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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 7635

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (21:13): It is a great privilege to rise today to speak to the Clean Energy Bill 2011 and related bills. Every bill debated in this chamber is important, but I suspect there will be few more important bills that I stand to talk on in my time in the Senate. These bills address a problem that is so daunting in its magnitude that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called it the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation. He has been pilloried for that statement, but on this issue he was absolutely right.

The fact is our planet's climate is changing and we humans are making a major contribution to that change. We are an integral part of the planet that we live on. Nature is not something out there in faraway jungles or confined to reserves. It is a part of the world that we live in. Our transport, our industries and our individual actions are all changing the global climate in fundamental ways. These changes will affect all life on this fragile planet, not just our own. In the very acrimonious national debate that we have had on this issue, a debate that is often confined to the issues of taxation, compensation and industry restructuring, it is easy to lose sight of that very important fact. It is tremendously disappointing that it has taken us so long to get to this point. When you consider what is at stake and that we are really talking about the threat to all life on this planet, you would think it would be easy to get consensus on taking strong action. You would think that even erring on the side of caution would suggest that we take bold action without delay. Yet at almost every step of the way taking positive action on climate change has been a momentous struggle. Even now, on the eve of the passage of some of this nation's most important legislation, the country remains divided.

For me this is a straightforward issue; it is a debate about the very nature of science. I could stand here and talk, particularly to those opposite, about the irony of criticising reform in this area and the description of carbon dioxide as a colourless, odourless and weightless gas, when their own policy is one that is designed to remove tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I could stand here and give a defence of the science, but I will not do that because the simple fact is that there is a very clear consensus on climate change and its causes among those most qualified to speak on this issue. The scientific community agree that climate change is happening, that it is caused primarily by humans, that the most important emission as part of the process of climate change is carbon dioxide and that an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have profound impacts on the planet. That is scientific fact. The consensus that has emerged is a result of the scientific process. It is the result of the publication of thousands of peer reviewed scientific papers. The simple fact is that not one credible, peer reviewed paper has been produced that challenges this fundamental proposition.

There might be some debate, it is true, around the pace of change and the intensity and scale of the impacts of climate change, but these are debates at the margin. On the fundamentals of anthropogenic climate change, the science is abundantly clear. Of course this does not mean we should not debate how best to respond to the scientific conclusions about how our planet is changing, but to call the science itself into question is dishonest, illogical and self-serving.

There is an important principle to reflect on more broadly than in the climate change debate. In this place we should never allow ideology to triumph over science or allow vested interests to determine the nature of our public policy response. If we do this, we diminish our ability to prosecute important reforms across a range of issues and to respond to crises. It is time to reflect on this very important principle as we continue to tackle climate change and the many other challenges that our nation faces.

As somebody who has worked for a long time in the field of medicine, as both a general practitioner and public health specialist, I have a particular interest in the issue of health care and how it relates to climate change. Climate change is not going to leave any aspect of our life untouched, and it will have a profound impact on the health of our community. In May 2009, the Lancet described climate change as the biggest threat to health of the 21st century. The Lancet is one of the world's most respected medical journals, hardly a bastion of leftist activism. It is a publication that is respected within the medical community, and in fact most people in this place, even those decrying the science of climate change, will most likely have benefited from some of the scientific work of the Lancet. The science of climate change is clear and it has widespread support.

The fact is that the warming climate will impact the health of Australians in many different ways. Some of the impacts will be direct, as we are forced to respond to extremes in our climate, but some will be indirect, as we struggle to cope with those impacts. Some examples: we know that extreme weather events are going to be a much more regular part of our post-warming world; we know that heatwaves will be longer, more frequent and more severe; we know that doctors and emergency departments are going to have to prepare for an influx of patients suffering from heat related conditions such as heat stress and dehydration; and we know that we can expect to see a significant increase in the number of deaths from these conditions. Sadly, as is often the case with issues like this, it will be the elderly, the very young and the very vulnerable who will bear the brunt of climate related illness.

