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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 26

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (10:30 AM) —Senator Milne’s motion points to the important and serious role that the Greens take, and have taken over the last decade and more, in trying to bring to the attention and the notice of government and this parliament the incredible impact that climate change is going to have on every Australian’s life over the coming centuries. The motion from Senator Milne is notable for its conservatism. It is a motion to have a Senate inquiry look at the impact of sea level rises on Australia—to gather from the scientific community, the planning community, the business community and from all Australians information about the impact that climate change, through sea level rises, is having and will have on every Australian.

It needs to be reiterated, if I may short-hand it, that Sir Nicholas Stern said in this city, in Canberra, earlier this year, that if we are not prepared to have a one per cent diversion of our wealth now to tackle climate change then the impact on our grandchildren may be a 20 per cent diversion of wealth. With that will come a massive disruption to the psychology of peace and happiness for this planet as it tangles with mass migrations and, potentially, civil conflicts and wars, huge impacts on business and on the general sense of wellbeing on the planet as the environmental catastrophe overtakes us in all areas of living on the planet. I congratulate the opposition, by the way, it having rejected Senator Milne’s earlier move for an inquiry three months ago, for now seeing the sense in our proceeding with an inquiry and agreeing with Senator Milne that this is the responsibility of the Senate, that this is the proper function of the Senate.

The question now comes onto the government. This is again a very big test of the Howard government’s commitment to using its numbers in the Senate with prudence and in the interests of all Australians. There is no way the government can use its numbers to prevent this inquiry and stick with that commitment. Yesterday the Prime Minister reasserted his authority in government. He said he is about to reveal goals for the future and he will see them through before handing the reins to his Prime Minister-in-waiting, Mr Costello. One of the challenges for Mr Howard is to throw off the inhibition, if not the scepticism, of the last decade and to not only make this nation prepared to deal with the reality of the impact of climate change but also put us back in the forefront of the world in legislating to minimise that impact, which is coming down the road on our children, our grandchildren and their offspring for many generations to come. This is a prime responsibility of us as parliamentarians. It is a responsibility that Prime Minister Howard has failed to meet and which now challenges him as Prime Minister of this country. If the direction from the Prime Minister’s office to this Senate, through the government, is to squash an inquiry to look into the fundamentals of the impact of climate change on Australia’s coastlines, it will be a clear statement by the Prime Minister that he is still unable to rise to the Australia of the 21st century, that he is still back in last century’s thinking.

As Senator Milne has pointed out, even the scientists have been too conservative on the matter. Anybody watching our television programs in the last week will have seen the astonishing and extremely frightening break-up of the Greenland icecap. Senator Milne is talking about massive glaciers, which were almost static just a few decades ago, now moving at two metres per hour. We know about the loss of glaciers around the world. In Glacier National Park in the United States 30 glaciers that were there just a century ago are now non-existent. They are rapidly melting in the Himalayas, in the Andes, in tropical West Papua and in Papua New Guinea. Right around the world this is happening. And now there are grave fears for the west Antarctic icecap. The sea level rises that Senator Milne is talking about, of four to six metres, as a result of the Greenland and west Antarctic icecap events, are again conservative measures. To bring this into focus, when you put the tip of a measure at four to six metres on the historic buildings of the Salamanca waterfront in Hobart, the tip is up at window level on the first floor. We have to face the reality of that prospect—

Senator Bernardi —So why is your office on the ground floor?

Senator BOB BROWN —Senator Bernardi—with a little bit of humour—asks why our offices are on the ground floor. They are not. It is a humorous interjection from an arch sceptic. But he should pay some attention to the reality and seriousness of this matter, because he is going to be here long enough to see worse coming down the line.

It is an extraordinarily serious burden of duty on every senator to consider this motion brought forward by Senator Milne this morning in the Senate. This inquiry should be set up. To oppose the inquiry is simply to say that we wish the parliament, the Senate and ipso facto the Australian community, including the business community, to be denied the information that will allow us to make the decisions to (a) mitigate, as best we can, the causes of climate change and (b) meet the massive disruption to our environment, our economy, employment prospects and the quotient of human happiness that is coming down the line from a climate change impact which the former Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, pointed out could relegate the spectre of terrorism.

