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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 7616


Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (19:50): I am extremely proud to be standing here today in the Australian parliament to speak about this clean energy package. These 18 related bills combine to establish a framework to finally start to tackle the serious challenge of climate change in a comprehensive and coordinated way. This legislation has been a very long time coming.

This is not a new issue. Two hundred years of increasingly intensive industrialisation, fuelled by the burning of fossil fuels and coupled with an exponential increase in the earth's population, has led us to the situation that we now face. Australian politicians have been talking about the dangers posed by climate change since at least 1989. At that time the science was already suggesting that we were facing serious consequences from increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide and methane. Both the ALP government at the time and the coalition opposition were discussing strategies to reduce greenhouse gases for the 1990 election. Already, back in 1989, there were predictions of extreme weather in the 21st century, events like uncontrollable wildfires, unprecedented storms, increasing desertification and melting glaciers. At that time we were glimpsing the frightening face of 'the future'. Since then, through cowardice, inaction and a false debate about the science—fuelled by those who have a vested interest in things not changing—we have lost 20 years. We are now in the future. There is no more time to be lost. In its report The critical decade, the Climate Commission sets out how this is the critical decade. Having squandered two decades, the decisions we make between now and 2020 will determine the severity of the climate change that our children and our grandchildren will experience.

So I am particularly proud to be standing here as a representative of the Australian Greens, the party which went to the last election with a clear commitment to introduce a price on carbon and the party whose leadership and innovation encouraged the establishment of the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee. At this stage I pay particular tribute to my colleague Senator Christine Milne and her committed staff. Senator Milne has long understood the implications of climate change. She has championed creative solutions to the crisis and had the courage and tenacity to see them through.

It was Senator Milne who proposed the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee. What a constructive idea, at a time of increasing polarisation and petty negativity in Australian political life: a committee composed of representatives from various sides of politics who were willing to allow themselves to be informed by the most up-to-date and credible scientific knowledge in order to make decisions in the best interests of our nation. It was this constructive process, combining information, strong negotiation and good faith, which enabled the government, Independent members of parliament and the Greens to be leaders in bringing about this legislative reform, which is so long overdue.

Let me now turn my eyes to home. As a senator from South Australia, I am acutely aware that climate change will pose some wicked challenges for my state. It is, after all, the driest state in the driest continent on the earth. This legislation is critical for South Australia. In its South Australian chapter, the report The critical decade details some major impacts for my state, including the effect of rising temperatures on population health.

In South Australia we already have our share of hot weather. The average yearly temperature in South Australia has risen by almost one degree Celsius over the past century, and the last decade was the warmest on record. Due to climate change we can expect that temperatures will continue to rise. Adelaide currently experiences an average of 17 days in a year where the temperature is above 35 degrees. By 2030 the number of extremely hot days is predicted to rise to about 23; and by 2070 to further increase to as many as 36 days, or one-twelfth of the year. More record hot days and associated heatwaves will increase the risk of heat related illness and death, particularly in the elderly.

In January to February 2009, south-eastern Australia experienced record-breaking prolonged temperatures, and Adelaide reached its third highest temperature ever at 45.7 degrees. During that heatwave, direct heat related hospital admissions increased fourteenfold, and there was a 16 per cent increase in ambulance call-outs. There were an additional 32.4 deaths. In just a decade, without effective adaptation, heat related deaths are projected to double. This will have implications for hospitals, ambulance services and morgues.

Another major consequence of climate change in South Australia will be due to the combination of changing rainfall patterns and higher temperatures. Since 1970 we have seen a clear decline in rainfall in southern South Australia, and there is evidence that this is linked to climate change and will continue. Increasingly severe droughts will occur, together with drying soils, and these will have significant impacts on South Australia's agricultural areas and the availability of drinking water in Adelaide and other parts of South Australia. While much uncertainty remains about specific details of rainfall changes in the future, we can say with considerable certainty that rainfall patterns will change as a result of climate change and often in unpredictable ways, creating large risks for water availability.

The impact of climate change on agriculture will not only take its toll on the ability of South Australian farmers to grow food but also place increasing stresses on their mental health. A report from the Climate Institute earlier this year acknowledged that mental health has been a concern for rural people for the past few decades, but it predicted that climate change will only add more stress to the lives of rural people. The suicide rate in rural Australia is already alarming, with some reports as high as one suicide per week. Mental health is a complex problem for farmers, even without the added factor of climate change.

An ongoing study by the CSIRO, which surveyed 50 wine growers from southern Australia in March and April this year, found that grape growers are already experiencing the emotional impacts of climate variability and the perceived risks associated with future climate change. Some are anxious about the future or about specific weather events such as drought. Some are depressed about the viability of the industry in the future and some are confused about the facts of climate science and sceptical that we can make a difference. The stress that many farmers are under can turn into more serious mental illnesses or thoughts of suicide, requiring treatment, if the problems are not addressed and the situation continues over a long time. The likely environmental effects of climate change identified by the Climate Commission will clearly exacerbate the risk factors which already exist. A lack of water will not be a problem when it comes to seawater and rising sea levels associated with climate change. Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, South Australia's coastal towns and infrastructure are particularly vulnerable. The report Thecritical decade indicates that sea levels in South Australia have been rising at a rate of approximately 4.6 millimetres per year since the early 1990s. This is higher than the global average of 3.2 millimetres, and with much variability from year to year.

Globally, sea levels have risen by about 20 centimetres since the late 1800s. Another 20-centimetre increase in sea levels by 2050, which is feasible at current projections, would more than double the risk of coastal flooding in Adelaide. A rise of 50 centimetres, which is likely later this century, will lead to very large increases in the frequency of coastal flooding. This is flooding which is currently considered a one-in-100-year event; it would occur every year. The report also states that between 25,200 and 43,000 residential buildings in the state of South Australia, with a value of between $4.4 billion and $7.4 billion, may be at risk of flooding towards the end of this century. We are even more vulnerable than other parts of the country. South Australia has the second highest value of total assets at risk, with over $45 billion worth of houses, buildings and roads at risk of flooding.

We ignore these stark warnings at our peril. The choices we—those who live in towns and those who live in the bush—make this decade, right now, will shape the long-term climate future of our children and our grandchildren. But we have a greater ethical imperative than mere self-interest. When it comes to climate change, we Australians—all of us—are, per head, the highest carbon polluters on the planet. It is somewhat ironic and hypocritical that those who often call for a focus on responsibilities over rights—some political commentators and business leaders come to mind—are the same people who urge that we shirk our fair share, plead impotence because of our small population and dig our heels in until we are forced to act.

This is especially shameful when our Pacific neighbours, like Kiribati and Tuvalu, face their own and far more serious forms of inundation. We have a moral duty to take responsibility for our role in their predicament. It is incumbent on us here in this parliament, as elected leaders and decision makers, to ensure that we take the necessary action to protect our community in this critical decade. This is our trust. The time for action is now, not tomorrow.

Thanks to the collaboration of the government, the Independents and the Greens, we now have a clean energy strategy for Australia, including a price on carbon. This is a historic moment. Through these bills we will provide a vital signal to the market that the costs of carbon pollution can no longer be ignored. Together with a range of initiatives to encourage low-carbon renewable energy, energy efficiency and the protection of biodiversity, this package will prove transformative for the Australian community and economy as well as for the climate.

I am immensely proud of the role the Australian Greens have played in ensuring that climate change has been squarely on the agenda in this term of parliament, led by the science. This is a commitment we clearly made before the election. Through strong negotiation and good faith, it is one that we have honoured. We are now in that future which was predicted so accurately over two decades ago.