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Thursday, 10 May 2007
Page: 18

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (10:10 AM) —I speak in order to support the amendment moved by the member for Kingsford Smith and certainly to support the considered remarks of the member for Throsby. Treasurer Costello said on Tuesday in his budget speech:

We were living beyond our means. Today we are living within our means.

The idea is that we do not spoil things for our children and for future generations. I totally support and endorse that idea. But when it comes to climate change and global warming emissions, we are not living within our means. Scientists tell us that we need to reduce our greenhouse emissions by 60 per cent by the year 2050. But the policies of this government have us on track for a 27 per cent increase in emissions by the year 2020. There can be no clearer example of the way we are living beyond our means and the way we are spoiling things for the future than the impact that global warming is having on the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world. And it is not as if members of the Howard government have not known this was going on. Let me quote a former Liberal environment minister:

I think that the reef is already showing significant stress from global warming. We’ve seen two significant bleaching events within the last four years on the reef. It’s always difficult to say that any particular event is due to global warming, whether it’s the drought or a bleaching event on the reef. But there’s no doubt that as the world warms and the temperatures of the oceans rise, that there are likely to be more such bleaching events.

That was Dr David Kemp, a former federal environment minister, in April 2003. So the Howard government has, for 11 years, watched over, presided over, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. We know that a three degree rise in temperature would see something like 97 per cent of the reef suffering coral bleaching. The government has received report after report warning of the dangers to the reef but, instead of acting, it has delivered a decade of denial and inaction over dangerous climate change and its consequences.

Labor is committed to helping the reef. We intend to take action on climate change. We intend to prohibit oil and gas exploration in Australian waters adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and we intend to extend the boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area to the boundary of Australia’s exclusive economic zone.

The Howard government has also repeatedly ignored the concerns of the Queensland fishing industry and, on four occasions during its time in office, it has been forced to act after the event to review and upgrade its fishing industry structural adjustment packages. Given that the Great Barrier Reef has such national and international significance, we need to ensure that the maximum number of relevant voices participate in the development of policy necessary for its protection.

The great historian Arnold Toynbee, writing in the early 1970s, coined the term ‘biosphere’ to describe that unique envelope surrounding our planet within which all life exists. While humanity may have an inordinate capacity to shape and fashion our immediate world, our behaviour has not been without consequence, and for other inhabitants on this planet their existence is very much affected by the world we have chosen to create. Humanity has impacted on all other life. There is an irony in the growing public awareness that, for all our great endeavours and progress, we are reaching the point where we are starting to fundamentally impact upon the very biosphere that sustains our existence. The evidence for this appears no more clearly than in those environments where life is at its most fragile. Coral reefs are among the most diverse and fragile ecosystems on the planet. They have a central importance for our tropical coastlines; they are a lead indicator of the state of play on global warming. Coral reefs are the equivalent, as the member for Throsby said, of the canary and the coalmine, giving us an early warning as to the health of the most fragile ecosystems susceptible to the consequences of human activity.

Indeed, as one prominent scientist noted, the canary and the coalmine analogy begs the question as to whether coral reefs are actually the mining team itself, given the role they play in coral ecosystems around the world. So make no mistake, the Great Barrier Reef is an asset of considerable and growing economic value for our nation and, if current estimates of the consequences of global warming are correct, our nation runs a real risk of presiding over one of humanity’s great acts of environmental, cultural and economic vandalism.

Despite the sceptics in the government, from the Prime Minister down, the science on global warming and the impact of human activity in generating greenhouse gas emissions is well and truly in. The recent data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are at their highest level for at least 650,000 years. The data shows that, in the 650,000 years prior to the commencement of the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of C0 in the atmosphere varied broadly between 180 and 280 parts per million. Today, these concentrations are in the order of 380 parts per million. More significantly, we have an acceleration of the increase. That is now of paramount concern. The long run rate of change, according to the best available data, has been in the order of 0.3 to 0.9 parts per million of C0 per century. So, as the earth came out of glacial periods or ice ages, temperatures increased in the order of 0.2 degrees Celsius a century.

But today we are witnessing increases many times greater. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, between 1960 and 2005 the average rate at which carbon dioxide concentrations increased was 1.4 parts per million per year and, between 1995 and 2005, the rise increased to 1.9 parts per million per year. We have experienced warming of 0.6 degrees Celsius over the past century alone and even the most mild IPCC scenarios have projections of a warming of between three and four degrees Celsius in the coming century.

What does that mean for the Great Barrier Reef? It means the painful reality that a significant amount of this peak increase is already locked in from past human activity and that the Great Barrier Reef is already facing substantial stress from global warming. There will be potential temperature rises of between two and five degrees Celsius. The IPCC’s reports suggest that, with an increase of about 2.4 degrees Celsius over the next century, coral reefs around the globe, including the Great Barrier Reef, face virtual extinction. Having completed the most extensive and in-depth study on global warming and its impact on the Great Barrier Reef, one eminent scientist in this field concluded:

… the mildest climate change scenarios are the only ones in which coral reefs have any chance of recovering in the near future … they highlight the importance of reducing other pressures on coral reefs so as to maximise reef resilience.

