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Thursday, 4 February 2010
Page: 442


Mr MURPHY (11:57 AM) —The Leader of the Opposition’s statement that he thinks climate change is absolute crap and his previous remarks where he compared the Copenhagen climate change conference with the notorious Munich accord between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler reveal the extraordinary shallowness of his preparation for high office. Not only has he deliberately confused the purpose of the climate change conference with political blackmail by a tyrant but also he has, by implication, slandered those who attended as either villains or fools. The participants were plainly neither, yet this smear evidently serves the purpose of Leader of the Opposition and his followers in their manipulation of the deluded climate change deniers within the ranks of the Liberal-National Party coalition.

On this point, last Saturday the Sydney Morning Herald reported the extraordinary story that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, when Minister for Education, Science and Training, had arranged for Tim Johnston, the author of the something-for-nothing Firepower fuel pill scheme, to have not one but two dinners with the then Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, to discuss—of all things—climate change. The debate on climate change this week in the House has shown that the members of the former government were, and still are, happy to take advice from persons with absolutely no credentials in the field, yet when reputable scientists warn that action to reduce emissions is urgently required the Leader of the Opposition is among the first to attack any perceived error in the presentation of the data.

While the Leader of the Opposition only intends to use these issues to spread confusion and fear for his personal advantage, the evidence for the case to reduce greenhouse gas emissions grows. Contrary to the claims of the deniers, the governments of the world are no longer at the beginning of the debate about the science of global warming. They are not in the middle and undecided, as the Leader of the Opposition misleadingly contends, but at the end and in favour of action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as rapidly as possible. I would like to quickly outline the way in which the science developed until the 1950s, at which time compelling evidence for the controlling effect of carbon dioxide on climate was firmly established by a long line of eminent independent scientists. Then I will summarise some of the necessary responses.

Following the fundamental advances in physics and chemistry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, scientists first realised that atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide cause a greenhouse effect that modifies the surface temperature of planetary bodies like the earth. For the benefit of those opposite and other deniers I digress briefly into some elementary physics that is the basis of the argument about global warming, not quantum mechanics—not Einstein’s special theory of relativity nor his general theory but basic undergraduate level physics. In 1990 the German physicist Max Planck produced a mathematical description of the law of nature by which all objects emit a mixture of electromagnetic radiation in proportions that depend on that object’s temperature. We perceive this radiation as wavelengths of infrared radiation known commonly as heat radiation or visible light, ultraviolet, microwaves, radio waves, X-rays and so forth. This law now known as Planck’s black body spectrum makes predictions that are in complete agreement with experimental results at all temperatures.

For instance—and this is the point—we can calculate using Planck’s formula, as can any undergraduate or accountant using a spreadsheet, that the sun with a surface temperature of 5,600 degrees Celsius has its brightest emission in the visible light part of the spectrum, while the earth with a mean surface temperature of about 13 degrees Celsius has its brightest emission in the infrared or heat radiation part of the spectrum. If the earth had no atmosphere or a very thin atmosphere like Mars, then the average surface temperature would be a chilly minus 70 degrees Celsius, yet it is plainly warmer. This is due to the greenhouse effect of atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide that absorb some of the infrared radiation radiated by the earth and transfer the trapped heat back to the surface. This understanding, the result of measurements begun by the Frenchman Joseph Fourier in the 1820s, shows that changes in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide could affect global temperatures. As Fourier explained 170 years ago, energy in the form of visible light from the sun easily penetrates the atmosphere to reach the surface and it heats up. But this heat cannot so easily escape back into space. These initial investigations by Fourier were undertaken as part of an attempt to understand the processes that had led to the huge climate change that had produced the preceding ice ages, then a hotly debated topic among the scientists of the day.

In 1859, the English scientist John Tyndall conducted a series of measurements on the heat-trapping properties of atmospheric gases and showed that carbon dioxide, although only present in parts per 10,000, could effectively block the transmission of heat radiation through the atmosphere. Tyndall showed that just as visible light could pass through water many metres deep and be blocked by a single sheet of dark paper, sunlight could pass through the atmosphere, equivalent to a mass of water up to 10 metres thick, while reradiated heat energy from the earth could be trapped by atmospheric carbon dioxide, currently equivalent to an opaque layer less than half a millimetre thick. In this way, a trace quantity of carbon dioxide changes the climate by altering the balance of energy that either passes through the atmosphere to space as heat radiation or is scattered back to the surface to produce global warming. This elementary explanation for the effect of carbon dioxide on climate was, as I have said, well understood before the turn of the 19th century.

