2012 Laureate Julian Burnside on Australia’s Response to Climate Change: What on Earth are we doing?
On 1 December, 2014 Sydney Peace Prize recipient Julian Burnside AO QC gave a stirring speech calling for Australia to uphold it’s climate responsibilities.
“I have long considered climate change the principal issue facing the world. It is a first-order issue. Refugees are a second-order issue. Here is the speech I gave.”
Climate change is the single biggest issue facing the world today.
Perhaps the biggest issue that has ever faced the planet.
Climate change resists simple solutions. To begin tackling it, we must first begin undoing the complex web of of factors that have existed for centuries and have brought us to this point.
- Global structures that have been based on fossil fuels and the exploitation of cheap energy and labour for centuries
- The inequalities and power dynamics that are the legacy of colonisation
- Giant corporations that have more power now than ever before in history and will do anything to protect their profits: The East India Company once ran India: global corporations today make the power of the East India Company look modest.
- And a new global economic system that has eroded the power of nation states to set and effectively enforce policy.
This complex web of factors makes it more difficult to solve the climate change issue: more interests are involved than, for example, in banning the use of CFCs in order to reduce the hole in the ozone layer.
For many people climate change is a relatively new issue. It was brought into public focus in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It was reiterated by Kevin Rudd, who in 2007 called it the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’. And he went to Copenhagen in 2009 but somehow he lost his way after that.
But scientists have known for a long time that climate change was happening.
In the 1820s, the French mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier was trying to understand the various factors that affect Earth’s temperature. But he found a problem – according to his calculations, the Earth should have been a ball of ice.
The Sun did not seem to provide enough energy to raise the temperature of Earth above freezing. Fourier’s initial ideas, that there must be additional energy coming from the Earth’s core or from the temperature of outer space, were soon dismissed. Fourier then realised that the atmosphere, which at first seemed transparent, could be playing a crucial role.
In 1861, the Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that gases such as methane and carbon dioxide absorbed infrared radiation, and could trap heat within the atmosphere. He recognised the implications and said that these gases “would produce great effects on the terrestrial rays and produce corresponding changes of climate.”
He was right. But in 1861 the amount of CO2 which was being released into the atmosphere was a tiny fraction of what happens today. Although CO2 levels started to rise with the industrial revolution, when Tyndall drew attention to the subject, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was less than 300 ppm. It now peaks at something like 410 ppm.
In the 1890s the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius identified the warming influence of water vapour in the atmosphere. This was the first indication of a positive feedback loop: more CO2 meant a warmer atmosphere; a warmer atmosphere can hold more water as vapour; more water vapour in the atmosphere traps more heat, and so on.
In the 1950s the Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass confirmed that doubling the level of CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to an increase in global temperatures of 3-4 decrees Celcius.
In the 1970s, Exxon knew that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet. This was years before it became a public issue. Exxon understood what this would mean for its business, and has since spent an estimated $30 million promoting the denial of climate change and questioning the science. Gosh: that’s how the tobacco industry defended itself: deny the science, create doubt, attack your opponents.
22 years ago the first UN Climate Change conference was held in Berlin. World leaders came together to work out what to do about climate change. In 1995 there was about 358 ppm of CO2 in the air.
Now, 22 years later when the first global climate agreement is finally in place, the figure is more than 400 ppm. That has locked the planet into 1 degree of warming even if we stop burning all fossil fuels right now.
The rate of increase in the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is startling. In the 150 years from 1751 to 1900, about 12 gigatonnes of CO2 were released from fossil fuels and cement production worldwide. In the 112 years from 1901 to 2013 the figure was about 1,400 Gigatonnes: an average of about 12 gigatonnes of CO2 per year, but the rate has been accelerating. In 1990: 22.5 gigatonnes of CO2. In 2010, 33.5 gigatonnes of CO2.
Half of the greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere were released after 1988. If fossil fuel companies were honest about the damage fossil fuels cause, we wouldn’t be in the situation where we have a 5 year window in which to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
But, thanks to the work of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies who put their own profits above the future of the planet, we’ve suffered through 21 years of policy inaction. Even worse, their climate denialism has muddied the water so much that people now believe climate change is a conspiracy dreamed up by the Chinese or a corrupt UN that wants to take over the world meaning that effective national policies that will have the least cost impact are often difficult or impossible to achieve.
