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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2557


Mr MURPHY (4:40 PM) —The recent appalling fires in Victoria, not to mention the floods in Queensland and New South Wales, prompted the highly respected Professor Tim Flannery to write a worrying article in the Fairfax press about the continuing and growing risk of the effects of global warming. In that article he called for urgent action to reduce emissions to forestall an even worse situation in the future. I have previously reported that an eight-metre increase in sea levels could occur suddenly if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed, which is possible if average global temperatures increase by two degrees above pre-industrial levels. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have a less than 10 per cent chance of avoiding such an increase in average temperatures within the next 10 years.

Even though the level of risk of the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is uncertain—it may be large or small; we do not presently know—the geological evidence shows that it has happened in the past. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet does collapse, the consequences would be completely disastrous. Amongst the immediate effects would be the flooding of ports, the collapse of trade and the severing of communications—for example, road and rail links on the New South Wales coast and at Sydney Airport. There would be hundreds of millions of refugees looking for new homes as low-lying areas flooded around the world. This risk alone should be enough for policy makers to make serious preparations for such an event and for governments to force rapid reductions in emissions.

Despite these warnings we now hear that a senior member of the Queensland National Party is once again attempting to mislead us by putting forward statements that are not supported by the truth. Referring to the evidence for the effect of carbon dioxide emissions on climate change, the honourable senator was reported by the ABC on 8 March as saying:

… that debate is open. You will get a body of scientists that say it is and you will get an equal body of scientists who say it isn’t.

If the honourable senator were to investigate this matter more carefully, he would in fact find that, overwhelmingly, reputable scientists would not support his position. The honourable senator was evidently speaking for the Leader of the Opposition when he said that the coalition should oppose the emissions trading scheme. Popular science journals such as New Scientist and Scientific American constantly report that highly respected scientists are most concerned that the world’s governments have yet to appreciate the urgency that the growing tide of evidence provides and that action is far behind what is needed to arrest the measured rates of change of rainfall distribution and temperatures. At least the Rudd Labor government is far ahead of the former government’s position on this very critical issue.

On a brighter note, President Obama has recently appointed four eminent scientists to top administration posts. John Holdren, a former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a leading expert on climate change, has been appointed as science adviser and as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Professor Holdren will also direct the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. Joining him as co-chairs of the council will be Nobel Prize winning scientist Harold Varmus, a former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Professor Eric Lander, a specialist in human genome research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jane Lubchenco, another leading climate change expert, will lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees ocean and atmospheric studies and does much of the government’s research on global warming.

These appointments are a major change from the Bush administration’s policy of hostility towards science, and I have no doubt we will quickly see important announcements on measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Dr James Hanson, Head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warned at a briefing to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in June last year, that the ‘elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled’. The Opposition’s position on what has the potential to become an existential crisis should be seen for what it really is—a cynical attempt to make political capital out of an unfolding catastrophe.