renewable energy target—something else that is in the coalition's crosshairs. Combined with the emissions trading scheme and the establishment of the Climate Change Authority, it was one of the great achievements of the last parliament. The Greens understood it was not perfect, but we were proud of it. Sadly, however, it was undermined from day one. It was undermined by political opportunism, cheap shots, misleading claims and simple slogans.

It is easy to wreck things. Being a wrecker is easy. Tearing things down is easy. Building things is hard. What we have now is a government made up of wreckers who want to tear things down, who want to tear down action on climate change, Medicare and our public education system. Tearing things down is easy. Creating things, building things, nation building—that is hard and that is where this government is failing.

This is not a debate about electricity bills. It is not about scoring cheap political points and settling scores. It is not about Left-Right politics. It is not about conservationists versus obstructionists. This is a debate about life and death. Reducing it to a misleading discussion about a few dollars here and there is irresponsible. That is where the real political opportunism is happening. Failing to face up to the challenge of climate change because there is some political mileage to be gained is the very essence of political opportunism. I am certain that Australians of the future, the generations who come after us, will look back on today's debates with a mixture of anger and bewilderment. They will know that, unlike the generations before us, we had the science and we had the knowledge—and yet we failed to act.

The clean energy package implemented with the support of the Greens represented real hope in turning the tide on climate change and putting Australia on a clean energy footing. To step back now—now that the evidence is clear, now that we have the knowledge—would be a great tragedy. It would be a complete abrogation of our responsibility to future generations. I therefore urge the Senate to do what is right. We cannot pass these bills and we cannot walk away once again from the great moral challenge of our generation. We must protect our clean energy laws.

At the request of Senator Milne, I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

"but the Senate:

(a) rejects this bill and the related bills;

(b) recognises that:

  (i) the world is on track for 4 degrees of warming; and

  (ii) warming of less than 1 degree is already intensifying extreme weather events in Australia and around the world with enormous costs to life and property;

(c) calls on the government to:

  (i) protect the Australian people and environment from climate change by approving no new coal mines or extensions of existing mines, or new coal export terminals; and

  (ii) adopt a trajectory of 40-60% below 2000 levels by 2030 and net carbon zero by 2050 emissions reduction target in global negotiations for a 2015 treaty."

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