In democracies, these tactics pose a very real threat.
At a time when entire nations are at risk of sinking below the seas, Donald Trump has committed to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement because quote: The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
Here in Australia, we are no better!
The Australian Government continues to block any real action on climate change and our former Prime Minister claimed that ‘coal is good for humanity’ and our current Prime Minister seems largely beholden to the far right’s agenda on the issue: more coal and gas and no national strategy to reduce emissions or plan for a transition from fossil fuels.
This is compounded by the fact that developed countries like Australia, the UK and the US – whose centuries of reliance on coal, oil and gas have caused this climate crisis – are increasingly turning into national fortresses, leaving the most vulnerable to a changing climate stranded, quite literally, at sea.
Let’s take a moment to look at what Australia is doing — or not doing — on climate change.
A report in the Guardian Australia on 30 November illustrates the problem. An expert advisory panel reported that Coal-fired Queensland, with just 7% of its power generation from renewables, could lift that to 50% by 2030 with little appreciable cost to electricity consumers. The Queensland government would subsidise renewables. The federal energy minister, Josh Frydenberg criticised the report. The Guardian article continues:
Coal companies like Rio Tinto have called on Queensland to abandon its own renewables target to simply align with the commonwealth’s 2020 goal of 20%. But Bailey says it’s clear the state’s plan was “developed in the absence of federal policy” and with doubt that even the 2020 commonwealth target will be achieved.
He says the failure of the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to put policy daylight between him and his predecessor, Tony Abbott, shows conservative politics in Australia will be dragged kicking and screaming towards energy sector reform.
Antipathy towards renewables and acting on climate change among the hard right of the Coalition stands in contrast to moves by “conservative parties in other parts of the world”, Bailey says. He cites Germany and California as advanced economies already boasting more than 30% renewable power.
“You go to Europe, this is not an issue,” he says. “It seems to be a particular LNP [Liberal National party] Australian thing but they seem extraordinarily intransigent on it and, while we see more and more extreme weather events occur, they are stopping us from dealing with some of those big issues around climate change. …”
We are a uniquely embarrassing case on the global stage, in that early on, we put in place a fairly comprehensive domestic climate policy with a carbon price by the minority Gillard Government that was then dismantled and replaced with an impotent measure that pays polluters and has seen our emissions rise every year since.
Watching Malcolm Turnbull fade into the shadow of what he could have been is like watching the slow destruction of a man the country once respected on so many of our most important issues. He has been so unwilling to lead his party, and has granted so much power to the fringe right of his party – particularly on the issue of climate change and asylum seekers – that Australia’s global reputation on climate change has gone from global leader to global threat.
As a case in point, here is a short but non exhaustive list of what the Government has done since the world signed the Paris Agreement a year ago:
- Fast-tracked the Adani coal mine in Queensland – one of the biggest coal basins in the world that if developed would blow any chance the world has of remaining below 2 degrees of global warming. This is more than just a climate fight. It is also a fight over land rights and how the government has granted mining leases on indigenous land and repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the claim by the traditional Wangan and Jagalingou owners on this land.
- Attacked environmental groups standing up for our climate and to protect our natural environment. The Turnbull Government has launched a two pronged attack on environment groups – the first attack is by seeking to amend the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act — or the EPBC. This act allows groups and individuals to legally challenge resource projects if they are a threat to water or the environment. This is an incredibly important provision – introduced by the Howard Government – that allows for a check and balance on Government’s power. The second attack is on the tax deductible status of environmental not-for-profits. This is an attempt to silence groups like 350.org and others who are standing up against fossil fuel projects.
- Recently, investigative reporting discovered that the government censored a UN report on the extent of bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and how much of a role climate change had to play in it. Even though the health of the reef recently got a “D” on the Australian government’s annual report card for the fifth year in a row and large-scale bleaching in the northern part of the reef threatens to see it never return to a productive state.
