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There is opportunity in our climate crisis, but we must take a different direction

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 16 Sep 2016

This week has been a big one for me. From dawn to late at night, I have been flat out, bumper to bumper. I know most of my fellow senators know how I feel. So I want to put my response to the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016 in this context.

In between speeches, press conferences, the highs and lows of first speeches, and meetings about agriculture, rural women, human rights and equality for same-sex and gender-diverse people, there is one meeting that I have had this week that stands out. I squeezed it in on Tuesday. It was squashed between a RRAT committee meeting and a press conference on the marriage equality plebiscite. It was with Dr Andrew Glikson, an experienced, senior, wise scientist from ANU—an earth and paleo-climate scientist. Dr Glikson has taken it upon himself to brief whichever parliamentarians will listen to him about the existential threat to our survival that we face due to global warming and the climate crisis that faces us. My colleagues have covered a broad range of the impacts of the cuts to essential services that are contained in this omnibus bill. I want to focus on the climate implications.

Dr Glikson was frustrated that people were not listening—frustrated that, here we are, facing the biggest threat to humanity ever, and people are not listening, frustrated that our political processes are seemingly incapable of tackling this problem—that we are all Nero, fiddling while our planet burns. He was angry at our impotence, upset about the denialism, astounded at the inability of politicians and the broader community to logically and rationally look at the science, come to terms with its implications and methodically and systemically take the action that is required to save ourselves. His passion, on Tuesday, released the stopper on the same emotions that I generally have jammed into my powder keg. I try to keep them under check, because, for me, releasing this reality tends to send me careering into despair. What is it going to take? Is there any chance for humanity at all? What is the point? Why don't I just give up all this political faff and retire to the country, drink red wine and grow myself some organic vegies, and watch on as the world disintegrates before our very eyes?

This is the context in which I consider this omnibus bill, in which I consider the government's original aims of destroying our Renewable Energy Agency, with the Labor Party sanctimoniously patting itself on the back for having saved some of the furniture. We are meant to be grateful that ARENA is not going to be completely gutted, only moderately so. And we are meant to ignore the fact that, in tackling our budget emergency, we are leaving completely untouched the obvious ways of bringing in billions of dollars—the subsidies to the fossil fuel companies.

Senators, legislators, anyone who will listen—it is not enough. Half measures are not enough; business as usual is not enough. It is not where we need to head. The only thing that usually enables me to keep my despair in check is that I know what we need to do to tackle the climate crisis. We are facing massive problems, but there are solutions. If we put our mind to it, our ingenuity to work, our innovation, our commitment, our passion, the world can reduce its carbon pollution to zero within the next two decades. We have the technologies, and those that we do not have we can develop. I can even feel some optimism that we can develop technologies that will enable us to soak up the carbon out of the atmosphere at the scale and the speed required to put the brakes on the runaway train that is headed for the precipice that we are currently on. But we have to do it. We have to invest in renewables. We have to plough resources into agencies like ARENA, not ask them to muddle along and get by on half the resources they had last year. Australia is so well placed to play a leading role. We are a developed country with a well-educated community and so much renewable resource. We could be playing a leadership role, not being climate denialist laggards.

Can I remind you what we face if we do not do this, if Australia does not play its role, if the world just goes on, business as usual, as we currently are? It is not pretty. You know where we currently grow wheat in Australia? Sorry, we will not be able to do that anymore. The wheat-growing areas of Australia, under four degrees of warming—where we are still headed—will have a climate that is currently experienced in the central deserts. You know those beachside suburbs that we live in? Sorry, they will be under water. You know the sewerage systems of our cities? They will be inundated. Just think of that. Miami, in the US, is already suffering from this—putrid sewage seeping up into the streets with every high tide. You know how, across the country, our agricultural industries, our farmers and our economy do not cope too well with drought? Sorry, droughts will be much more frequent, more severe, and no amount of frenzied dam building will give us water supply in a hotter, drier world. There will be more floods, more droughts, more bushfires—unstoppable, making large parts of Australia increasingly marginal to survive in.

You know how we are currently challenged by the numbers of refugees seeking asylum around the world? Think of the refugees when the agricultural lands of India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh are flooded by sea level rise and glacial melt. Rice is a staple food in Bangladesh, and rice farming is vital to the nation's economy. Sea level rise could threaten the food security of more than three million people in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta by the middle of the century, by making the water and soil too salty to grow rice. I want to quote renowned Australian economist Ross Garnaut. I think he is respected by all sides of politics. He wrote in 2009:

If sea level rises and displaces from their homes a substantial proportion of the people of Bangladesh and West Bengal, and many in the great cities of Dhaka, Kolkata, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Ningbo, Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Karachi and Mumbai, it will not be a problem for Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam alone.

If changes in monsoon patterns and the flows of the great rivers from the Tibetan plateau disrupt agriculture among the immense concentrations of people that have grown around the reliability of water flows since the beginning of civilisation, it will not just be a problem for the people of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Myanmar and China.

…   …   …

The problems of unmitigated climate change will be for all humanity.

That is what we are facing. We know what we have to do. We know what we can do. It is a matter of priorities. It is making decisions for our future, not pandering to the interests of those who are comfortable with the status quo and have their heads in the sand about the future we face. We should be, we could be, we must be massively increasing investments in renewable energy, and Australia could be a leader. It would be great for the economy, great for jobs. During the election campaign, the Australia Institute estimated that, if we reached the Greens' target of 90 per cent renewable energy by 2030, it would create 30,000 jobs, which I reckon would be pretty good for our economy.

Yes, we have a budget emergency—a carbon budget emergency. It overwhelms the financial budgetary problems, which can be pretty simply fixed by some of the many revenue measures that the Greens have proposed, the full impact of which would bring in over $100 billion of revenue over the forward estimates. My colleagues, in their contributions, have already outlined what those opportunities are—the various measures that could be bringing in revenue instead of these misplaced, short-sighted cuts that we are considering in this omnibus bill.

We have a carbon budget emergency because, to keep a safe climate for humanity, there is no carbon budget left—zero. We need to be drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, not brazenly, profligately, criminally continuing to pollute and destroy our one and only planet, our one and only home. If we are to have a habitable planet for us, our children and our grandchildren to live in, we need to urgently tackle our carbon budget emergency. We need to massively increase investment in renewables, not slash it and try and pretend that half of not enough will do. It will not. We in this parliament have a choice. We can choose to direct ourselves towards a future where humanity does have a future. It is with such sadness in my heart that I have to face the reality that the current direction that this government is taking us in, epitomised by the measures in this bill, is entirely the wrong direction.

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