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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 16


Senator MILNE (9:50 AM) —I move:

   That—

(a)   the Senate notes that:

(i)   the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that:

(a)   the sea level would rise by between 0.18 metres to 0.59 metres by the end of the century and that these projections do not include the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow because a basis in published literature was lacking,

(b)   there is medium confidence (that is a 50 per cent chance) that at least partial deglaciation of the Greenland ice sheet, and possibly the West Antarctic ice sheet, would occur over a period of time, ranging from centuries to millennia for a global average temperature increase of 1° to 4°C (relative to 1990-2000), causing a contribution to a rise in sea level of 4 to 6 metres or more, and

(c)   many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to a sea level rise by 2080 and the numbers affected will be largest in the mega-deltas of Asia and Africa, while small islands are especially vulnerable,

(ii)   recent scientific research, published too late for inclusion in the IPCC reports, suggests that the sea level is rising more quickly than previously thought and many eminent climate scientists, including Dr James Hansen, Head of Atmospheric Research for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, warn that a warming of 2o to 3oC could melt the ice sheets of West Antarctica and parts of Greenland, resulting in a sea level rise of 5 metres within a century,

(iii)   assessing the impact of even a moderate rise in sea level in Australia remains inadequate for adaptation planning,

(iv)   assessing the vulnerability of low coastal and estuarine regions requires not only mapping height above sea level but must take into account factors such as coastal morphology, susceptibility to long-shore erosion, near shore bathymetry and storm surge frequency,

(v)   delaying analysis of the risk of the rise in sea level exacerbates the likelihood that such information may affect property values and investment through disclosure of increased hazards and possible reduced or more expensive insurance cover, and

(vi)   an early response to the threat of rising sea levels may include avoiding investment in long-lived infrastructure in high risk areas; and

(b)   the following matter be referred to the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Committee for inquiry and report by 3 December 2007:

   An assessment of the risks associated with the rise in sea level in Australia, including an appraisal of:

(i)   recent science relating to projections on the rise in sea level,

(ii)   ecological, social and economic impacts for the full range of projections,

(iii)   adaptation and mitigation strategies,

(iv)   knowledge gaps and research needs, and

(v)   options to communicate risks and vulnerabilities to the Australian community.

I rise today to seek the support of the Senate in referring a matter relating to sea level rise in Australia for assessment by a Senate committee. The reason for this referral is that global warming is proceeding at a rate faster than anyone has anticipated. In fact, sea level rise is now proceeding 50 per cent faster than was predicted by the 2001 report of the IPCC. That is an extraordinarily frightening idea. I will repeat it: the most recent information reveals that sea levels are rising 50 per cent faster than levels predicted in that 2001 IPCC report.

In recent days we have had reports from many highly regarded scientific institutions telling us that the drought is going to be much worse because we are not going to get the rains that people had thought were coming. Overnight from the International Institute for Strategic Studies we have had a report saying that climate change could have global security implications on a par with nuclear war unless urgent action is taken. Yet yesterday we had the Prime Minister in waiting, the current Treasurer, Peter Costello, rushing out to tell us about his future agenda for Australia—and he did not mention climate change! It is completely unthinkable that anyone seeking a leadership position anywhere could not be considering climate change.

Unfortunately, we have got to a situation where a level of complacency has set in again. It is as if it is enough to say, ‘I now believe climate change is real and I’ll get around to doing something about it in the next 50 years.’ That is where we are up to at the moment—flexible targets for reducing energy intensity, not targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall. Since I got into the Senate I have been warning about the implications of sea level rise not only for Australia but for the whole world. But I have not gone as far as the International Institute for Strategic Studies. They say the global security implications of climate change are ‘on a par with nuclear war unless urgent action is taken’. They say global warming would hit crop yields and water availability everywhere, causing great human suffering and leading to regional strife. They say the effects would cause a host of problems, including rising sea levels, forced migration, freak storms, droughts, floods, extinctions, wildfires, disease epidemics and so on and so forth.

It is as if the discussion is now about whose target is the relevant one. But let us get back to the substance of the debate. We are talking about a catastrophe for humankind and the ecosystems on which we depend. We have to take action now. When I first moved this motion for a reference to examine the impact of sea level rise on coastal Australia it was defeated in this place by both the major parties. I hope that today I will at least be able to secure the support of the Labor opposition for this motion, because sea level rise and its impacts around Australia are likely to be dramatic. We are not just talking about sea level rise from thermal expansion of the oceans; we are talking about storm surges and we are talking about increased ice melt in the west Antarctic shelf and Greenland.