Australia is already well acquainted with the horrors of extreme weather events. We have recently experienced the severe floods in Queensland and the bushfires in my home state of Victoria. Apart from the immediate threat to life and limb posed by rushing floodwaters, there are other, flow-on effects such as the contamination of drinking water and the risk of waterborne disease. All of these pose a huge challenge to our health services in times of flood. In my home state we know that after the events of Black Saturday, as well as those people who died from the direct impact of the fires, countless more were affected by airborne pollutants and by pollutants in water supplies. As well as these physical threats from extreme weather events, we also face an increase in a range of different diseases. Infectious and vector-borne diseases are going to increase. For example, we know that we are going to see an increase in the rate of gastroenteritis. We are going to see an increase in the rate of dengue and Ross River virus. We are going to see the range of those diseases spread across a larger area of Australia's landmass. Climate change, sadly, is going to have an impact on the nation's mental health. Livelihoods are going to be destroyed and communities devastated as people struggle to cope with lengthy droughts and other climatic shifts.

All of these effects will disproportionately affect not only vulnerable communities—low-income communities, the elderly and children—but also those who live in rural and regional communities, our farmers and our Indigenous communities. No-one will be immune from the impacts of climate change.

In my state of Victoria, we had a heatwave in 2009 that had devastating repercussions. During the hottest days of that heatwave, our ambulance service struggled with a 40 per cent increase in its workload. There was a thirty-four-fold increase in direct heat related conditions. We saw cardiac arrest cases increase by a factor of three. We saw hospital emergency rooms operate under a huge drain, including an eightfold increase in heat stress cases, and three times the usual number of patients were dead on arrival at hospital. There were in total 374 excess deaths. That is 374 deaths from one heatwave, in one state, over a very, very short period of time.

Worldwide, the effects of a small increase in temperature are alarming. The World Health Organisation estimates that warming since the 1970s has been responsible for more than 140,000 extra deaths up to 2004, and as many as 300,000 deaths by 2009. The impact of a further two degrees or more is certainly a cause for great concern.

The good news is that action on climate change is also a direct investment in the nation's health budget. In Europe, we estimate that a 30 per cent internal target for emissions cuts generated health benefits in the order of €30 billion saved—so in the ballpark of A$50 billion for a 30 per cent reduction in their internal emissions targets. The reality is that shifting to clean sources of energy is a health initiative as well as a climate one.

Economists talk about externalities in the use of our fossil fuels. It is one of the principles of modern economics. The whole rationale for pricing carbon is to internalise an externality imposing a cost on the broader community. One of the most insignificant but often most overlooked externalities is the effect of climate change on the health of a population. We know that the burning of coal and other fossil fuels has a number of impacts on human health. We know that locally it causes respiratory illness, cardiac disease, cancers, developmental disorders and a range of other conditions. It is very, very hard to overstate the importance of clean air to our health.

Of course, here in Australia we take pride in our clean environment, but even here the health costs of our dependence on fossil fuels are estimated in the billions annually. The health impacts of coal-fired power, combined with the health costs from transport powered by fossil fuels, have been estimated to be in the order of $6 billion. If coal were to truly pay its way—that is, as we said, if the costs were internalised—we would be levying a cost per megawatt hour that paid not just for the environmental impacts of burning that coal but also for the medical care and for the loss of life caused by coal pollution. That is why boosting investment in renewable energies, as these bills will do, is a health initiative as much as it is an environmental one.

This is particularly important in my home state, Victoria. It is crucial for serious action on climate change that the dirtiest of coal-fired power stations be closed. We know that one of the most significant parts of this package is that it will allow power generators such as Hazelwood in Victoria to tender for a buyout and closure. The closure of Hazelwood would significantly improve Victoria's environment, but it will also benefit the health of Victorians.

Of course, we should not stop there. We know that there have been exploration licences now granted for brown coal with a view to exporting coal to other countries. Unless we take action now to stop that emerging industry, not only do we put the health of people in our local communities—such as those people of Bacchus Marsh—at risk; we also stand to export the health risks of burning coal, and brown coal at that, to some of our poorest neighbours.

So I stand here very proudly offering my support for these bills. They are important for Australia's environment. They are very important for Australia's economy. But they are also very, very important for our nation's health. I am very proud of the role that our colleagues have played in this landmark legislation that is before the Senate today. I am proud of the role that Senator Bob Brown and Senator Christine Milne, who is here this evening, and Adam Bandt played in bringing this much-needed change to the Australian community. I also acknowledge the role that the current government have played in ensuring that we get a positive outcome.

The national debate on this issue has been a long one. It has been acrimonious. Politics and science do sometimes make uncomfortable bedfellows. But I have to say that, at this moment, I am very proud of the action that the Greens have taken and that the Australian parliament will shortly take: some very strong, bold and decisive steps when it comes to tackling the critical issue of climate change.