Change in the New Climate29 August 2016
Whether or not it is acknowledged as such, climate change will be a central issue confronting the new parliament. As global temperatures continue to rise, extreme weather events like bushfires and floods will continue to become more common. Last summer, the Great Barrier Reef suffered its worst ever coral bleaching event. Almost a quarter of the Reef is now dead, with corals in the northern section suffering the worst mortality rates. Such is the scale of this extinction that scientists and activists who have visited the reef to document its decline have commented on the horrendous stench of rotting coral.
You might think that this crisis would have ignited a serious discussion during the election campaign about the best ways of protecting one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders. However, you would be wrong.
Instead, and despite the overwhelming support from the public for stronger action on climate change, the commitments by the major parties sounded a death knell for the Reef, consigning it to a (warm) watery grave.
So what hope can we have that the new parliament will take the necessary steps to protect the Reef by curbing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions? Looking at the likely formation of the new Senate, any feeling of optimism is misplaced.
Malcolm Turnbull’s slim minority government will need to negotiate with a crossbench Senate that now includes Pauline Hanson, Derryn Hinch and Jacqui Lambie. Of these cross-benchers, Pauline Hanson has stated that she is “not sold” on climate change, while fellow One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts is a self-identified “climate sceptic”. Jacquie Lambie has made it clear that although she supports greater investment in renewable energy, she would not endorse a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme. At this stage, Derryn Hinch’s position remains unknown. Of course, these new senators add to the existing voices of climate change denial in the Senate, spearheaded by Family First’s Bob Day and the Liberal Democrat Party’s David Leyonhjelm.
“But wait,” I hear you cry, “what about the Greens?”
Perhaps surprisingly, despite a massive effort to win several inner-city Melbourne seats, the Greens’ national vote in the Senate remained static. As a result of the success of other minor parties, the Greens have one fewer Senate seat than before the election. This leaves the party in a weaker position than when they negotiated with the Labor Party to introduce the carbon pricing mechanism in 2010.
One party that has picked up some of the Greens’ votes is the Nick Xenophon Team. The NXT support an emissions trading scheme and a move towards 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030. However, not only are these policies unlikely to be supported by a Coalition controlled lower house, they would also fail to meet the targets recommended by the independent Climate Change Authority.
Given these circumstances, action on climate change in the form of effective legislation appears unlikely. As a result, it is necessary to look to alternative mechanisms outside the parliament to safeguard the climate.
One option that will be available to the new government is the legal authority to revoke the approval of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. This power is vested in the Commonwealth Environment Minister under section 145 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
Admittedly, the relevant Minister at the time, Greg Hunt, approved the mine on two previous occasions. The second approval occurred as a result of a legal challenge by a local environment group to the first approval. The group successfully argued in the Federal Court that the Minister had failed to consider the impacts of the mine on two endangered species, the Yakka skink and the Ornamental snake.
But what is the mine’s influence on climate change?
If it is constructed, the Carmichael coal mine will be one of the largest mines in the world. The planned open-pit excavation extends over 128 km2, which is over twice the area of Sydney Harbour. The mine will release at least 4.49 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, making it extremely difficult to avoid a perilous two degree temperature rise. It is worth noting that as a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Australia has expressed in-principle support for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.
There is no question that allowing the mine to be constructed would be another nail in the coffin for the Great Barrier Reef. If the new government does not revoke its approval of the mine, this would constitute a grave intergenerational theft; the government would be complicit in denying future generations the chance to enjoy one of Earth’s most magnificent natural wonders.
Worryingly, Bob Katter has confirmed that his support of the minority government would be contingent upon the construction of a railway line to the Galilee Basin. This railway would pave the way for more mines like Carmichael, blowing any chance that we still have of avoiding significant global warming.
Clearly, we sit at a cross-road. But there is still time to act.
The Coalition cannot use the diverse parliament as an excuse for deferring difficult climate legislation. Newly-minted Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg will hold the power to unilaterally revoke the approval of the Carmichael coal mine.
The Australian Government has a responsibility to shield its citizens from the dangers of climate change. There is no doubt that the revocation of the Carmichael mine approval would send a clear message to the community that Australia takes these responsibilities seriously. In the interests of present and future generations, the power to revoke the mine’s approval is one that must be exercised.