I would remind the Senate that scientists from around the world have just recently been telling us that the estimates of sea level rise are completely out of date. We know that the Greenland icecap is melting so quickly that pieces of ice several cubic kilometres in size are breaking off and triggering earthquakes. The chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment says we have seen a massive acceleration of the speed with which these glaciers are moving into the sea. He was in Greenland looking at the problem of the melting icecap. He said the ice is moving at two metres an hour on a front five kilometres long and 1,500 metres deep. He said that means that this one glacier—at Ilulissat in Greenland—puts enough fresh water into the sea in one year to provide drinking water for a city the size of London for a year. The melt-water is pouring through to the bottom of the glacier, creating a lake 500 metres deep, which causes the glacier to float on land. He said these melt-water rivers are lubricating the glacier, like applying oil to a surface, and causing it to slide into the sea. It is causing a massive acceleration which could be catastrophic. And nobody is listening! I cannot believe the level of studied ignorance that is going on.

Since I first moved a very similar motion in the Senate some months ago, the government has moved to start the process of looking at sea level rise around Australia. I welcome that and I recognise that the Australian Greenhouse Office is coordinating some work with Geoscience Australia. They are looking at areas around Australia that are potentially vulnerable to sea level rise. By late next year they will have a first-pass national coastal vulnerability assessment. By the end of 2008 we are going to have the very first preliminary analysis of which areas of Australia are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Of course, we know from the Natural Hazards Research Centre at Macquarie University—just talking about the wider Sydney region, including the Central Coast and the South Coast—that there are almost 13,000 dwellings that are less than two metres above mean sea level and there are over 140,000 dwellings that are less than six metres above mean sea level. The reason that is significant is that, if the Greenland and west Antarctic icesheets go, we are talking about a five- to seven-metre sea level rise. But even a sea level rise of less than one metre would have huge ramifications for estuaries, for coastal Australia, and certainly for our Pacific island neighbours. Millions of people around the world are living in such vulnerable areas, so we have to do something.

When we have floods around Australia, as occurred recently in Tasmania, we see what happens when that is linked with strong and high seas, heavy rain and the highest tide we have seen in a long time. We get extensive flooding. We know that this is going to occur, yet there is no planning for it. Local government around Australia has been extremely slow to change local government planning schemes to accommodate sea level rise and the implications of coastal vulnerability. We still get local government giving planning permission for people to build right on the coast in areas that are vulnerable to flooding. Who is going to pick up the bill? The insurance industry has already said that it will not be responsible in the longer term for insuring properties that are built in areas that are known to be vulnerable to flooding. Is local government going to be sued by people who get planning permission and then have their places flooded? Who is going to compensate those properties and people? It is an issue that is certainly not going to go away. In fact, I would argue that the reason the government—and, in fact, state and local governments—have refused to look at the issue of vulnerability to sea level rise is that they are afraid that property prices on the coast will collapse and angry communities will start demanding answers as to who is going to compensate them if they cannot get insurance as a result of storm surges and flooding.

This is an extremely critical issue, and I can understand why property councils and local, state and federal governments are not interested in addressing it. But they have to get onto it. They have to do something about it. I am arguing that what the government has done by having this first-pass assessment of coastal vulnerability is not good enough and that is why this Senate inquiry is needed. It is not good enough because it is based on the assumptions that came out in the IPCC report earlier this year. Let me say at this point that I support the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change processes absolutely, but I also recognise that they are extremely conservative in their estimates of sea level rise. That is because scientists are by nature conservative, and they have been under such scrutiny and criticism by governments, with the IPCC process also being a political process, that they have made predictions of sea level rise which are, in my view, the most conservative scenario. Several leading scientists have come out recently and said that. In fact, James Hansen, who is known as the father of climate change scientists, recently said that scientific reticence is inhibiting communications of a threat of potentially large sea level rises and that delay is dangerous because of a system inertia that could create a situation with future sea level changes out of our control. He is arguing for the calling together of a panel of scientific leaders to hear evidence and issue a prompt, plain-written report on current understanding of sea level change. He is saying that it is far more serious, that it is accelerating at a far greater rate, that the IPCC in 2001 got it wrong to the extent of 50 per cent—that is, there will be a 50 per cent greater sea level rise than they predicted. So if you go to the most recent report of the IPCC, which said that the sea level rise this century would be between 0.18 metres and 0.59 metres, and if you think that is 50 per cent wrong, then at the higher level you are talking about a 1.2-metre sea level rise. That is a more likely scenario, in my view, given the accelerated melt of the glaciers and what we know about sea level rise.