In 1896, the Nobel Prize winning Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, also investigating the origins of ice ages, calculated by hand that the effect of doubling the then concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide would be to increase average global temperatures by some five to six degrees Celsius. At the time, an average temperature a few degrees higher did not seem like a bad thing for the inhabitants of a cold northern country like Sweden. This complacent view persisted until the 1950s, along with the unsubstantiated opinion held by many non-scientific authorities that human activities could not, and were not, affecting global temperatures and that the atmosphere and oceans were a self-regulating system that would compensate for the effect of any carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere. This is a view evidently still held by the Leader of the Opposition more than 60 years later. Importantly, inaccurate early measurements that have been used to support this position appeared to show that the infrared absorption bands of water vapour and carbon dioxide overlapped, leading to the erroneous conclusion that any effect of changing carbon dioxide levels on global temperatures would have been swamped by atmospheric water vapour.

Following technical advances in World War II, the situation was completely changed by a series of measurements of the infrared properties of atmospheric gases that were funded by the United States military, more concerned about immediate weapons applications than future climate change. The more accurate postwar measurements demonstrated that, at the low pressures and temperatures found in the upper atmosphere, the infrared absorption bands of water vapour and carbon dioxide did not overlap strongly and the transmission of infrared radiation to space through the frigid upper atmosphere that holds little water vapour can be significantly affected by variations in carbon dioxide concentrations. This was a key discovery in understanding the details of the mechanism responsible for the trapping by atmospheric carbon dioxide of infrared radiation emitted by the earth.

Following that discovery, in 1956 the physicist Gilbert Plass, using the latest computer technology, calculated the transmission of infrared radiation across the infrared spectrum and layer by layer through the atmosphere and showed that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at that time could result in a surface temperature increase of three to four degrees Celsius. The work of Plass proved one central point: that it was no longer possible to use arguments based on previously inaccurate measurements of properties of the atmosphere in arguing against the effects of carbon dioxide on global warming.

Among other discredited arguments that had been invoked and are still regularly invoked by deniers was that such is the volume of air that human activity could not possibly be significantly adding to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and that, anyway, excess carbon dioxide would be quickly absorbed by the oceans. These fabrications were also demolished by other postwar discoveries. In 1955 the eminent chemist Hans Suess measured the atmospheric concentration of the short-lived radioactive isotope carbon-14, which forms by cosmic ray bombardment of nitrogen in the atmosphere, to determine the ratio of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels to carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels contains no carbon-14 whereas carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere contains a proportion of that radioactive isotope. Finding a decreasing proportion of carbon-14 in the atmosphere meant only one thing: that carbon dioxide already present was being diluted by carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. Within a decade isotope measurements confirmed that carbon dioxide from fossil fuels was rapidly accumulating in the atmosphere.

That increase was further explained at the time by the work of Roger Revelle from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who showed that the chemistry of seawater returned dissolved carbon dioxide to the atmosphere before the slow circulation of the oceans could take the dissolved gas into the depths. Carbon dioxide was not then and is not now being removed from the atmosphere by dissolution in the oceans at a rate sufficient to reduce its accumulation in the atmosphere. Fifty years ago Roger Revelle wrote:

Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.

We are now starting to see some of the results of that global experiment played out in our country, yet 50 years after clear warnings were given about the consequences we still have deluded deniers in the opposition claiming that there is no evidence of any need for action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. All that has happened since the 1950s has been the accumulation of data that further reinforces these early measurements and warnings, and nothing has since been found that contradicts these findings.

I now wish to make some points about the changes that we must face in responding to this existential threat. As of December 2008, according to the Department of Climate Change, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions currently total around 576 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per annum. Listing the sources according to quantities, almost exactly 50 per cent or approximately 287 million tonnes is emitted by power stations, agriculture emits 16 per cent or 90 million tonnes, transport accounts for 14 per cent or 79 million tonnes, industrial processes emit five per cent or 28 million tonnes, and land use is responsible for 11 per cent or 63 million tonnes.

A target level of a 60 per cent reduction of Australian emissions by 2050 requires average cuts of the order of 8.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide or 1.5 per cent of current levels per annum even starting from 2008 levels. That is the reduction in the consumption by our country of approximately 2½ million tonnes of oil or 2¼ million tonnes of coal each and every year up until 2050. At the very least, an end to the growth of emissions must be brought about rapidly. Now while some may say ‘it can’t be done’, and I would naturally include the opposition in this group, I have seen for myself the development of an Australian solar energy technology which could, if rapidly deployed, quickly reduce the emissions from coal fired power stations by more than 50 per cent, a major reduction from the largest single source.

