The earth that we knew is gone

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In his maiden Senate speech, new Foreign Minister Bob Carr focuses on climate change: ‘The planet on which our civilisation evolved no longer exists.’

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It is an honour to be making my maiden speech here, years after I thought I had left parliamentary service behind, and to be doing so while serving the country as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I subscribe to the view that Australia is a creative middle power and an activist middle power that defends its interests—which is, after all, the essence of foreign policy—but which sets itself a model of good citizenship. I acknowledge straightaway that large slabs of bipartisanship exist in foreign policy, not least in the treatment by the coalition of our commitment to Afghanistan, and I believe that 1,550 Australian fighting men and women would be grateful for that.

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. Firstly, 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

Secondly, 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 Reduction 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.

Thirdly, I was proud to stand with representatives of the housebuilding 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: 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.

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5 Comments
  1. Mike Flanagan 8 years ago

    Thanks for printing this speech. It is refreshing to see our FM see climate change as a matter of importance that should have an overriding influence on much of our various departmental policies.

  2. Nick James 8 years ago

    I agree. Really good to see something informed, sensible, considered and articulate from a politician in Australia, filling a bit of a void that needs to be filled.

  3. Steve Phillips 8 years ago

    Great to see a new Foreign Minister with enough guts to say what needs to be said and to tackle the biggest issue that needs to be tackled.

  4. julien lacave 8 years ago

    Bob Carr announced recently he could support nuclear fission for Australia… quite concerning.

  5. Mike Flanagan 8 years ago

    Julien Lacave:
    Our knowledge and application of nuclear process for the provision of electicity has been driven by the military imperative that was established by early post war arms industry.
    We have other opportunities apart from the current technology that could have some very important impacts on our requirements for a carbon free energy source.
    Although we have ignored over many decades the necessity to advance our thinking and research for more efficacious use of the nuclear physics there are some regimes or processes that could be available for our use that are far safer than what is in use today.
    I point to the development of the Thorium reactor process that helps to resolve the problems of waste disposal , offers little problems of military proliferation and is radically safer to operate.
    Perhaps if we kept our options open on the subject and endeavoured to think outside the military square we may advance our imperative to resolve our GHG dilemma through this and other developing technologies.

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