- The Government has launched an ideological war on renewable energy after the recent South Australian blackout. This culminated in Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg attempting to bully the states out of their ambitious renewable energy targets and pushing them instead to focus on promulgating onshore gas production. As you, probably know, gas is in fact a non-renewable fossil fuel that releases methane into the atmosphere that is 86x more potent than carbon at warming the planet.
- And then there was Tony Abbott’s asking the mining industry to “demonstrate its gratitude” to the retiring Federal Resources Minister – Ian MacFarlane – who dismantled the mining tax. The Industry duly listened, and MacFarlane broke a Parliamentary code of ethics by accepting a $500k per year job with the Queensland Resources Council — on top of his $140k Parliamentary pension — so that he can spruik for the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
- The Australian government actively resisted and watered down restrictions on financing of coal plants by OECD export credit agencies last year because the government wants more coal plants to be built so that there are new markets for Australian coal.
- The Government has slashed the budget of ARENA — Australian Renewable Energy Agency — by $500 million– after trying to kill it off entirely. ARENA provides grants to innovative new renewables projects and is essential to keeping Australia at the forefront of research and development. If Turnbull was serious about ‘innovation’, ARENA would be the flagship organisation of this push. Instead, the Government created and funnelled money into a new major national fossil fuel research program called the Oil, Gas & Energy Resources Growth centre. You couldn’t dream this stuff up!
Australia’s political donation laws are outdated and not up to the task, so it is hard to get a clear view of how much is actually donated. But in the three years leading up to the 2016 election the fossil fuel industry donated almost $3.7 million to the major parties in direct donations.
In return, the industry saw $7.7 billion in subsidies comes its way, priority access to any land they desired to develop and unbeatable access to the ears of our decision makers, including some of the most plum and influential roles in the country on retirement.
Indirect donations and the revolving door of jobs — such as that of the former Minister Macfarlane — would show significantly more influence. Brad Burke, the former Corporate Affairs Director of Santos, is now Malcolm Turnbull’s senior strategist. Senator James McGrath is now a QLD Liberal Senator. Patrick Gibbons was the corporate affairs manager of mining company Alcoa was Greg Hunt’s senior adviser as Environment Minister. Josh Frydenberg’s current adviser previously worked for Shell and then Energy Australia.
That our Government is awash with former fossil fuel executives goes a long way to explaining why we are currently a global embarrassment on climate change. And as to why we are not addressing our biggest contribution to climate change: that Australia remains the world’s biggest coal exporter. To use a crude analogy: if fossil fuels are the drug, then Australia is the pusher.
This is a nice little arrangement between the fossil fuel industry and our Government. By exporting our coal, we are exporting our emissions to other countries that we are not required to take responsibility for under our UN climate commitments. Just Australia’s domestic emissions equate to 1.5% of the world’s carbon emissions – 16th in the world.
However, if we add emissions from our exported coal to our domestic emissions, Australia’s carbon footprint trebles in size and we become the 6th largest emitter after China, the USA, Russia, India and Indonesia – all of which have populations over 250 million.
Even worse is that if the above mentioned the proposed Adani coal mine and development of the Galilee Basin supported by the QLD and Federal Governments, we would be responsible for 705 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Opening up the entire Galilee Basin would see Australia become the world’s seventh largest contributor of emissions in the world!
This is at a time when reports are telling us that if there is any chance of avoiding the ‘safe’ two degree warming scenario, NO NEW FOSSIL FUEL PROJECTS can go ahead, and that current ones need to be scaled back.
Fundamentally, we have to do better. Globally Australia is under extreme pressure to lift its game on climate.
At the recent UN climate meeting in Marrakesh, we got more questions than any other country. Including questions from allies like the US and NZ. And from countries like China that want to know why we have no credible climate policy and what we are going to do about it.
BUT, the Turnbull Government, like the Abbott Government, is impervious to international pressure.
So, it is therefore up to us – Australian citizens – to lead the way on climate and make the moral case for climate change leadership.
