GREENS MOTION: Climate emergency declaration in SA

Today Mark moved a motion calling on members of the South Australian Parliament to declare that we are facing a climate emergency. 

The full text is below or you can watch a short video here


That this council—

1. Recognises that global average temperature, atmospheric greenhouse gases and ocean acidity are already at dangerous levels;

2. Notes that around the world, climate change impacts are already causing loss of life and destroying vital ecosystems;

3. Declares that we are facing a climate emergency; and

4. Commits to restoring a safe climate by transforming the economy to zero net emissions.

In South Australia on Friday 20 September, thousands of students and their supporters will go on strike. They are not striking for less homework or for more pocket money, they are striking for something far more important. They are striking for their future. They are striking, also, for the future of the other 7½ billion people who share this planet, and they are striking for the future of the untold millions of species, ecosystems and environments that make up this wonderful planet of ours. They are striking for action on climate change.

The School Strike 4 Climate rally in Victoria Square at midday will have a very clear message for our political leaders. They want real action on climate change and they want it now. Many of them, of course, are too young to vote, but many of them will still be here at the turn of the next century in the year 2100, so what we do or do not do now is critical to their survival and their wellbeing.

This motion invites the Legislative Council to declare that we are facing a climate emergency. This is a motion that the Greens will be moving in federal and state parliaments around Australia in coming months. And we are not the only ones. The momentum for a climate emergency declaration is building around the world. It is coming from students, it is coming from local councils, workers, residents' groups and from business leaders and professional associations.

Last week, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) released a statement under the banner: AMA Formally Recognises Climate Change as a Health Emergency. The statement does not pull its punches. It says:

Climate change will cause higher mortality and morbidity from heat stress.

Climate change will cause injury and mortality from increasingly severe weather events.

Climate change will cause increases in the transmission of vector-borne diseases.

Climate change will cause food insecurity resulting from declines in agricultural outputs.

Climate change will cause a higher incidence of mental ill-health.

The statement continues:

These effects are already being observed internationally and in Australia. There is no doubt that climate change is a health emergency.

This motion calls on the Legislative Council to get behind the experts and to get behind the community. Listen to the AMA. Listen to the students, and listen to climate scientists who have been warning us for years that the climate emergency is real and that the time for action is now.

So what is a climate emergency declaration anyway, and who is signing up to it? I will start with the second question. Globally, 935 jurisdictions in 18 countries, and counting, have already declared a climate emergency, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Portugal, Ireland, Argentina and also a number of major global cities, such as New York, which is bigger than many other countries. Across the world, more than 160 million people live within areas where a climate emergency has been declared.

In Australia, the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin, Hobart and Fremantle have declared a climate emergency, as well as many regional councils. In South Australia, we have the City of Adelaide, most recently, and I would acknowledge the leadership of Councillor Robert Simms in pushing the council to sign up to the declaration. We also have—I think they were the first in South Australia—the Adelaide Hills Council. We have the Town of Gawler, the Light Regional Council and the City of Port Lincoln. These jurisdictions have all passed motions declaring a climate emergency.

So what does it mean? Does the declaration of a climate emergency actually carry any weight or is it hollow symbolism, or is it something else? The short answer is that it is far more than symbolic. It is a necessary step towards real and effective action to address climate change. Let us look at the legal situation first. Although the language might sound similar, a state of emergency and a climate emergency do not mean the same thing. In most jurisdictions, declaring a state of emergency gives the government powers, such as the ability to commandeer private property or to suspend the operation of legislation.

In South Australia, we have the Emergency Management Act 2004. An emergency is defined as:

an event…that causes, or threatens to cause—

…the death of, or injury or other damage to the health of, any person; or…the destruction of, or damage to, any property; or…a disruption to essential services…or harm to the environment, or to flora and fauna.

