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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 7525

Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (12:37): At times all of us, in our communities and our societies, are faced with enormous challenges, challenges which go beyond the ordinary in history and challenges which reach into the future and call for action that those in the future may not or will not be able to undertake if we do not take safeguarding action for them now. At such moments, history shows us that we see generated in the public discourse not only great effort to rise to those challenges but also great silliness and irresponsibility. If we have ever heard an example of such an irresponsible, silly and doctrinaire contribution, we have just heard one from the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate. I have been in this place for 15 years and I have never heard such an uninformed diatribe based on false information and calumny about the global scientific community—that is, the global think tank of humanity—from a politician, let alone a leader of a political party. The more the public gets to hear of what Senator Joyce has just said, the more they will understand how fraught the progress of this nation, the wealthiest nation per capita on the face of the planet, could be into the future.

In his earlier contribution Senator Abetz said that the environment of Australia was threatened by the Clean Energy Bill 2011 and the related package of legislation. He did not elaborate on that because his contribution in turn was simply to make statements but not come through with a factual basis, which we must provide if we are to serve this nation and its future dutifully, honourably and based on the information we have available to us. As Senator Milne said in her contribution, climate change is an enormous challenge facing humanity and it is up to us to address that challenge.

Given the constraints of an opposition that we have just heard two remarkable contributions from, this package is a testimony to the much greater intelligence and spirit there is in this nation. Today we have outside the parliament people from Environment Victoria, the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales and Say Yes to a Cleaner Australia with their depictions of the globe and the optimism of youth that we collectively, as human beings using our intelligence, can rise to address the awesome problem of climate change. It is in response to the community that this parliament is acting.

It is in response not least to the scientific community that this parliament is acting. New Scientist, which has an enormous history of contributing to the thinking of humanity and of collecting from the wider scientific community of the world, has this very week, as luck would have it, front-page coverage of the state of the science and of what we do and do not know about the onrush of climate change. Let me read out what we do know about climate change, which is accepted by the scientific community generally, as we address the problem through the legislative package now before the Senate. We know that greenhouse gases are warming the planet. I quote from New Scientist:

From melting glaciers and earlier springs to advancing treelines and changing animal ranges, many lines of evidence back up what the thermometers tell us—Earth is getting warmer. Over the 20th century, the average global temperature rose by 0.8°C.

There are two broad explanations: more heat is reaching Earth, or less is escaping. The first option can be ruled out.

…   …   …

Studies of the Earth's past climate tell us that whenever CO2 levels have risen, the planet has warmed. Since the beginning of the industrial age in the 19th century, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased from 280 parts per million to 380 ppm. Satellite measurements now show both that less infrared of the specific frequencies absorbed by CO2 and other greenhouse gases is escaping the planet and that more infrared of the same frequencies is being reflected back to Earth's surface. While many factors affect our planet's climate, there is overwhelming evidence that CO2 is the prime cause of its recent warming.

It goes on to say that we also know the planet is going to get a lot hotter:

Doubling atmospheric CO2 on a planet with no water or life would warm it by about 1.2°C. Even without the complicating effects of aerosols, things aren't that simple on Earth.

Take water. Water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas. When an atmosphere warms, it holds more of the stuff. As soon as more CO2 enters a watery planet's atmosphere, its warming effect is rapidly amplified.

New Scientist goes on to talk about tipping points, and I will come to those in a moment.

First, here is another thing that we do know: the sea level is going to rise many metres. I was with my partner, Paul, walking by Southport Lagoon in far southern Tasmania just a week ago. The biggest impression I had—this is a lagoon that is fed by a wide canal to the ocean—was that a recent storm had massively eroded the sand dunes around the perimeter of that inland waterway, washing out middens built up by Aboriginal people over thousands of years. With trees which had been in place for decades, if not centuries, falling down there onto the beach and into the lagoon, I thought about the extraordinary meeting, on the southern perimeter of that lagoon in 1793, of the scientists of d'Entrecasteaux's French expedition and the Lyluequonny Aboriginal people. I wondered what those scientists would have thought to have seen that storm surge come through, or the Aboriginal people, who were facing their own denouement about which they could do nothing. But the scientists of the world tell us there is a lot we can do, and we are in a position with eyes wide open, unlike the unfortunate Lyluequonny people, about what is coming and that we have a means to address it.

Inside that lagoon is a very clear warning to all of us about the already evident impact of climate change on our planet and how it is going to affect us into the future. We may dismiss the fact that a city of 13 million is facing extraordinary flooding at the moment as being related not to climate change but to a recurrence of flooding that occurs from time to time. We may dismiss the fact that recent drought events have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and that Somalia currently has millions of people facing extraordinary circumstances of being unable to feed themselves. We may dismiss the fact that we are in what scientists call the sixth age of extinction, losing species at a greater rate than ever before in the whole of human history. But collectively it is not for us to put our heads in the sand, as the last speaker has done so extraordinarily, and just dismiss all of this to look after the economy, because in dismissing all of this we fail the economy as well.

I go back to the New Scientist article on the fact that sea levels may rise by many metres. It says:

When oceans warm, they expand. When ice on land melts or slides into the sea, that also pushes levels up. If all the ice in Greenland and Antarctica melted, sea level would rise more than 60 metres.

