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Tuesday, 11 November 1986
Page: 2718


Mr BLANCHARD —My question is addressed to the Minister for Science. Is the Government concerned about reports that the `greenhouse' effect will raise ambient temperature to such an extent that sea levels will rise and flood coastal cities? Can the Minister inform the House whether these reports are soundly based?


Mr BARRY JONES —Madam Speaker, this is the second leg of a double. There is growing public interest and concern about the prospect of a change in world climate as a result of increased levels of certain trace gases in the atmosphere. The primary climate impact will involve a warming of the lower atmosphere due to what has been called the `greenhouse' effect and this, of course, will lead to variations in other elements of climate. The Australian Government has been well aware of the problem for some time. In 1976 it funded the establishment of a base line pollution station at Cape Grim in Tasmania as part of an associated world wide research program to study increasing `greenhouse' gas levels. That station at Cape Grim on the far north-west tip of Tasmania is managed jointly within my ministry by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's Division of Atmospheric Research and the Bureau of Meteorology.

Research programs in CSIRO show that indeed certain gases are increasing, the important ones being CO2, Freon-11, Freon-12 and methane. The first, of course, is due to the burning of fossil fuels; the second is man made and is used in various industrial processes; and the third is primarily of agricultural origin, especially from ruminant animals. There is no realistic prospect of influencing the steady and accelerating increases in the background concentrations of these gases which, more than anything else, are due essentially to increasing world population. Crude estimates have been made of the direct effect of higher carbon dioxide levels on plant productivity, on warming the atmosphere and on changing rainfall patterns and sea levels. Regional effects and the confidence to be given to these estimates need much further research. CSIRO is giving some priority to such studies and a specific program is being set up in the Division of Atmospheric Research.

However, I must emphasise that the consequences, at least for the next 50 years-or for the life of the Hawke Government-are not likely to be either catastrophic or even dramatic. There would need to be a very dramatic increase in ambient temperature to melt the Antarctic ice sheet which is generally about 2,000 metres thick. But if this were to happen, the consequences would of course be catastrophic. One problem to be examined is whether Asia, Africa and South America will adopt the same level of resource usage as is current in North America and Europe. I think for a whole number of economic reasons this is unlikely, but if it were to happen, it would have a very serious effect. This does reinforce the importance of thinking more seriously about the long term-something that the Opposition is not very good at-and taking appropriate preventative action for long term risk minimisation. Areas of immediate concern include coastal engineering, land development, water resources, agricultural economics and insurance. We have been warned. The printout, as they say, is on the wall and we have to take appropriate preventive long term action.