Up until 2006, Professor David Mills and his group in the Department of Applied and Plasma Physics at the University of Sydney developed a low-cost solar thermal collector which can either be used to replace burning coal in existing power stations or be used to construct new, stand-alone solar thermal power stations. Professor Mills explained to me that a solar thermal collector of no more than six square kilometres could displace approximately 60 per cent of the coal burned at Liddell, a power station that supplies approximately one-quarter of the baseload electrical power consumed in New South Wales. He also explained that, if all of the existing New South Wales coal fired power stations were repowered with solar thermal collectors operating only in daylight hours, then carbon dioxide emissions from those sources could be reduced by approximately 60 per cent. This figure could be even higher with the use of simple heat storage for night-time power generation.

Of course, this option is now less available in our country since the former Howard government’s overt hostility to renewable energy in general, and to Professor Mills’s developments in particular, forced Professor Mills and his team to emigrate to the United States, where they are now busily constructing solar thermal power stations as fast as they can design them.

The transport sector is the second largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in our country and emissions from that sector grew by approximately 20 per cent over the last decade under the destructive policies of the former Howard government. Not content with tearing up railway lines and scrapping hundreds of millions of dollars of valuable rolling stock, the Howard government deliberately introduced policies that increased the number and size of heavy vehicles on our roads while reducing the safety of an industry already notorious for some of the most dangerous working conditions in our country. Energy efficiency and emissions reduction were never considered by the previous government, as was evidenced by the refusal of the former transport minister and member for Gwydir, Mr John Anderson, to answer questions that I put to him regarding concerns about health hazards arising from increases in toxic emissions from heavy vehicles that were the consequence of the introduction of the GST.

In adopting policies that abandoned rail for road freight, that government rejected expert advice about the high risks of such a policy and demonstrated a complete contempt for the lives of truck drivers and the travelling public, increasingly forced to share roads with vehicles that were known to be unsafe. This is the legacy of the Howard government: a lethal high-emissions road freight industry and a wrecked and ramshackle railway network that requires billions of dollars of spending just to enable the railways to compete on level ground with the road freight operators. In addition, having adopted policies that have led to a situation where almost 90 per cent of freight movements are by road, the former government has left us in a highly vulnerable situation where any large-scale interruption to oil imports, for instance as the result of an attack by the major powers on Iranian nuclear weapons laboratories, would lead to serious economic disruption and perhaps even food shortages in the major cities.

The neglect of our rail network is evident in the fact that Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane remain connected by a single-track railway on 19th century alignments that lack modern signalling or electrification and that take up to 21 hours to carry consignments between Sydney and Melbourne and between Sydney and Brisbane. Transferring freight and passenger transport to the energy efficient railways is a practical means of rapidly reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the transport sector because it is estimated that rail transport is at least four times as energy efficient as road transport and, if electrified, can be made entirely immune from problems with oil supplies or emissions. If the electrical energy were to be drawn from renewable generators, the railways can be made emission-free and sustainable in the long term, something that is not possible with the existing high-emission road transport system increasingly dependent on oil.

Climate change deniers are currently making much political hype about the suffering of people in the Northern Hemisphere and in Europe, in particular claiming that the recent arctic conditions there are proof that global warming is not occurring. Were these deniers prepared to investigate the matter more carefully, they would discover that the intense cold in those parts of the world is actually just another example of the kind of climate change caused by global warming that has been predicted by climate scientists.

Xiangdong Zhang of the International Arctic Research Centre in Fairbanks, Alaska has found that patterns of atmospheric circulation in the Arctic are changing rapidly as the Arctic responds to global warming. In previous times cold arctic air has mostly remained over the Arctic, trapped by strong winds spinning around the pole. This winter, perhaps because of the effects of global warming, the vortex has weakened, allowing colder air to spread further south than usual. Overall, the Northern Hemisphere’s winter temperature may be no lower than in previous years but, because of changing wind patterns this year, the cold air is distributed differently, leading to the mistaken perception of global cooling that has been inferred from local weather events. In fact, the average surface temperature for the entire planet during January 2010 may turn out to be one of the warmest on record. While Europe freezes, Australia fries, and both of these weather events are strongly linked to the effects of global warming.

In concluding, the Rudd government is taking responsible action to mitigate the effects of climate change through the introduction of a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which we are debating here today, shaped by the global scientific consensus that climate change is real. Climate change is real and it has been reiterated that Australia is one of the hottest and driest continents on earth, and we will be one of the hardest and fastest hit by its effects. I commend the bills to the House. (Time expired)


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr PD Secker)—I thank the member for Lowe for a unique contribution.