Failing the climate: senate speech on the CPRS

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (1.17 pm 24 November 2009) –

I rise to add my remarks on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 [No. 2] and related bills with a sense of deja vu, because we were here a couple of months ago debating not just the same bill that we are now confronted with but, evidently, we are debating a bill that has been made substantially worse as a consequence of the horse-trading and deals that have been going on behind the scenes.
I would like to acknowledge that we have been joined by a couple of school groups, who have come up into the public gallery while we have been speaking on both sides. This debate is about you, and it is for you. I apologise for how poorly it is going.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to a class of high school kids at Ocean Reef senior high in the northern suburbs of Perth. They were a very bright and engaged bunch of young people. It occurred to me that I was in the company of people who had almost all been born around 1992. That was the year that Australia signed onto the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UNFCCC.

For their entire lives these kids have lived in a country that had signed up to a global acknowledgement that climate change is real, demands urgent action and is within our collective power to address if we should demonstrate the will.

Seventeen years ago we signed on to that agreement, and this is as far as we have come.

The government introduced the CPRS package we are debating today, with a choice. Without the numbers in the Senate, the government’s choice was to go into negotiations either with the people who wanted the package to succeed or with the people who wanted it to fail. We know which path the government chose of course. We saw the outcome this morning. They went straight into negotiations with the parties who have had absolutely no inhibitions describing exactly why they want this package to fail.

So the parliament this week has to choose between two courses of failure: either to vote down this corrupted attempt at introducing a carbon price or to have the major parties collude in perpetuating a monumentally expensive fraud.

We have just seen the Prime Minister and the climate change minister stand up at a press conference with straight faces and announce that their scheme retains environmental and economic integrity. At that point it became clear to me that this debate has completely taken leave of reality.

I spent a bit of time last week trying to get a sense of the opposition’s line. Some on the opposition benches are not yet convinced that global warming is occurring at all and that we are being mean-spirited to describe the billions of tonnes of CO2 we tipped into the atmosphere in 2008 as pollution.

Others will admit that there is warming but that it is nothing to do with anthropogenic emissions – the planet has warmed sharply over the last century entirely of its own accord and the striking correlation with deforestation and industrial emissions is either a coincidence or a carefully orchestrated vegan conspiracy.

Others have conceded that humankind is playing a part but that Australia produces such a small fraction of global emissions that there is really just no point in us doing anything at all until China and the United States have decided to act. In other words – and we heard this point of view expressed by the speaker before Senator Hanson-Young – the world’s highest per capita emitters-that is, us – should just keep shovelling the coal as fast as possible until further notice.

Lastly, there are those on the opposition side who do understand that we will have to do something in Australia and, inevitably – I do not understand why – these are the same people who have nothing to offer the country but a fleet of unaffordable and obsolete nuclear power stations.

The opposition presents this awkward mash-up of contradiction and denial as though it were a policy on climate change. It is an important part of the reason that they are in opposition, and long may they remain there.

A lot of the reporting on climate change over the last six months or so has framed the debate as a political contest within the coalition and almost entirely ignored the colossal deception being perpetuated by the government. On 21 November, the Australian newspaper editorialised ‘Never mind the science, just watch the politics.’ For me, that summed up everything that has been wrong with this debate so far.

I am really sick of hearing the government reading in speeches and using lines that might as well have been written by the Greens while their actions are entirely geared to fracturing the coalition party room and win support in the coal industry.

The government has the language down beautifully. As much as Minister Wong’s speeches sometimes read as though they were ghost written by Al Gore, if you lift the bonnet on this legislation you see that it is designed to leave the Australian economy in 2030 exactly as it is today. It is a vision of Australia the quarry, hugely energy intensive and the world’s largest coal exporter – a 20th century economy with eyes closed and hands over its ears, flirting with nuclear power or desperately hoping that the crippled horse of clean coal will one day ride over the horizon.

It is legislation that introduces a feeble carbon price and then obliterates it under an avalanche of $16 billion or more in subsidies to the country’s largest polluters over the next five years. That took a turn for the worse this morning. You look for the detail to see if any of these subsidies are conditional on these same industries cleaning up their production processes or installing renewable capacity. But they are not. Kevin Rudd has signed this cheque to buy political acquiescence to the scheme, keep shovelling the coal and nail the Australian economy into the corner that it has been backing into since the 1950s.

Over the weekend the Australian Greens released legal advice to the effect that passing the CPRS package will expose any future government to a massive compensation liability in the event that it shows the backbone to adopt scientifically defensible emissions targets.

The reading of the Constitution is fairly clear. This legislation that we are debating ties the hands of future governments. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd knows it, and the country’s largest polluters know it. Passage of this legislation is not just a failure for now and or a deal for this week, as the minister put it this morning; it locks in bloody-minded failure out to 2020, which we know is the crucial decade during which we in this country and around the world have no choice but to act.

