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Monday, 16 November 2009
Page: 11636

Mr GIBBONS (12:02 PM) —Two things we humans are not very good at dealing with, and they are related, are risk and uncertainty. In our everyday lives we constantly see examples of this lack of understanding. We happily buy billions of dollars worth of tickets in lotteries that statistically we have no hope of winning. We pay for insurance on things that are extremely unlikely to occur but leave other, more likely risks uninsured. We have particular difficulties coming to terms with those risks that have a very low probability of occurring but that have catastrophic consequences if they do occur. Earthquakes, cyclones, floods, droughts, bushfires and man-made disasters like coalition governments are all things we would rather not spend our time thinking about. As Australians, we also have that well-known tendency to think ‘She’ll be right’ and then head off to the beach, the footy or the cricket. We are often only jolted out of our complacency when one of these events actually happens.

In my own state of Victoria, I have never seen as much preparation going on at the start of a bushfire season as there is this year. This, of course, has been prompted by the tragic events of Black Saturday last February, when so much destruction took place. Unfortunately, this particular reassessment of risks and implementation of contingency plans is too late for the many lives that were lost on that day.

Our inability to get our minds around the complex issues of uncertainty and risk concerning climate change is made even harder because of their magnitude and the very long time frame over which they are happening. But there is no escaping the fact that the fourth assessment report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the largest assessment of climate science ever undertaken—concludes that warming of the earth’s climate is unequivocal and that it is 90 per cent likely that this warming is being caused by human activity. Given this, ‘she’ definitely will not ‘be right’ unless we take action while we still can to reverse these effects. The impact on our environment and on our economy is not something we can just brush aside. We live in the hottest and driest continent in the world and we will be among those hit hardest and fastest by climate change. By the end of the 21st century, global warming could see irrigated agriculture production in the Murray-Darling Basin fall by more than 90 per cent. By mid-century, heat related deaths in Australia could increase by 5,000 a year.

Just last week we received more warnings about the potential consequences with the release of a report on the risks to our national coastline. This report provides new scientific analysis on projected rises in sea level, coastal erosion, and storm surges, and the risks they pose. The science tells us that our climate is changing faster than previously thought and that the impacts are likely to be more severe as rises in sea level, extreme storms and floods become more frequent. These changes are already happening, and we cannot afford to ignore the findings of that report. It details the homes and other assets at risk from climate change, including major coastal infrastructure that underpins our economy, such as airports and ports. Its findings are truly frightening. Between 157,000 and 247,000 existing residential buildings will be at risk from inundation by the year 2100 if the sea level rises by 1.1 metres. The replacement value of these homes at risk of inundation is about $63 billion. The report also lists infrastructure, such as airports and ports, that are at risk, including Sydney Airport, the largest airport in the country.

We know from modelling work by Lord Stern, Professor Garnaut and the Australian Treasury that the costs of delaying action are greater than the costs of taking responsible action now. Countries that act early to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions will face costs lower than those of countries that do not act until later. Economies that defer putting a price on carbon will become more emissions intensive and when a global carbon price is introduced they will face even higher costs. This explains why the world’s leading developed and developing economies are moving to take action now. The time for prevarication in this country is well and truly over. The continuing demands from climate change sceptics for certainty about the science before acting are patently ridiculous. Do we wait for certainty that our house will burn down before we take out insurance against fire? Do we wait until we are sick before taking out health insurance? Do we demand certainty before we bet on the Melbourne Cup? Of course we don’t, because, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, the only certainties in life are death and taxes.

Instead, we assess the risks and probabilities and make our decisions accordingly. We take a precautionary approach. We follow the precautionary principle, a principle that is well established in international legal systems and is followed by the United Nations in matters concerning climate change. The declaration from the 1992 Rio conference, or Earth Summit, says:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

This precautionary principle is also well established in the Australian courts. In the 2006 case of Telstra Corporation Ltd and Hornsby Shire in New South Wales, Justice Preston said:

The principle permits the taking of preventative measures without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of the threat become fully known.

Any credible preventative measures to tackle climate change rely on two fundamental elements: limiting the carbon pollution that causes climate change and putting a cost or price on that carbon pollution. By implementing these two elements we will not only start to slow down global warming; we will also open up new opportunities for investment in low-carbon technology that will drive the clean-growth economy of the future.

We can tackle climate change and grow our economy at the same time. But this requires difficult, but necessary, decisions, and leadership from all sides of politics. We need to fundamentally change the way our economy works, so it no longer relies on the carbon-intensive energy and processes that have fuelled it until now. We know what we need to do. We know we need a price on carbon pollution. We know we need a cap and trade system for emissions trading.

On this side of the House the Rudd government is providing the leadership that is needed after more than a decade of inaction by its predecessor. We are providing the leadership necessary to address what Lord Stern described as a failure of markets, a failure to factor in all the costs that climate change is imposing on the planet and the world’s economies. Turning this around requires an unprecedented global economic transformation. Only when the cost of climate change is reflected in a price on carbon will we be able to achieve the massive change that is required. We need to give an economic value to the planet by putting a price on the things that are doing harm to it. Doing this means changing the way we do business. It requires putting a price on carbon because only then will there finally be the incentive that is needed to drive investment in a low-carbon, clean economy of the future.

But time is running out. If we do not make this change now there will be no economic penalty for polluting until it is far too late. Our children and grandchildren will pay the price of our inaction and our prosperity will suffer if we let other nations take the frontrunning in building a low-carbon economy of the future. The only way we can deliver the scale of reductions we need is with legislation that puts a limit on carbon pollution and makes those that produce carbon pollution pay for it.

We on this side of the House know what needs to be done. We need the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 [No. 2] will deliver. Addressing the consequences of a warming planet is far too important to be derailed by a few recalcitrant climate change sceptics. This is not the time to gamble with our future and with the future of our children and others who come after us. On this side of the House we believe Australia’s future is worth too much to take that risk. Now is the time to follow the lead of the United Nations and follow the precautionary principle. I encourage the Leader of the Opposition, and others opposite who know what needs to be done, to support this legislation. I will be voting for this bill and I urge them to do likewise for the sake of our country’s future.