It is not as though the Great Barrier Reef itself has not been sending out distress signals. The reef has experienced seven mass bleaching events since 1979—in 1980, 1982, 1987, 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2002. According to the most recent study on the Great Barrier Reef and climate change, there were no reports of mass bleaching prior to 1979:

Since 1979, bleaching events have become more intense and widespread, culminating in the statements that 1998 and … 2002 were the strongest bleaching events on record.

When it comes to bleaching, the evidence is plain: corals that are warmer than normal will bleach and corals that become the warmest will die. Currently, the Great Barrier Reef is among the healthiest and best-managed coral reef ecosystems in the world. Despite this, it is threatened by a number of direct and indirect human activities. Worldwide, coral reefs are in very poor shape. According to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s coral reefs will be lost by as early as 2010, and another 20 per cent will be lost in the next 20 years, unless urgent management action is implemented. The combination of coral change and climate change amid an intense setting of other impacts and stresses has reduced the resilience of reef systems to a point where most are threatened by elimination.

The Townsville Declaration on Coral Reef Research and Management highlights the almost unanimous opinion of the world’s leading scientists that coral reefs are globally and critically endangered. For example, prior to 1977, communities around the island of Jamaica used to have coral cover in excess of 70 per cent. Currently, it is below five per cent in most places. Overfishing and pollution have driven massive and accelerating decreases in the abundance of coral reef species and caused global changes in reef ecosystems over the past couple of centuries. Scientists are saying that, if these trends continue, coral reefs will decline further, resulting in the loss of biodiversity and economic value.

According to some estimates, almost a million species are likely to face extinction before 2040. It is not as if the government has not had ample opportunity to tackle the challenges of global warming, both on a national and on an international level, notwithstanding the obstacle of intransigent US policy in this area. We have low-hanging fruit—for example, we can dramatically increase energy efficiency across the nation. That can be achieved through measures such as improved insulation in households and businesses, and education campaigns showing us how to minimise our energy waste by, for example, turning off electrical systems at the power point instead of having those systems on standby. We have abundant sources of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, and we have enormous energy alternatives with gas. I have spoken previously in this place about the way in which we are failing to get best use from our gas reserves. As for the position of the US, both the US President and Vice-President are representatives of big energy—and they have got form in this area. The Bush administration’s energy policy has been developed by key private sector energy companies, and the Vice-President’s anti-environmental record goes all the way back to the Nixon-Ford era as he battled for the first clean air acts in the United States.

In the area of global warming we should not follow the example of the United States administration. We run the risk of great cost to our nation and our planet if we do so. This is the moment at which the precautionary principle meets a procrastination penalty. It is all well and good to be sceptical and to have doubts but, when the objective science is in and reality bites, the time has well and truly arrived to take action. To anyone alive to the science of this issue, the science is clear. The science about the consequences of this government’s inaction and procrastination is mounting rapidly, and none of those scenarios are pretty. All of us in this parliament are ultimately merely custodians of the health of this nation for our children, for our grandchildren and for future generations. When we fail to enact good policy, we are passing on our bills and our obligations from our generation to the next. Most profoundly, in the area of global warming, this will limit their future.

Not so long ago our government embarked on a tourism drive with the slogan: ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ It is more than likely that future generations of Australians will be wondering and asking of this government, when it comes to global warming policy over the last decade, ‘Where the bloody hell were you?’ As for our children and future generations surveying the bleached remains of our once-great Barrier Reef and lamenting the passing of this icon, I fear the epitaph will be even more direct: ‘What the bloody hell have you done?’ Al Gore’s wake-up call on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, quoted Winston Churchill as saying, ‘We are now entering the era of consequences.’ Indeed we are. The question is: how has this government responded to this threat? How has the government responded to this era of global warming consequences? I will quote from an article by Clinton Porteous and Scott Murdoch in the Courier-Mail in November last year. It says:

Floating shadecloth could be used to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the growing threat of climate change.

Federal Tourism Minister Fran Bailey said yesterday protective barriers could be attached to pontoons in a project the Government would consider helping to fund.

…     …         …

“One of the ways they have suggested is to use shadecloths over the most exposed parts of the reef,” she said. “I think it is a good idea. We have to be innovative in tackling what are potential problems.”

For the benefit of the minister, let me observe that the Great Barrier Reef consists of 2,800 individual reefs and extends for over 2,000 kilometres. We are not talking about a sailcloth for Burke’s Backyard here. We are not talking about roofing the Rod Laver Arena. Never let it be said that we have a government lacking in infrastructure vision for Australia! Maybe the minister thinks that if we paint the shadecloth in bright colours—we might get Ken Done onto it—then people will not notice that the coral has in fact lost its colour and has gone white. Talk about destroying the village in order to save it! You have conservative politicians running around trying to stoke up opposition to wind farms and claiming that they are unsightly. Here we have the tourism minister seriously countenancing a proposition to disfigure and vandalise one of the natural wonders of the world. They would sooner see the Great Barrier Reef turned into the ‘Great Barrier Roof’ than get serious about renewable energy. You have to ask: how is this campaign to roof the reef going so far? Have we wrecked Great Keppel Island yet? Have we walled in the Whitsundays? Have we dunked Dunk Island? Perhaps the minister might tell us these things in his summing up. In conclusion, it will be a matter of abject shame for this generation if the Great Barrier Reef is allowed to bleach and die within our lifetimes. I urge the House to support the amendment.