We need to emphasise that by refusing to act we are missing out on the new jobs that the transition to clean energy is creating. China, Europe and the US are investing billions into this burgeoning industry, while Australia is cutting its funding to that same source of new jobs.
We need to emphasise that global warming is real, and if we let it run away from us we are mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren. The Federal Treasurer emphasises that we must avoid creating inter-generational debt. He says this in connection with the Federal budget. He needs to speak to Josh Frydenberg: climate change is the biggest inter-generational debt imaginable.
We need to emphasise that climate change provides the biggest existential threat to our neighbouring Pacific Islands and across Asia. At least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise. The rapid changes in the Solomon Islands has already seen whole coastal communities have to relocated. These are communities that have in many cases lived in these areas for generations.
Historically, Australia has been looked to as a leader in the Pacific region. Our recent approach to climate policy has severely weakened this view.
Responding to the scrapping of the carbon tax and the defunding of climate science research bodies, the Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum said this:
“It just does not make sense, it goes against the grain of the world. Not only [is Australia] our big brother down south, Australia is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum and Australia is a Pacific island, a big island, but a Pacific island. It must recognise that it has a responsibility. The problems that have befallen the smaller countries are also Australia’s problems. You cannot remove Australia from the life and blood of the Pacific.”
For our conservative politicians climate change is a ‘wedge’ issue they can use against the Labor Party and the Greens to prove to their fringe right constituencies and their cheerleaders in the Murdoch press that they have the right mettle for the job.
We need to emphasise that climate change provides the biggest existential threat to the identity of Australia itself. What sort of country are we? Are we really a country that would do nothing to save the planet? Are we a country willing to destroy our region and mortgage the lives of future generations so we can continue to live prosperous, self-indulgent lives.
What we need to do is consider the precautionary principle. More particularly, we need to force our politicians to consider the precautionary principle. About 97% of the world’s scientists accept that climate change is real, anthropogenic and dangerous. Deniers would point out that science is not decided by popular vote. True enough, although it is often useful to listen to people who know what they are talking about. But let’s accept it: the scientists may be wrong.
Let’s give odds of 80% against the scientists: that is, let’s assume there is an 80% chance they are wrong. But if they are right, if the 20% chance comes in, the result will be catastrophic and could have been avoided. 20% chance of a catastrophic, avoidable result is worse odds than Russian Roulette. So next time someone argues the denialist case, ask them if they are willing to play Russian Roulette with their children or grand-children.
And let’s face it: if we spend the money to avoid climate change, and if the denialists turn out to be right, the worst you can say is that we cleaned up the planet for no reason…
In my opinion we have to make sure it never gets to this. We cannot trust the lives of millions of people to the whims of inward-looking fortress nation states.
That is why the current moment in history is critical. Until recently, the fossil fuel industry had a firm grip on the levers of power. They have been able to manipulate governments around the world to ensure that they could continue to drill, dig and frack for oil, coal and gas. But the world is rapidly changing.
A powerful global movement against fossil fuels is building. It is helped by the internet and a determination to build a better world. It includes local communities, first nations people, university students, farmers, politicians, business leaders, even politicians.
This movement is forcing a reckoning on the future of fossil fuels. It was behind the success of the Paris Agreement last year. It is why BP walked away from drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight. It was the cause of the ban on unconventional gas in Victoria. It is behind the states and communities announcing ambitious renewable energy targets despite every Federal Government effort to undo these targets.
The potential is huge. But its power rests with you.
Yes, 2016 has been a bad year for progressive causes and particularly for climate change at a time when we can least afford it.
But politics is like a pendulum and we need to be ready for when it swings back. Donald Trump will stumble. In Australia, the Turnbull Government has already lost the faith of the people just five months after the Federal election.
But, as Shakespeare said, When they fall, they fall like Lucifer – never to hope again.
They will resist.
We need to be resolute.
We need to be strong.
We need to be ready.
We need a robust and diverse movement of Australians ready to prove to our politicians that climate change matters. The movement against fossil fuels doesn’t have money or vested interests on our side. But we have the science, the evidence of the impacts already happening, and the liveability of our planet, our very future, as our authority.
Now we need to use it.