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A Changing World

March 23, 2012

In my maiden speech, I spoke about global warming as one of the major challenges we face today:

I remember celebrating the end of the Sydney Olympics in October 2000. The closing ceremony was a wry celebration of the Australian character. I remember that as I left the stadium I passed Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, and because the ceremony had been full of esoteric references to thongs and Hills hoists and other Australian symbolism I thought I should not apologise but explain. I leant over and said to Henry, ‘Henry, you’ve got to understand we are a very funny people.’ He had a distant, quite emotional look in his eyes and he said, ‘You know, this is the only other country I would consider living in.’ I thought that a tribute to what I described three weeks ago as the sweet, funny, brave country we call Australia.

The fact is, the land we call our own—the land owned by these sweet, funny, brave people—is being transformed, as is the rest of the planet. Yes, since the late eighties I have been an unapologetic believer in the grim reality that human activity is changing the earth’s climate. Everything I have looked at in all those years has strengthened my belief that this is the truth. Each decade has been warmer than the previous decade since the 1950s. Australian annual average daily maximum temperatures have increased by 0.75 degrees Celsius since 1910. Average global mean sea level for 2011 was 210 millimetres above the level in 1880. Average global mean sea level rose faster between 1993 and 2011 than during the 20th century as a whole. And so the indicators accumulate, all of them pointing to and all of them confirming the fact that it is human activity that has driven this process.

An article in the Economist magazine over a year ago did not question the reality of this phenomenon or the role of humans in driving it but only posited that it was too late to stop and we had to adapt. The Economist said this global warming was mankind’s ‘craziest experiment’, and I do not think we could have put it better. Bill Clinton described global warming as nature’s weapon of mass destruction and the brilliant author Bill McKibben, in his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, reminded us that this is the way we live now. This phenomenon is upon us. What was prophecy when I first started reading about it in the late eighties and early nineties is the way we live now. He said in his book:

Here’s all I’m trying to say: The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists. The stability that produced that civilization has vanished; epic changes have begun. We may, with commitment and luck, yet be able to maintain a planet that will sustain some kind of civilization, but it won’t be the same planet, and hence it can’t be the same civilization. The earth that we knew—the only earth that we ever knew—is gone.

His book plays with the spelling of ‘earth’—eaarth—which is his device of reminding us that the earth today is different from the earth of only a decade or two ago. Human activity has changed it. This is how we live now. It is upon us. It is the way we live.

I do not want to waste the time of the Senate by rehearsing arguments. I have here a list of countries that have implemented a price on carbon or an emissions trading scheme and I have a list of those that are applying a tax—implicit or explicit—higher than the one we have. I wish I had been in this house to have participated in the debates on this issue from 2009.

I am proud to stand here as someone who as Premier of New South Wales introduced three things on this subject. First, I introduced the end of broadacre land clearing in 1996. Peter Beattie in the early 2000s was to implement a similar measure in Queensland. Together that ban on broadacre land clearing in these two states enabled Australia to say that we had met—or almost met—our Kyoto obligation. It was state Labor governments fighting with large sections of the primary producer community that produced that outcome

Second, as Premier I was proud to introduce what I am assured by the World Bank is literally—actually—the world’s first carbon trading scheme. The New South Wales Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme came in in January 2003. The European scheme did not come in until two years later in January 2005. We applied a limit to the emissions from the power sector and required offsets where those emissions were exceeded.

Third, I was proud to stand with representatives of the house building industry and the environment movement in 2004 and introduce what I am assured were the toughest standards for new housing in New South Wales on energy and water. Those BASIX standards have stood the test. They have built into houses a requirement for natural air conditioning to minimise the reliance on air conditioning, for example, producing that 40 per cent reduction on energy use.

I want to share a pessimistic vision with the Senate. What if the shock we have sustained to the planet and to our way of life through changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere that surrounds the earth is actually a precursor to another huge environmental shock? Bear in mind that global warming has caused, by this crazy experiment, a change in the chemical composition of the atmosphere around this planet. If you had gone up and filled a test tube with air from one of the highest mountains on the planet in, say, 1950 and then did the same thing today, the air you would be trapping in the test tube would be chemically different. It would be a different product. This is the experiment we are engaged in. This is what we are living in. But what if this shock, this chemical experiment with the earth’s atmosphere, is only the first of a series of shocks we might sustain?

