Senate debates

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Migration (Climate Refugees) Amendment Bill 2007

Second Reading

9:53 am

Photo of Kerry NettleKerry Nettle (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table the explanatory memorandum and to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

This Bill formally recognises climate refugees as a responsibility that will pose serious challenges to governments as this century progresses and climate change transforms our environment.

The Stern Report commissioned by the British Government concluded that between 150 million and 200 million people could be displaced by climate change by 2050.

A recent Christian Aid report concluded 250 million people would be displaced by climate change between now and 2050.

The world must prepare for this challenge and this bill is a first step.

We must also lead the world towards new international agreement on how to manage future climate refugees.

Neither the government nor the Labor Party have accepted or understand just how serious the consequences of global warming are.

The Prime Minister is being seriously negligent in presenting the issue as a choice between economic growth and acting to reduce carbon emissions. There is no such choice.

Our society and our economy rely on the environment. If we ruin our environment, then there will be very real and serious economic and social consequences. The Stern Report concluded that unmitigated climate change could cost the global economy more than the ‘combined cost of the two world wars and the Great Depression’.

If we do not act now on climate change, it will cost us a tot more in the future.

Renowned anthropologist, Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, catalogues numerous civilisations that have grown large, sophisticated and powerful only to disappear suddenly. He concludes that environmental disaster, either from a changing climate or the exhaustion of natural resources is the culprit in these sudden collapses.

Contemporary civilisation now spans the globe and it would be ridiculous to suggest that we are immune to the effects of changing climate and resource depletion.

Climate change will displace people around the world by making their immediate environment unhabitable.

Although our Pacific Island neighbours have made virtually no contribution to the greenhouse pollution now causing climate change, they will be among the first victims.

Already the Carteret islands of Papua New Guinea are being evacuated. The Pacific island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati are already starting to drown. Nakibae Teuatabo, a representative of Kiribati, spoke to the New Scientist in 2000 about the plight of his country:

“Apart from causing coastal erosion, higher tides are pushing salt water into the fields and into underground fresh-water reservoirs. In some places, it just bubbles up from the ground.”

As the wealthiest country in the Pacific we have a special responsibility to help our neighbours deal with the consequences of climate change and this should include the migration of displaced people to Australia.

This responsibility is magnified if you consider that Australia is one of the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse pollution and the world’s largest exporter of coal.

Sea level rise does not just threaten remote Pacific islands. Large swathes of Bangladesh are vulnerable; the fertile Nile Delta in Egypt could be swallowed by the seas; major cities such as Shanghai, New York, London and even parts of Sydney are at risk.

14,500 years ago, during a time of global warming after the last Ice Age there was an occurrence of rapid sea level rise. Within 400 years the seas rose 20 metres—that is one metre every twenty years. Recent scientific investigations have revealed information about the fragility of Antarctic ice shelves and their potential to break up, as well as information about the acceleration and retreat of massive glaciers on both Greenland and in Antarctica. This information should cause alarm. NASA’s top climate modeller, Dr Jim Hansen calls the melting of the world’s ice sheets “a ticking time bomb” and says sea level rise will be “the big global issue”.

It is not just rising sea level that has the capacity to create climate refugees in the near future. As the Earth warms precipitation patterns will change causing catastrophic floods in some areas and in other areas turning currently cultivatable land into desert. Monsoons may change direction and strength and could fail to water the world’s bread baskets.

Mountain glaciers around the world are already shrinking at an alarming rate. The glaciers of the Himalayas are the source of major rivers such as the Indus, Yangtze, Mekong and Ganges that currently sustain half the world’s population.

A couple of degrees of warming could results in many millions being without adequate water and food and on the move as climate refugees.

The climate models suggest that the ‘lungs of the world’, the Amazon rainforest, is vulnerable to more than two degrees of global warming. They predict that rainfall may decease over the Amazon basin and it could dry up. The likely result would be massive forest fires (similar to the Asian fires of 1998) that would consume the dry rainforest, releasing billions of tonnes more carbon. After the fires have consumed the forest a new savannah would be likely to establish itself in the new climate.

As we heat the planet, climatic zones are predicted to move toward the poles. The Sahara desert may gain rainfall and become greener, while the dry arid climate of North Africa could migrate across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. The weather pattern that provides regular rains that produce half our nation’s wheat in the south west corner of Western Australia is likely to move south over the ocean. South west Western Australia is likely to dry up and experience the aridity of the rest of the state. Similar climatic shifts around the world would displace hundreds of millions of people as the century progresses.

The lesson we must learn is that our climate is a complex and interlinked system upon which we all rely. Pumping billions of tonnes of CO2 is not a wise move. Until relatively recently we were not aware of the consequences of what humankind has been doing since the industrial revolution. We can no longer plead ignorance. To know what we now know about carbon emissions and to not act decisively to stop climate change would be deeply unethical.

As the scientific knowledge about the climatic consequences of global warming increases, the urgency for action to stop it only amplifies.

