Speech on Climate Change and Drought

4.30pm | August 13, 2018

There is a devastating drought that is gripping many parts of Australia. We've seen media coverage of this recently, and it includes heart-rending imagery of people on the land managing their properties, managing their stock, managing the economic impacts on their families and managing and responding to the economic impacts in their towns. These scenes move Australians here in the chamber and out there in our communities.

More Australians may live in the cities than ever before—we are a fundamentally urban place—but our sense of national identity is still tied up with the outback and with the people who live and work in it. It's difficult to see those images of struggling farmers and not ask the questions: why is this happening? Why is it like this? Why now? The answer that is offered a lot by people who don't want to come to grips with our present reality is to quote Dorothea Mackellar, 'droughts and flooding rains'. They say: 'It's always been like this. It always will be. Nothing's changed.'

Senator Williams interjects and says, 'That's true.' We have had droughts and flooding rains—that is true—but they are getting worse. It is no longer the full story to point to historic variability, because climate change is affecting our weather. It is affecting our weather, our long-term climatic patterns and our agriculture sector. It's intensifying the variability that has always been a feature of the Australian landscape. Included amongst the many people who are paying a price are our agricultural producers.

Earlier today, over in the other place, the opposition leader spoke of a conversation that he'd had with a farmer who runs sheep and cattle out near Longreach. She told him that a lot of farmers—people close to the land—feel like the drought cycles are getting longer and longer and the periods of relief and rain are getting shorter and shorter. And she is right. That is what the scientists are telling us. We are starting to see the impact on Australia's climate, which the scientists have been predicting for years.

We are a land with variable and often harsh weather, but the effect of climate change is to make our weather more variable and more harsh and it's our farmers, often, who pay the price. In 2011, Professor Ross Garnaut updated his review. He commented:

While it is difficult to attribute specific causes to individual severe weather events, climate change is expected to increase the risk of extreme events. The changes include greater frequency (heatwaves, bushfire conditions, floods, droughts), greater intensity (all of these plus cyclones) and changes in distribution (average rainfall).

More recently, the State of the climate 2016report by the CSIRO, our science body, found evidence of exactly that in our weather conditions.

Australia's climate has warmed, with around a 1 °C increase in both mean surface air temperature and surrounding sea surface temperature …

It's a shame people on the other side aren't listening, because these are actually important facts that people may need to engage with. It is a warming of one degree since 1910.

The oceans around us are also warming and ocean acidity levels are increasing. Sea levels have risen around Australia, and the rise in mean sea levels are massively amplified when we get a high tide or a storm surge. We see significantly more impactful events, like we did in North Queensland through Cyclone Yasi and some of the other big events we've had up there. But most telling, if you're a farmer and you're facing drought, is this:

The duration, frequency and intensity of extreme heat events have increased across large parts of Australia.

      …      …      …

There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.

      …      …      …

May-July rainfall has reduced by around 19 per cent since 1970 in the southwest of Australia.

There has been a decline of around 11 per cent since the mid-1990s in the April-October growing season rainfall in the continental southeast.

These are observed changes to the Australian climate. They are observed by the CSIRO. They are observed by the scientists that we engage, on behalf of the Australian public, to measure and assess our climate. But they're facts that people on the other side of the chamber consistently and persistently deny in this place.

Australian farmers actually live day to day with the truth of those statistics and, more than most, they have a firsthand understanding of the need to take meaningful action on climate change. Back in 2008, a decade ago, the National Farmers Federation made a submission to the Garnaut review. They said:

The NFF recognises that it is in the interests of all Australian farmers that appropriate actions are taken to reduce the risk of increased climatic variability or adverse climatic changes occurring in the future.

They haven't resiled from this position. Nearly 10 years later, in their response to the Department of Environment's review of climate change policies, they said:

Australian agriculture has always operated in a varied and challenging climate. What we now know from the scientific community is that we face a rate of change much faster than was previously expected. The continued success of the agriculture sector will depend on our ability to continue to innovate and adapt to best manage future climatic risks.

Agforce's statement on drought on their website says:

Australian farmers do take the primary responsibility for managing their climate risks, but they need government policies that facilitate and support their efforts to do so.

But that support is sorely lacking, because the government does not take climate change seriously—it is missing in action.

One of the first things the government did was defund the Climate Change Authority, the body set up to look at Australia's emissions, to look at the impact of climate change, to look at what other countries were doing in terms of reducing emissions, and to provide advice to government. The government defunded it because they didn't want to hear what it had to say—because there is a fundamental distrust of science on the other side of the chamber. This is a government that wants to be free to choose its own facts. In 2016 the then environment minister told ABC radio that Australia's emissions had peaked. That's not right. The latest update to the government's own tally of emissions, released in May this year, showed that Australia's emissions had climbed for the third year in a row despite electricity use falling. This is a government that has no intention of seeing our emissions reduce. It's a party whose backbench energy committee is chaired by the member for Hughes, a man who has material on his social media that suggests that the real climate threat is global cooling. I asked the Minister for Finance, Senator Cormann, at estimates whether his government agrees with this proposition from Mr Kelly, and I look forward to receiving a proper answer from Senator Cormann in the coming weeks.

Climate scepticism bleeds into the government's policies across the board. Their decision to limit emission reduction in the electricity sector to its pro rata share means that other sectors will have to work much harder if we are to meet our targets. And I tell you what: it's a lot cheaper and a lot easier to reduce your emissions in your electricity sector. We know that we have very, very cost-effective options in renewable energy. What we don't have are cost-effective options for emissions reduction in the agriculture sector. One of the things the National Party might wish to think about is how they are going to go back and explain to their constituents that they want to see a lot of heavy lifting done by the agricultural sector in terms of emissions reduction. What does that actually look like—destocking sheep and cattle? It is a ridiculous proposition and one that has yet to be adequately explained by the government. At the same time that farmers have to deal with extreme weather events caused by climate change, they'll be asked to contribute much more to emission reduction efforts than is necessary, because the government doesn't have the guts to take on the climate sceptics around emissions in the electricity sector.

Proper drought relief isn't just about providing financial assistance, although that is absolutely critical. It's also about doing what we can to reduce the risk of droughts being bigger and harsher than ever before. It requires us to take climate change seriously and act in partnership with the international community. I am proud that Australian Labor have been deeply committed to this for more than a decade and demonstrated that commitment through our actions when we were last in government. And I am proud that we approach the next election with a very clear plan to take serious action on climate change. We will reform the electricity sector. We will reform the transport sector. We will reduce emissions across the board. We cannot afford to do nothing and to let our agricultural sector pay the price. We will all regret it if we continue as we are.