And what about the oceans? Their chemical composition is changing as they absorb more and more of the carbon that our civilisations have been emitting. According to one measurement, the Southern Ocean, which lies between us and the environment of Antarctica, absorbs about 40 per cent of all the human-driven carbon dioxide released around the world each year. The chemical composition of the oceans is changing—a process known as ocean acidification. Currently about one-quarter of the carbon dioxide released each year by human activities is absorbed by those oceans. As the concentration of carbon dioxide increases, the water becomes more acidic. Its chemical composition changes as that of the atmosphere has been changed, and so many disastrous implications follow. Among other things, there is a change in the exoskeletons of marine animals. T they become brittle and frail, introduced to a sort of osteoporosis.

Then there is what is happening to the earth’s coral. I spoke a moment ago with a group of ambassadors from all around the world, UN ambassadors brought to Australia to discuss with us our bid for the United Nations Security Council. It was the UN ambassador from Serbia who said that, as a diver—Serbia is now a landlocked country, but the ambassador used to represent Yugoslavia—he cannot find a coral reef that is intact from chemical change. When I told him I was going to give a speech and refer to ocean acidification, he understood implicitly the change that is going on.

We are an island state with the third-largest marine jurisdiction in the world. My parliamentary colleague Senator Feeney tells me that, with our landmass and that of the South Pacific, we occupy 20 per cent of the earth’s surface. We have a great issue here. With our partners, the small island states of the South Pacific, there is a lot involved in it. I understand that those small island states are eager to have us make a commitment to the blue economy.

My colleague the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, who I see in the gallery, is going to go to Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, in June, with bold Australia ideas, a program and a sound record in this country of ocean management. But this is a global challenge.

15 Comments
  1. NickM permalink
    March 23, 2012 9:11 am

    Great to see the high office of Foreign Minister has not dampened your enthusiasm to blog. The quiet words you write here will be heard over and above that guy screaming at the gates of NSW Parliament House. Thanks Minister.

  2. Dougal Bain permalink
    March 23, 2012 9:17 am

    It’s great to have you back Bob!

  3. Trish Lake permalink
    March 23, 2012 9:18 am

    It is so gratifying to see these crucial issues for the world’s future — climate change, human population and the precarious health of our oceans — dominating your first address to the Senate. May these topics dominate the world stage. Our current global economic woes are intrinsically linked to the old fossil-fuel based industrial economy and corporate greed. Clean energy, halting the degradation of the natural world, and justice must underpin a new economy.

  4. S. Morgan permalink
    March 23, 2012 9:52 am

    Ocean acidification seems to be a subject that needs lots of research to measure the effect of increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations on seawater pH.
    There is the natural buffer effect of seawater which mitigates against changes in pH with CO2 absorption and the increased possible concentration of CO2 as pressure and depth increase.
    What I would like researched is the possibility for liquid CO2 to exist at ocean pressures found less than one kilometer down. The specific gravity of liquid CO2 is slightly more than water and this implies that a sealed plastic bag of the stuff could happily sit at the bottom of a suitable ocean without too many factors forcing it to escape i.e. it could be sequestered in a stable way for as long as its container resisted damage or corrosion.

  5. March 23, 2012 10:04 am

    Thanks Bob

    At last we have someone in the Labour cabinet who’s actually telling it like it is.

  6. Glenn Callcott permalink
    March 23, 2012 10:08 am

    Our funny brave people are also a pretty cynical lot.

    I think that’s why a lot of countries will employ an Australian before one of their own people and why we make such good soldiers. We have a mixture of common sense and skepticism which is rare in the modern world.

    The down side is that we’re very rough on our politicians. So thanks for having the courage to come back for seconds.

    I think your right about Climate Chaos, it ceased to be Climate Change somewhere in the last 10 years, none of us know where it will lead. It seems to me, however, that nature prefers geometric progressions to arithmetic ones.

