11/02/2010 - 00:00

Bipartisan approach to climate change vital

11/02/2010 - 00:00

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Australia should establish a national climate change commission to monitor and enforce a long-term climate change strategy.

IF there is a truly modern challenge, it is the spectre of climate change of such a profound nature as to threaten livelihood and even lives.

Before a growing weight of scientific opinion drew the issue to worldwide attention, our energy concerns focused on the rapid rate at which we were drawing down the global stock of petro carbon energy resources.

Sustainable and renewable energy options became priority subjects for research and development. With the advent of climate change predictions and the early evidence of global warming, this research and development gained enormous extra impetus.

The sort of climate change evidence and predictions shown to us were dire. Rising temperatures, melting ice caps, substantial rises in sea levels, disappearing islands and coastal communities, species destroyed, agriculture stifled for lack of irrigation, untold numbers of people without the food or water to survive. Say all that to me and I say back to you, “you have my full attention” and “can you prove all that?”

To a large degree at the moment the climate change debate is a battle for the minds of the vast unscientific multitudes who must believe in order to act or to permit governments to act.

To me, the science on either side of the debate resembles the sort of military intelligence I have been considering over the long decades of my military service: fact-based but leading from there with a series of assumptions to a future scenario upon which in all prudence we should base actions now and in the future. The climate change debate is probably more rigorously based than the usual military intelligence estimate because the forward projections are based on some widely agreed formulae, whereas military intelligence estimates have to try to get into the mind of the potential adversary (always very tough – think about Saddam Hussein and WMD).

But we are left with a preponderance of scientific opinion pointing to dire outcomes, and presently a minority who might be called ‘climate change sceptics’.

I have listened carefully to Lord Monkton’s arguments but I won’t yet risk backing his side of the debate. So you and I have to balance what we have been told and decide if and how we will act now to deliver appropriate and tolerable outcomes to future generations.

I come at this from the viewpoint that, while I really don’t know if all that I have been told is true and if we are at risk of quite catastrophic climate change outcomes, we are dicing with our grandchildren’s future.

I am very conscious of the huge change in direction and the expense and the turmoil and the impact on jobs entailed in a radical move to non-carbon energy for Australia. But if we don’t do it, a country with our values, a country presently in the top 20 wealthiest countries in the world, a country depended on by millions of people who are our powerless friends and neighbours, how can we expect other nations to act and thus offset our lack of action? So let’s not muck about any more, let’s start now to solve the problems that we own.

At times like this when you are invited to act strategically, to look forward, say, 50 years, you see the downside of the relatively rapid electoral cycle of governments. The government of the day and the opposition are extraordinarily sensitive to the forthcoming federal election and the prism of the election and the need to retain or gain government starts to flavour agendas and actions. The will gets eroded and the intent gets blurred.

I wonder if we need, through bipartisan support, a Commonwealth climate change commission with a charter and statutory powers to monitor and enforce a long duration, climate change mitigation strategy. We can’t have governments and oppositions daily scrapping over the concerted and co-ordinated action we need to take across the national community, if on a balance of probabilities we need to start our action now to avoid the climate change noose sometime later in the century.

There are so many cleaner, more sustainable and renewable energy resources becoming increasingly available that it might seem that simply making them more efficient, less expensive and more available will go a long way to solving our exacerbation of the climate change phenomenon.

Sadly there is still a great mismatch between the reasonable potential of these energy options and the reality of our energy demands. If we are to react quickly enough to avoid arriving at a predicted level of exposure to global warming, then our manufacture of energy in a clean way needs rise exponentially. We should encourage and help finance any and all moderately promising alternative energy production means.

Of course, it is all horrifically expensive and entails huge infrastructure work and considerable economic restructuring. We could have large windmills dotting the countryside, more prolific than Paterson’s curse and we would still be shy of the energy needs for a modern, developed country. While I am told solar generation is improving, unless there is a full step change, we could have solar panels covering untold hectares of land reasonably close to centres of consumption and we would still be well short of the present and potential needs for electric power in Australia.

But we have alternatives.

We own a third of the world’s uranium, which we are exporting far and wide. In that we don’t want people using our uranium for nuclear weapons, I presume that after a bunch of x-ray machines and the like, we are anticipating that our customers will use our uranium for nuclear power stations.

It seems to me passing strange that we so vociferously won’t have our own clean and enduring energy based on nuclear power generation. I anticipate the outcry that nuclear materials are horribly unclean. Of course they are if their care in operation and custody overall is deficient, but if you look after that side of it then in a climate change sense there is hardly a cleaner energy resource.

We should note that if there wasn’t a climate change issue then we could burn our own coal till the cows come home and we wouldn’t need to consider the large step to nuclear energy. I think for many decades to come there will still be markets for our coal all over the world to countries that have no choice but to rely on carbon-based energy – they will not be able to afford or manage a nuclear energy infrastructure.

But if we burn our coal then it seems to me we haven’t taken climate change seriously. We are a rich and technologically advanced nation, sitting in a geologically stable continent so surely we can expect to build and operate safe nuclear power stations.

While in the context of the climate change debate, I am most definitely a layperson, in practical terms only nuclear power offers a realistic and relatively short-term alternative to carbon-based energy in the quantities and areas where Australians need it.

The greatest favour we can do for our less wealthy neighbours is to get our own energy structure right.

n This is an edited extract from General Peter Cosgrove’s speech to a breakfast function in Perth sponsored by BHP Billiton Iron Ore and UWA Extension.

 

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