Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Statements by Senators


1:12 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to talk about how urgent it is for us to take action on our environment to protect our precious places and the animals and plants that are facing extreme extinction. Australians love the great outdoors, from our beaches to our forests, rivers and wide, open plains. We have some of the most unique flora and fauna in the world. In Australia nearly 50 per cent of our birds, 87 per cent of our mammals and 93 per cent of our flowering plants are unique to us. But much of this is under threat. Climate breakdown, land clearing and invasive species are wreaking havoc on our natural environment. We're ranked fourth in the world for plant and animal extinctions, as well as holding the terrible record of being the only developed country listed as a deforestation hotspot. We have 517 animals, 1,373 plants and 85 distinct ecological communities listed as nationally threatened or extinct, and these numbers, sadly, are trending in the wrong direction.

The United Nations tells us that there are a million species globally under threat of extinction. A million! Their recent report warned:

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating …

The chair of this UN body, Sir Robert Watson, says, however, with hope that it's not too late:

Through 'transformative change', nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably … By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.

Sir David Attenborough put it a little more succinctly when he recently said, 'We cannot be radical enough in dealing with these issues.'

But, here in Australia, we have a government riddled with climate deniers intent on winding back climate action and blocking any meaningful reforms—reforms that are needed in how we produce and consume energy, how we farm and how we get from place to place. While they continue hiding and playing down our own carbon pollution data—our emissions data, which show our emissions are rising, not falling, as Minister Taylor would have you believe—they're intent on spinning that everything is all okay, when all of the data, the science and the loss of species are telling us otherwise.

The government have allowed broadscale land clearing to continue, destroying habitat. They continue to leave our threatened species floundering, delaying additions to the threatened species list and cutting funding from an already struggling environment department that can't even meet its obligations as it is. This is not the kind of transformative change that we need if we're to create a future that we can recognise.

The problems we face aren't just about losing species; what happens to the planet affects us all. Many Australians care deeply about what type of action we're taking, and we're doing everything we can, making small changes in our homes and in our lives, to try and do things better. Whether it's recycling; using less plastic; installing water tanks, solar panels and batteries in our homes and businesses; planting trees; or doing much more, every day people are taking small actions to try and improve their environment because they know that we have to act and we have to act quickly.

Of course, it's not just individuals; it's businesses and community groups too. They're grappling with how to be responsible citizens in an age of climate breakdown. Just this week, Andrew Mackenzie, the chief executive at BHP, the world's largest mining company, endorsed a carbon price. He knows, though, that even this won't go far enough. That's why he's committing hundreds of millions of dollars to curbing BHP's direct emissions and the emissions generated from the use of their resources, so the company can achieve net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. That's leadership. When talking about how to deal with the climate crisis, he said:

An 'all of the above' solution barely gets us there. All emitters, resource companies, customers, consumers must play their part together with governments to meet the climate challenge.

He is right. If we are to solve the climate emergency, we must take swift and meaningful action. We must work together—government, business and people—because our problems require political solutions.

Here in this place, we must act. The climate and extinction crisis we are currently facing requires political solutions; it can't just be left to people doing things in their homes and in their businesses. We need political solutions to curb the crisis. We know it can be solved. We know that the solutions are there if we have the political will to do so. If we are to halt and reverse the damage we are doing to our natural environment, we must take urgent steps.

Our environment laws need updating. Currently, they don't even account for climate change. We've got these environmental laws and they don't protect the planet from worsening climate change. For all the talk of Adani's approvals, big oil drilling in the bight or widespread land clearing in Queensland and New South Wales, there is no mechanism in Australian law to consider the climate impacts of these projects and developments. That's why we need a climate trigger. Our environment laws have not kept up with our environmental reality. Climate change is at the centre of all the threats to this planet and the environment today. While a price on carbon looks unlikely in the near future, because of the climate deniers on the other side, we need something that will limit the damage to the climate. At the very least, let's not make things worse.

A climate trigger would give us a mechanism to assess major developments, and approve or reject them based on their emissions and whether they make climate change and pollution worse. But reducing our carbon pollution won't be enough to save the species that are already under threat. With our list of threatened species continuing to grow, it's well past time that their recovery plans are fully funded. That's why we must, as a bare minimum, commit to the $200 million a year that environmental scientists are arguing is needed to fund our threatened species recovery plans. We must stem the tide of extinction, and that requires investment in our environment.

We're often criticised at this end of the chamber as being unrealistic. Well, this isn't about being realistic; this is about being pragmatic. This is about facing the crisis that we see in front of us head-on, not pretending that it's simply going to go away. We're not putting our heads in the sand. We continue to do this with hope. As Rebecca Solnit says:

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal … To hope is to give yourself to the future—and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.

As a mother of a 12-year-old daughter, as an aunt, as a sister, as a friend, as a global citizen, I cannot sit by while we allow the future to be eroded by a lack of political action. Across the country, Australians want us to act. They want this place to stand up and take these crises seriously. We can solve the extinction and climate crisis if we're willing to do it, but it's going to take a bit of cooperation, a bit of reality, a bit of pragmatism. As the great naturalist David Attenborough said:

I feel an obligation. The only way you can get up in the morning is to believe that, actually, we can do something about it.

And I suppose, just like David Attenborough, I think we can—and we must.