  7. March 23, 2012 10:41 am

    Great speech – I’ve copied to laperouse.info. Regarding “We are an island state with the third-largest marine jurisdiction in the world,” could you follow up with more on Blue Carbon. Latest research http://www.sei-international.org/press/press-releases/2312 suggesting annual damage of $2trillion by 2100 if nothing done.

  8. Ralf Kluin permalink
    March 23, 2012 11:20 am

    In my mid 20s I lived in the Riverina NSW for some years and was employed as a underwriter/risk surveyor manager for one of Australia’s largest Insurance Society. The other day I viewed a number of individual Farmers whom gave an address to the National Press Club in Canberra. They described their valued profession as “Scientific Farmers”. Every one of these farmers talked about the fact of climate change and how they intended to adapt and change. Back in the seventies, science (CSIRO & Government agencies etc) for farmers was beginning to be better utilised. The farmers who adapted to science and understood the importance of it grew great food and became successful adding great value to their businesses. Why do I mention this? The old political arm of the Country Party as distinct from the Liberal Farmer and Graziers, were more or less “agrarian socialists” because they combined, communally, to better their conditions. Unfortunately the National Party of today has forgotten how to serve their constituencies as they vote to oppose good policy for the reduction of man made carbon pollution. Globally the insurance industry is ahead of government as they underwrite risks on the land, sea and air. Bob is spot on as he describes the challenges ahead dealing with impacts on nature caused by man.

  9. amro permalink
    March 23, 2012 1:27 pm

    Love your blog and great to see you in the Foreign Minister role.

  10. Rik Wallin permalink
    March 23, 2012 5:11 pm

    Bob, I thought a Minister for Foreign Affairs wouldn’t have the time to keep up a blog like yours. However, I’m very pleased to see it continuing. I certainly cannot call myself a Labor Party supporter – I have voted only twice for Labor candidates (a sitting Federal member and a sitting Stare member). Both times my choice was for them as individuals rather than for their party. Both lost their seats!
    You’d better find yourself a lower house seat before the next election, because I find myself in agreement with most of the views you express in your blog. I’d hate to be the cause of you losing your senate seat by my voting for you!!!

  11. March 24, 2012 6:19 pm

    Earth should be capitalised. After all we refer to Mars, not mars. earth is merely soil. Earth is the planet that we all live on and that gives us life. What a pity we are possibly destroying the special conditions that allow that life to exist as you point out.

  12. Ray Ellison permalink
    March 24, 2012 7:29 pm

    Bob its great to see you still blogging. keep up the good work. Its also great to see your tireless campaigning be exposed to a wider world as foregin minister.

  13. greg mclean permalink
    March 26, 2012 12:57 pm

    well Bob great to see you back, we need your inspiration , challenge , excitement and humor in these times, it was refreshing to read in your maiden speech of the opportunities to unit our region, the opportunity for you to include your issues of the environment and the oceans (some forget of your work as NSW Minister for the Environment in making our Sydney beaches clean and the standard of our harbours and water ways ), i also like your last paragraph in your maiden speech to the Senate ” “ Running foreign policy is about protecting our national interest, although by every tenet of diplomatic doctrine that comes first and foremost. It is also about being an exemplary global citizen when it comes to protecting human rights and protecting the world’s oceans. To this I would like to add that in foreign policy we may also promote and defend cultural diversity, the idea of a planet of seven billion that celebrates and does not deny its contradictions ” http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/genpdf/chamber/hansards/34dcc858-84ef-4fe3-9144-f6f97af26110/0179/hansard_frag.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

  14. Wendy Scott permalink
    March 27, 2012 7:02 am

    Hi Bob, as a Territorian and liberal voter I haven’t had much cause to follow your political career except to hear through family down south that you were doing a good job in NSW over the years, but after looking at the headlines I had to speak up. Please be careful how you spend Australia’s money. One million on a temple and other donations as well are not appropriate in my mind for taxpayer money. Wells, yes, infrastructure, yes, but not things that are not directly going to benefit the direct welfare of the poorest. I wish you all the best on your new job and hope you continue your good work but with the poor in mind.

    • Ralf Kluin permalink
      March 31, 2012 10:56 am

      Dear Wendy Scott, Poorer nations will always remember the kindness shown them. Australians by their elected governments have always been highly regarded for helping poor nations and nations suffering from disasters.

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