In Western Australia, this dismal political race to the bottom is being correctly read as a green light for the Barnett government to abandon any pretence of climate responsibility. This is Western Australia, Australia’s boom state, where thousands of resource based jobs depend on an intelligent and well-crafted transition strategy to a low-carbon economy.

The Barnett government plans instead to lock in fossil vulnerability for another generation, because they are reading loud and clear the signs that are coming from Canberra that nothing in this bill will prevent a new generation of dirty, 1960s era subcritical coal-fired power stations from being built.

The proposal there is to at least double the coal-fired generation in the Collie Basin, and massively expand the footprint of coal mining operations. When some future government comes to its senses and initiates an emergency program of emissions reductions, these corporations are going to be lining up with their hands out claiming that they did not see it coming and demanding more compensation for their obsolete generation assets.

By then of course the public mood is going to be a lot darker than it is today. Whatever greenwash the Rudd government takes cover behind this week in late November 2009, let us be really clear about what this bill locks us into.

Coral reefs will not survive the hothouse future that this bill locks in. Ningaloo Reef, the jewel of the north-west, will not survive the warm acidic oceans that that this bill locks in. The magnificent forests of the south-west will not survive the changing rainfall regime that has already done so much damage to this wonderfully biodiverse part of our country. CSIRO have been telling us for ten years or more that as much as we might fear the ruination of low-lying coastal ecosystems from sea level rise, the impacts of putting the blowtorch onto the inland Pilbara and northern Goldfields could well make large parts of central and western Australia simply uninhabitable.

So, in choosing to set his compass by political circumstance rather than three decades of peer reviewed science, this is the future that the Prime Minister will locks in with his tragically named Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

No wonder so many people have recoiled from this vision of calculated failure.

A number of senators in the debates over the last fortnight appear to have noticed the work being done by climate action groups around the country, and pointed out with suspicion how similar they look to the campaign groups who took up the fair trade and global justice causes in the 1990s and before.

I have had the very good fortune to spend some time at a few of these climate convergences last August in Newcastle and earlier this year at the Hazelwood power station in Victoria. These are people from all over the country – ordinary people and some pretty extraordinary people – who have assessed the comprehensive ongoing failure of anything sensible to emerge from this place and who have decided to act on their own consciences.

They are organising, as they did yesterday, creative and respectful nonviolent demonstrations and are taking responsibility precisely because of the profound failure of this parliament to do so.

That is the reason why in December I will be joining the first camp for climate action to take place in Western Australia, in Collie. I am very much looking forward to joining people there. What is happening in parliament over this November justifies every hour of your work – every spokes council, every public meeting and every tripod that goes up. It is time at last to link arms and push back.

Your defiance and your creativity gives all of us hope that one day Australians will be able to take their place in the global community with a sense of pride that we played our part to avert the greatest crisis of our age.

It is very important to remember on days like today at least that you are not alone. I want to take this opportunity to pay my respects to some of the people around the country who are leading by example.

These include people like Kelly Howlett and all her supporters in Port Hedland and South Hedland, who did the seemingly impossible earlier this year and was elected as Mayor on a very clear platform of greening the town and demonstrating practical sustainability and conservation initiatives.

On the same day, my hometown of Fremantle also got its very first Greens Mayor, Brad Pettit, after a highly effective grassroots campaign that again emphasised working collaboratively with business, community groups, industry and with all political sides to green the city.

Further afield, one of the highlights for me this year was meeting the representatives of farming communities around Gunnedah and Oakey who are standing up against proposals for massive coalmines in some of Australia’s most important farming areas. They have made themselves an inspiration for the defence of precious farming land right across the country.

In the course of conducting the public transport inquiry this year, I was privileged to meet some of the virtual army of sustainable cities practitioners and theorists and remember what it was that got me into this job in the first place: the extraordinary sense of optimism and the can-do spirit that these advocates bring to their work.

There is also a group of people very close to my heart, the representatives of communities all over the country who are leading the defence against the nuclear nightmare and its delusional promises of climate salvation, from the elders in central Australia who are defending their land against the radioactive waste dump to the ASAP mob in Alice Springs who have led the charge against a new uranium mine 20 km from their town and who are back on the case today.

We are all indebted to the three generations of antinuclear campaigners who have stood up to this destructive industry and who are still organising against it, most fiercely now in my home state of Western Australia where this industry has never been and must never be allowed to take hold.

I also acknowledge all of those in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors who have hung on for so long while renewable energy policy in this country veers between indifference and hostility. I share your frustration that all of the incentives in this deal before parliament today are aimed at keeping the clean energy sector at the margins while rewarding the largest polluters in the land.