Senator Milne said earlier that the effects of climate change have been likened by the International Institute for Strategic Studies—which normally studies the nuclear threat around the world and has been a leader in looking at the nuclear threat around the world—to the catastrophic level of a nuclear war. The International Institute of Strategic Studies said the effects from climate change would cause a host of problems, including rising sea levels, forced migration, freak storms, droughts, floods, extinctions, wildfires, disease epidemics, crop failures and famines. Australia is right in the firing line. We are not an island unto ourselves. In fact, because we have a 12,000 kilometre coastline we are more vulnerable to this coastal impact than almost any other country on the planet.

And yet there is the frightening possibility for us here this morning—and we will know in a minute, when Senator Eggleston gets up to speak on behalf of the government—that the government will vote down an inquiry into the impact on Australia’s massive coastline, where the majority of Australians live and where all our big cities except this one are situated, and opt for no inquiry. I have no doubt we will hear that somebody has been asked to study this and some group has been asked to study that, but this Senate and its inquiry system has the primary responsibility on issues just like this for coordinating the state of knowledge and converting that into a call for action or study to the body politic. We will wait and see, but, if the government is going to say no to this inquiry, it will echo the failure of Prime Minister Howard in dealing with this enormous issue for Australia in the last weeks or months of his prime ministership.

Senator Wong said, ‘I’m getting a little tired of Green hyperbole on this matter.’ If only Senator Wong and the Labor Party had listened to the Greens over the last decade, we would be a long way further down the line. Senator O’Brien is shaking his head. Senator O’Brien is the shadow minister for forests in this country. He agrees with Prime Minister Howard that we should keep logging and burning the great carbon banks, the great natural forests, of Tasmania, Victoria and southern New South Wales. This is a completely irresponsible act of sabotage of the environment by the government and the Labor Party at this stage of the nation’s debate about climate change. How can you be knocking down these great wild forests, which hold carbon back out of the atmosphere, and then burn them? To be in Tasmania and see the Senator Kerry O’Brien outcome—huge columns of greenhouse gases—

Senator O’Brien —I would rather it go into power plants; but you do not like that!

Senator BOB BROWN —Senator O’Brien says he would prefer that the wood goes into power plants. He says the Greens do not like that—he has been listening to something! What an extraordinary thing! He is talking about Gunns pulp mill. They are creating a forest furnace—

Senator O’Brien —You are wasting your time.

Senator BOB BROWN —I see he is leaving the chamber. At least he is retreating! The retreating Senator O’Brien supports a Gunns pulp mill which will have a forest furnace attached to it, which will burn 500,000 tonnes of forest wood per annum, next to a pulp mill which at the outset is going to have 80 per cent of its resource stock of native forests. In other words, they are going to create a massive factory to burn the carbon banks or chemically break up the carbon banks now sitting there in the Tasmanian valleys and mountains holding back climate change and they are going to promote the transformation of those great saving forests into an added hit on the global climate change phenomenon.

The Rudd opposition have to come to grips with the destruction of Australian forests if they are going to be seen as responsible on climate change. This simply cannot be allowed to proceed. It is not good enough to support an APEC move to reforest or to prevent the destruction of 20 million hectares of forest outside Australia while promoting the destruction through that pulp mill of 200,000 hectares of native forest here in Australia. I would have thought an opposition would have very quickly taken up what the public knows to be true: that there is a need for us to protect these great living carbon banks in Australia in the age of climate change emergency that we are now in.

The second factor here is the burning of coal. We know that that is having the most prodigious impact on the global climate. Australia is the biggest coal-exporting country in the world. When I made a call earlier this year that in the next three years of government we should look at how we are going to reduce the impact on climate change of burning vast amounts of coal, some sectors of the press went into orbit about it and misrepresented what I said. We Greens say that we must move to energy efficiency and to renewable energy. It is not as if we are talking about an unreality here. If Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in California, can set short-term goals—which the Greens, here in Australia, want to see in Australia—why can’t the Rudd opposition do that, let alone the Howard government? Why is it that these two great parties cannot meet the challenge of climate change?

I congratulate the Labor Party on supporting the Greens’ move for an inquiry to help give us the sensible information upon which this parliament can make better decisions, and I hope the government will, on this occasion, change its mind block on climate change—its obfuscation, as Senator Milne put it—of the last decade. We will test here this morning whether Mr Howard—now that he has confirmed his leadership of the government into the next election—is up to it. He can do that with a single act: by supporting this call for a Senate inquiry into the impact of climate change on Australia’s coasts, its cities, its concentrated areas of population and its magnificent environments. There can be no excuse that warrants saying no to this motion.