In August we had a visit to Australia of leading scientists from around the world. Professor Rahmstorf from Germany was here releasing a report saying the same thing, that the risks were not properly represented in the most recent IPCC report. At the time that report came out, Australia’s own Professor John Church said his research on the speed of the melt in the Antarctic and the extent of sea level rise had not been adequately taken into account by the IPCC. So let us assume that these scientists from all over the world are correct and that the IPCC’s report is the most conservative. It is then not good enough for the government to have set up a first pass over Australia’s coastline for a vulnerability analysis that is based on the IPCC’s figures. We should assume that is the absolute baseline, but we should be expanding the capacity of that assessment. We need to look not only at the recent science relating to projections on the rise of sea level but also at the knowledge gaps and the research needs. I believe we should be looking at setting a range of assumptions for this vulnerability to sea level rise analysis that includes the work of these other scientists, such as Professor Church, James Hansen and others around the world, so we get a much broader analysis of sea level rise.

Of course, governments will not want to do that because that will mean a greater number of Australian coastal communities are going to be seen to be in the vulnerable category. But surely it is better for us to err on the side of saying, ‘We need to know what we estimate to be the worst-case scenario, and work back from that,’ rather than saying, ‘Let’s not scare the horses and let’s just look at the minimal impacts of sea level rise.’ We know what happens when you get it wrong. We saw what happened when they got it wrong in New Orleans: they had been told that those levees were inadequate but, no, they thought they were okay based on what they knew from the last 100 years—and the place was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. We know, for example, that with sea level rise and global temperature increases the storm belt around Australia will move south. We know that Brisbane is going to be vulnerable to cyclones. Where is the adequate planning in south-east Queensland for the devastation from events that will occur because of global warming? We have also had recent studies looking at the thermohaline conveyor, the ocean conveyor that controls temperature in so many parts of the planet, including in Europe, where it controls the climate and makes northern Europe liveable because of its modifying effect. We now know that that is slowing down.

All of these trends are indicating that the world is facing a major crisis. Yet in Australia the best we can do is have a Prime Minister who is a sceptic; a Prime Minister in waiting who cannot even remember that climate change is an issue when he sets out his agenda for the future; and a government in waiting, in the opposition, who say they acknowledge climate change but will not set a short-term target and keep supporting expansion of the coal industry and the logging of high-conservation-value forests, which are huge carbon sinks. The opposition say they have a target but they will not say how they are going to meet it because two of the ways of meeting it—coal and forests—are off their agenda in terms of any reduction of ongoing activity. Australians deserve better. Australians deserve some honesty from government and an opportunity to have input. That is why a public inquiry, like a Senate inquiry, is essential. We need the scientists to come forward and tell us what their views are about whether the IPCC’s predictions are adequate and whether the terms of reference for the vulnerability analysis that is currently being conducted are adequate or should be expanded to include this new science, which is so very frightening, about how fast the glaziers are melting, how fast the temperatures are rising and how dramatically that is impacting climate and ecosystems.

Overnight from Europe we have had the release of the IUCN red list of threatened species for 2007. Once again we are being told that species are being lost at a far greater rate than before. Once you lose species and ecosystems you lose ecosystem services, which provide clean water and clean air to communities. We have a planet on which there are millions of people vulnerable at this very moment to sea level rise. Our Pacific island neighbours are sitting there, begging for assistance to deal with adaptation to known sea level rise and with concerns about planning for the future.

We need to mitigate increased global temperatures. We need to underpin all our policies with a commitment to constraining a rise in global temperature to less than two degrees. We need to have an honest discussion with the Australian people about the latest science on sea level rise, the vulnerability of coastal communities and the adequacy of planning in those coastal communities. We need to recognise that in some places we will be able to adapt to climate change by a range of engineering solutions but in other places we will not. In many areas, like Kakadu, for example, we will see the loss of large parts of the ecosystem because of saltwater incursion.

There will be coastal communities around Australia which will be tagged, as they have been in Britain, for managed retreat. It is shocking for Australians to hear, I am sure, that the British government, having analysed sea level rise and vulnerability around the UK, have said, ‘We cannot save the entire coastline of the UK. So there will be communities which we must assist in managed retreat.’ They now have a series of strategies to do that.

Australia is not even at first base. We cannot produce a map today that tells us what are the likely implications of sea level rise for vulnerable coastal communities. That is a disgrace when we know the science of climate change. So I urge the Senate and the ‘Prime Minister in waiting’ to get realistic about climate change, to stop obfuscating, to recognise that we are facing the greatest crisis that we have known in our lifetime. This is a much bigger issue than terrorism. Climate change and the earth’s vulnerability are in our face right now. We, as elected leaders, must respond to that. (Time expired)