A Climate Dividend for Australians

Opening Address to The Launch of The Grande Challenge of Inequality

Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight at the University of New South Wales.

We are not quite in Wentworth but I am reliably informed that it is less than one kilometre from the edge of the University to the electorate boundary on Alison Road.

I expect that many of the issues that were front-of-mind for the voters of Wentworth in the October 20 by-election will also be prevalent here.

One of the major issues was climate change.

As a Doctor, I am a trained scientist and rely on evidence to come to a diagnosis or prognosis.

On the issue of Climate Change, the scientific consensus is in. Climate change is real and we must act as a nation to do our part to help reduce its impact.

Climate change isn’t limited by geography. Some parts of the world will suffer a greater impact than others but it is our shared responsibility to do something about it. Anote Tong, Kiribati’s former President, challenged Australia, concerned about the very existence of his island nation.

Unfortunately, In Australia there has been a fundamental disconnect between the desire of a clear majority of Australians for meaningful and immediate action on climate change and the current government’s ongoing inability to produce any coherent policy to address it. 

As a nation and as global citizens, we must embrace pathways that will effectively cut carbon emissions and simultaneously ensure national economic prosperity and affordable, reliable energy for all Australians. 

Identifying solutions that are effective, efficient and do not discriminate nor create inequality is our real challenge in this debate. 

The report being launched tonight A Climate Dividend for Australians accurately describes the problem. And I quote:

“Addressing the problem of climate change is arguably one of the greatest and most pressing moral challenges of our time. 

“The average temperature of the earth’s surface has increased by about 0.6C in the last three decades, and global sea levels have risen by around 3mm per year in recent decades, largely due to an increase in CO2 and other human-emitted greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“The changing climate is also understood to have a range of current and potential impacts. These include an increase in the number and intensity of natural disaster, the extinction of animal and plant species, and significant implications for human health due to, for example, increased air pollution.”

In 2002 as AMA President we held a Summit on Climate Change and Human Health Policy. There are enormous public health implications such as heat-related deaths and illnesses; vector-borne malaria; water-borne illnesses such as gastro; food production such as reduction of fish populations; and air pollution such as pollens and asthma.

The World Health Organisation estimates there will be 250,000 additional deaths globally per year between 2030 and 2050 due to climate change. This issue strikes to equality, as those of us most vulnerable to these effects are children, the poor and elderly, those already sick, and those who work outdoors.

It’s clear that something needs to be done.

The innovative discussion and introduction of a dividend approach to managing climate change as led by Professors Richard Holden and Rosalind Dixon this evening identifies a potential alternative approach to viewing the way in which we as a nation, as businesses and as individuals can make a difference. 

At this stage, I’m not being overly prescriptive on the best pathway to achieve better climate change policy but I will be listening and learning to try to find the best way forward. 

By listening and learning during the by-election campaign, the voters told me they wanted action and I made it a key part of my platform.

During the campaign I announced my intentions on climate policy:

•         Transition to 100% renewable energy, 50% by 2030.

•         Restore a credible scientific research-based Climate Change Authority

•         Opposition to any Federal Government underwriting of new coal fired power generation

•         Stopping government subsidies of new fossil fuel developments, including the proposed Adani coal mine

•         Meeting our commitments under the Paris International Climate Agreement as a minimum

•         Banning political donations by fossil fuel companies and establish a register to force all Senators and Members to disclose meetings with fossil fuel companies and their lobbyists.

Contrast this to the current Government, which is dominated by climate sceptics. Given the overwhelming scientific consensus, it is time we stopped giving these so-called ‘sceptics’ equal air time in our media, and instead concentrate on the evidence.

The former Member for Wentworth and former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, made this clear when speaking at the Australia Bar Association’s annual conference in Sydney last Friday night.

Mr Turnbull reportedly said a climate-sceptic group within his own party held the line that “if you don’t do what we want, we will blow the show up.

“The truth is … the Liberal Party and the Coalition is not capable of dealing with climate change,” Turnbull told the conference.

“It is just a fact I regret to say. It is like a third rail. We have at the present time in the Coalition, a group of, a constituency, that is the best way to describe it, who believe we should get out of [the Paris Agreement], that climate change is a fraud … they are not prepared to play ball with everybody else.”

This is simply not good enough. 

Those of us of a similar view must work together to work towards a clean energy future.

Indeed, 12 days before the by-election, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report that again showed the urgent need for global action on climate change.

The report is groundbreaking in that it looks at the impacts of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to 2 degrees C. 

It finds that reaching the lower target would lessen the risk of drought, floods and extreme heat.

The authors of the report said urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the lower target. 

The half-degree difference could prevent corals from being completely eradicated and ease pressure on the Arctic. Professor Terry Hughes, a coral researcher has explained that corals take 10 years to recover from a single bleaching incident. With two or more events in a 10 year period, the coral will not recover.

Solving the climate change crisis requires vision and leadership yet the Morrison Government is hopelessly divided on climate science and paralysed on what to do about it. 

The Prime Minister’s thought bubble on the day the IPCC report was released on overturning the ban on building nuclear reactors in Australia was not and is not the answer. We saw how that worked out for the people of Fukishima.

The people of Wentworth – and I think Australia generally –  want decisive action on cutting greenhouse emissions and a well-researched and deliverable plan for a just transition from coal to renewables. 

To secure our environment for the future Australia must eventually source all our energy requirements from renewable sources. 

This is a big transition and one that will require Australia coming together around an agreed plan. 

I will be guided by experts on the timing and pace that Australia can responsibly transition to 100% renewables. 

I want the experts on climate and energy to develop this plan and advise us on the most efficient way to achieve it. 

That’s why I support restoring the Climate Change Authority (CCA) as the policy driver for our decisions on climate change. 

One of the ways to drive a reduction in emissions is to shift away from coal.

Coal is old technology that will never be able to become ‘clean’. 

Thermal coal-fired power generation needs to be phased out in an orderly way as renewable sources become more affordable and available. 

Taxpayer’s money should be invested in creating the long-term sustainable transition to renewable technologies, not propping up environmentally-harmful fossil fuels. 

Investing government money in coal-fired powered stations or protecting those assets against future changes in policy will only create bigger problems for Australia down the road.

We have abundant natural resources to harness. Renewables –  solar and wind – are now a cheaper form of electricity generation than new coal-fired power plants. 

The current lack of policy certainty is hindering investment. 

Time is running out for an effective national policy to address climate change.

Effective action on climate change must involve the world acting together to reduce carbon emissions. 

The longer we wait the more expensive and difficult the transition becomes. 

Australia needs an evidence-based climate policy led by our national government. 

We can and we must all assume responsibility for supporting and embracing change – for our children, for our land and for our planet. 

Time is of the essence and we must maintain a commitment to rational debate as we search for environmentally and economically sound solutions.