So many people around the country are making these contributions every day and are waiting for the people up here, on Capital Hill, to get behind these efforts and if not lead then at least get the hell out of the way.

What we saw this morning at the Prime Minister’s press conference underlines just how badly the major parties have gone off the rails – a transfer of, say, $5 billion or $6 billion from households to polluters on top of the enormous damage this deal would have done if the bill had passed unamended.

It has been browned down substantially from its original brown state. We have seen a history in Australia and around the world of calculated underinvestment in a climate response but, of course, no limit to the resources that can be thrown at rescuing failing banks or sharpening the teeth of militarism in our region.

The climate change crisis puts us at a crossroads: either we choose to further entrench the wasteful mistakes of the past, the existing inequalities and reliance on military ‘solutions’ or we choose to make our lives and make our way on this planet more ecologically, economically and socially sustainable.

When we read parliamentary debates about the trans-Atlantic slave trade in history books we shake our heads at the moral bankruptcy and the appalling arguments that were shamelessly peddled by the profiteers and the investors or those who had been successfully lobbied by them-the men who extended the slave trade because of how important it was to the economy. The ideas of Wilberforce and his allies were treasonous; it cost some of them their lives. They were accused of attacking the foundations of the economy and threatening some of the most powerful economic interests of the day.

I wonder whether our descendants or some of the folk in the gallery today will experience the same shame when they look back at this debate, and the debates over the last couple of years, and wonder what on earth we were doing. The moral abomination of cooking this planet, or in fact denying that it is even occurring, I think will arouse a similar disdain from future generations who will not thank us for not being capable of reining in the basic excesses of our economy or the gluttony of the coal industry.

Senators here would have heard me speak before about narrow military notions of military security and the extraordinary theft of resources from genuine tools of security. Military security can do nothing to alleviate the greatest security challenge of our age, which is climate change. Traditional tools of warfare are of absolutely no help at all when confronted by a tsunami, a hurricane, a flood, a virus or a water shortage. The acquisition of arms and the current global military expenditure of $1.2 trillion a year still diverts enormous financial, technical and human resources from where they are really needed.

We saw a local expression of this earlier this year and in the run-up to the production and tabling of the Defence white paper, which commits Australia to enormous and expanding military spending in an age where this must be seen as nothing more than an incredible misallocation of resources.

These kinds of weapons are useless in facing the challenge of a hungry humanity on a warming and finite planet. Rather than simply being the backdrop for human actions, the theatre for war is a finite and fragile planet that cannot bear the weight of more carbon intensive war or preparation for war.

There are many people who will not be in this chamber when this appalling piece of legislation is put to the vote. When we do vote I would like their voices to be heard and recorded. The people whom Senator Hanson-Young and I met in Dharamsala, who work on what is known as the Third Pole Initiative, cannot believe or comprehend how rapidly the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau are receding. Billions of people are dependent on melt water from these Himalayan glaciers. I would like their voices to be lined up and recorded when we vote.

The voices of women in the non-industrialised world who are disproportionately affected by climate change must be heard as well. In many parts of the world, they collect the firewood, they draw the water, they plant the seeds and they harvest the crops. They have seen the disappearance of forests, the drying of wells and the polluting and silting of rivers. They have watched in despair as children go without food or clean water and sicken with disease. We know women often lead the way in their communities in conserving precious natural resources, adapting food crops to changing soil and climatic conditions, and rebuilding following floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters. But women’s voices are largely absent from policy discussions and negotiations over global warming. Their voices, I also submit, must be heard in the global warming debate overwhelmingly dominated by men and they should be recorded in the vote.

My nephew Riley James, whose first birthday I just missed because I was over here and whose whole life will be shaped by the decisions that we make-or fail to make-in here and in parliaments elsewhere around the world gets no vote in here this week and yet his stake in this matter is greater than any of the people who will file in here when we finally vote on these bills.

Today we are compelled to vote against this failure – a failure of government, a failure of opposition and a failure of our representative democracy to represent anything but the most abject, short-term self interests of a small but powerful sect of fossil capitalists.

There is no point in denying that the greenhouse mafia have won this round, but it will not be the last.

Eventually, the pointlessly self-interested rearguard action will fail and Australia will take its place in the 21st century, the renewable century.

I want to quickly acknowledge Senator Christine Milne and her staff who have carried this debate for the Australian Greens with enormous integrity through some pretty dark times, most recently through the introduction of the comprehensive safe climate bills which spell out for anybody who would like to know what a genuine safe climate response would look like when it finally comes from parliament.

I still have enormous faith in this country and in our ability to seize leadership from the grassroots all the way up to Capital Hill. That day is not here yet, but it will come.