Today we are in a warm period between ice ages. In comparable interglacials in the past half million years, when temperatures were less than one degree warmer than they are now, sea level was around five metres higher. I remind the Senate that, yes, we are less than one degree cooler than that now, but we have risen nearly one degree, and at the rate we are going—and it is accelerating—it will not take long before we reach this one degree warmer on current trajectories. Around three million years ago, when temperatures were just one to two degrees centigrade higher than the average of the past couple of millennia, before humans began warming the climate, sea level was at least 25 metres higher than at present. Studies of sea level and temperature over the past million years suggest that each one degree rise in global mean temperature eventually leads to a 20-metre rise in sea level. That makes the effects of a rise of at least two degrees centigrade rather alarming; how alarming depends on how quickly the great ice sheets melt in response to warming, and that is an unknown.

However, we in the Greens have a very clear philosophical difference to the previous speaker, Senator Joyce. We believe that where you do not know the magnitude of the catastrophe that may overtake the planet, including humanity, you act on it. We believe in insurance policies. As a person takes an insurance policy on her or his house not knowing what the future may be in terms of some catastrophe overtaking that house, we believe we should take an insurance policy on the planet when we do know that the catastrophe is unwinding but we do not know the degree of it. It is pure common sense.

After the last election, when the people of Australia voted for a minority government and gave the Greens the balance of power in the Senate, it was incumbent on us to approach both alternative governments to seek out an arrangement. In that arrangement we wanted to tackle climate change, despite the fact that both leaders had said that in this period they would not. I want to pay tribute to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She stepped up to the plate when the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, did not. She has been hectored, vilified and, as we have heard today, calumnied by people who should know better. It was a change of political circumstances unprecedented in Australian history, and she had the gumption to take that vote and, at cost to herself, take on the proposal from Senator Milne that we have a committee to resolve how we might best progress tackling climate change in this great parliament. This package is the result. Whatever else may happen, this package is going to be a tribute to two very formidable women in Australian politics; Senator Milne and Prime Minister Gillard. I congratulate Prime Minister Gillard, her environment minister, Mr Combet, and her team, who have gone through a long, rigorous but very sensible process to come up with this remarkable piece of legislation.

I also want to congratulate Senator Milne, whose work has so largely configured the outcome to the benefit of this nation. It is a remarkable tribute to application, which goes back decades now, to foreseeing the future and to acting sensibly and with probity to try to address problems which we might otherwise cursorily hand over to those who come after us. Senator Milne has decided that irresponsibility should be replaced by a carefully balanced and considered responsibility—that is, we do what we can within the democratic system, based on the fact that 1.7 million Australians voted for us to take action on this matter at the last election. Senator Milne has also asked me—and I want to endorse this—to pay a special tribute to Ben Oquist, our chief of staff, who has unfailingly been there throughout this process and whose brains, intelligence and integrity have been important to us as we have worked to have this outcome, and of course to the member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, who is newly elected to this parliament but whose role in getting this outcome has been so positive and important.

This package speaks for itself. It will stimulate the future economy. It helps move us across to a renewable energy future at a time when the conservatives in this parliament might not understand it. We get a better view of a more responsible conservative view when we look to the message from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Mr David Cameron, to Prime Minister Gillard in July this year, on news of this package—and how different this is from what we have heard from Senator Abetz and Senator Joyce. Prime Minister Cameron said:

I was delighted to hear of the ambitious package of climate change policy measures you announced on 10 July and wanted to congratulate you on taking this bold step …

He said it 'will add momentum to those, in both the developed and developing world, who are serious about dealing with this urgent threat'.

Hear, hear to Prime Minister Cameron, who himself, on this issue, has put in place targets—that is, a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025—that are well beyond what this package of itself aims at. Nevertheless, as Senator Milne outlined in her speech to the Senate a short while ago, in this package, unlike the previous CPRS package, is the ability for advancement, the ability for a cogent improvement on the targets that are involved and on the stimulus to the new economy coming down the line and the new productivity that will come from that new economy so sensibly built into this vital piece of legislation. This legislation is arguably—along with advances in native title—the most important piece of legislation in my 15 years in this Senate.

The Australian people will no doubt have fears about the legislation. Those are coming from an opposition and sections of the media who simply dwell on the dollar rather than the quality of life. But I have a very simple question to put: what is the better prescription? Is it that we cost the polluters for the damage that they are doing to our present and the future of Australians and give that money to compensate households, as this package does, for any increase in prices for energy that will come out of the legislation? And it does more than that; it actually gives extra money, particularly to low-income earners. Or is it the prescription of Mr Abbott, which would take billions out of the pockets of householders through the tax system and Treasury, reward the polluters and say to them, 'Here, take this money and see if you can't reduce your pollution'?

Common sense is totally with this package from Labor and the Greens. As I began by saying, the silliness and irresponsibility is in the opposition package. I predict that we will see growing support for this package as Australians see that the predictions of Senator Joyce, which we just heard, simply are not carried through, any more than his earlier prediction that this legislation would see farmers having their land taken from them. It is an extraordinary form of political behaviour which may have short-term traction but in the long term demeans the whole process of a polity based on intelligence, being informed and taking responsible action. I congratulate the government, my Greens colleagues and the Independents, Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott, for delivering this package to this parliament, through which it will pass, to the benefit of this great nation for decades to come.