A three-degree rise, which is possible within decades, is simply way outside human experience. The last time it was that hot, in the Pliocene era three million years ago, beech trees grew in the Transantarctic mountains and the seas were 25 metres higher.

Mark Lynas, author of the book six Degrees, which details the likely consequences of climate change (drawn from the available scientific literature) over global temperature rises from 1 to 6 degrees, writes of the seriousness of climate change:

If we had wanted to destroy as much of life on Earth as possible, there would have been no better way of doing it than to dig up and burn as much fossil hydrocarbon as we possibly could.”

Setting a temperature target of two degrees and implementing policies to drastically reduce our greenhouse pollution emissions to 30% by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050 should be the highest national priorities.

We must also prepare the mechanisms to deal with the issue and consequences of climate refugees.

The government of Tuvalu and Kiribati have approached the Australian and New Zealand governments on several occasions to request a plan for the migration of their populations as their homelands become unhabitable.

New Zealand has implemented a ‘Pacific Access Category’ under which 75 people from Tuvalu and Kiribati may migrate to New Zealand every year.

This bill creates a new class of visa under section 36 of the Migration Act called the ‘climate change refugee visa’.

This bill grants the Minister for Immigration the power to assess an environmental disaster that has displaced people and to make a ‘climate change induced environmental disaster’ declaration.

Such a declaration may only be made by the Minister personally.

When considering whether or not to make such a declaration, the Minister can give consideration to the geographical scope of the disaster; the possibilities for adaptation and the long-term sustainability of the area; the capacity of the country and neighbouring countries to absorb displaced persons; and other international efforts of assist.

Such a declaration may include setting the number of visas that will be issued to people displaced by a declared disaster and the criteria of how such displaced people would apply to be accepted as climate refugees.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has told the Senate Estimates Committee that Australia would be able to accept people displaced by environmental disasters through various mechanisms that currently exist within the Migration Act 1958. This Bill formally recognises and implements specific mechanisms by which Australia would assess and accept climate refugees.

Australia should be able to take several hundred climate refugees per year from the Pacific nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati. This would ease the pressure on these nations and prepare the way for their eventual evacuation as the ocean claims the country.

Tuvaluans and other Pacific Islanders do not want to lose their connection with their homeland or their cultural identity. Their preferred option would be for the rest of the world to stop pumping out the billions of tonnes of greenhouse pollution that is causing the rising sea levels. Many may choose to stay until the last bit of land is swallowed by the sea.

Under this bill the Minister for Immigration would have the power to make a declaration that Tuvalu is suffering a climate change induced environmental disaster due to rising sea levels and more intense storms. The Minister could the set a limit of, say, 300 Tuvaluans being accepted as climate refugees per year and set out how they apply and the criteria by which applicants would be assessed.

Climate refugees are currently a minor problem that could become a major global crisis.

Australia should raise the issue of climate refugees within the United Nations. We should work with other nations to form a new international framework to deal with climate refugees in a just and efficient manner.

The United Nations Convention on Refugees has provided a framework for the treatment, assessment and re-settlement of refugees. Millions of people around the world have been provided protection, safety and the chance for a new life under this convention.

Climate refugees are not refugees as defined under the existing convention. They seek refuge not from persecution, although this may be a consequence of climate change, but seek refuge from an environmental disaster or are otherwise displaced by climate change.

The Australian Greens hope that this bill assists in providing guidance and leadership toward a multilateral framework to deal with climate refugees.

The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon wrote an opinion piece entitled A Climate Culprit In Darfur in the Washington Post on the 16 June 2007. The Secretary General about the conflict in Dafur, Sudan being partly due to climate change:

“Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.

Two decades ago, the rains in southern Sudan began to fail. According to U. N. statistics, average precipitation has declined some 40 percent since the early 1980s. Scientists at first considered this to be an unfortunate quirk of nature. But subsequent investigation found that it coincided with a rise in temperatures of the Indian Ocean, disrupting seasonal monsoons. This suggests that the drying of sub-Saharan Africa derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming.

...Once the rains stopped, farmers fenced their land for fear it would be ruined by the passing herds. For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out. By 2003, it evolved into the full-fledged tragedy we witness today.”

The British Home Secretary, John Reid has also cited global warming as a cause of the conflict in Dafur, saying in March:

“The blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see unfolding in Dafur. We should see this as a warning sign.”

The conflict in Dafur has displaced 1.6 million people within Sudan, with a further 220,000 fleeing across the border into Chad. The conflict has now spread to neighbouring Chad with over 100,000 people already internally displaced within Chad.

The tragedy in Dafur is likely to be repeated elsewhere as global warming progresses and there is increased competition for the remaining natural resources.

Our first priority must be to mitigate global warming as a matter of urgency to avoid a proliferation of conflicts such as Dafur.

Our second priority should be to assist those who will be affected by the global warming already in the pipeline. This bill is a beginning. It sets a framework of how we can assist people in need and will require resources and commitment.

I urge all Senators to open their hearts as well as their minds and support this bill.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.