So a climate emergency certainly ticks all those boxes, but only the state government can declare a state of emergency under the act, not the parliament. Responses under the act for, say, a catastrophic bushfire, would include commandeering private property, mandatory evacuations, cutting off the power and water and arresting people who get in the way of emergency responses. But that is not what this motion is about. It is not about declaring a state of emergency; it is about declaring a climate emergency.

Having said that, I do not think anyone should vote for this motion on the basis that it does not mean anything. It would be disingenuous to say, 'Oh well, it's not legal, so provided I keep my fingers crossed behind my back when I vote, I can keep sweet with some parts of my electorate who don't believe in climate change.' I want people to vote for this motion because they believe in it. I do not want trickery and I do not want political game playing or semantics.

Having said what this climate emergency declaration is not, what does an acknowledgement of a climate emergency really mean? My favourite response is one that was offered by a member of the group Extinction Rebellion. That is a group I have talked about in this place before. Their response was that what we are acknowledging is a first step in what really does need to be a whole of government, whole of society, worldwide response, and it starts with these three simple words: tell the truth. Tell the truth because, having acknowledged the truth, inaction is not an option.

There is a useful analogy: in parliament in recent months we have been debating what to do about people who are harming themselves and others through their behaviour, especially people who are struggling with addiction—it might be drugs, alcohol or gambling. With all of these addictions, what they have in common is that the first stage to recovery is to acknowledge that you have a problem. If you try to force treatment on a person who does not think they have a problem, it is far less likely to be successful.

Whether it is an individual acknowledging that their behaviour is causing themselves and others around them harm or whether it is the parliament of the state of South Australia acknowledging that the way our economy and society is going, we are harming ourselves, our environment and future generations by exacerbating dangerous climate change, the starting point is the same: tell the truth. Very little will change unless we do this.

Despite the reluctance of many politicians to acknowledge that we are facing a climate emergency, there are some people in governments who are taking it seriously. There was a report this morning that many members would have heard on ABC radio. It was a report about a group of senior federal government officials called the Secretaries Group on Climate Risk, which began meeting in March 2017.

This group includes some of the country's most senior military figures as well as heads of the federal government's biggest departments. The group conducted a set of exercises called Project Climate Ready in which the government chiefs war-gamed future scenarios that it is expected could occur because of climate change. According to the agendas and the minutes of the group, their aim was to prepare the country for national-scale systemic climate risks that would impact the full spectrum of human activity and are already overwhelming the country's ability to respond. Now, that sounds like an emergency to me.

The minutes from these meetings noted that extreme weather was already overwhelming the country's ability to respond to climatic events. As examples they noted the Melbourne asthma storm in which 10 people died; the South Australian blackout which resulted in the entire state being plunged into darkness; and the convergence of floods and bushfires in Tasmania. The minutes and agendas for the group's meetings show the seriousness with which the federal bureaucracy treated the threat of climate change.

Project Climate Ready was conducted to better understand how to manage the increasing risk of catastrophic events. It consisted of a series of scenarios, and, while the detail of those scenarios has been kept secret, what was disclosed was that they explored some of the possible impacts of extreme weather events in a number of sectors including health, infrastructure and energy.

In addition to direct physical risks impacting health and national security, the group also considered legal risks that climate change could pose for the government. To prepare for the meetings, the heads of the departments were given legal advice by Noel Hutley SC, outlining how company directors and trustees of superannuation funds who failed to consider climate risks could be sued. In a brief to the then environment minister Josh Frydenberg in 2017, outlining what the group had found, the secretary of the department of environment said:

There is a broad-based perception that the public sector is behind private-sector practice.

Many private sector companies, including resource companies …are well advanced in their management of climate risk, the brief said.

Public sector agencies own and manage large assets, employ staff in locations and provide or support services that are at risk of extreme weather events, which are becoming greater because of climate change.

In putting this news report together the ABC reports that it sought comments from a number of federal ministers but none were forthcoming. However, we know from previous statements, public statements, that there are still plenty of climate change deniers in the federal cabinet including the minister for drought and natural disasters, David Littleproud, who said that he does not know if climate change is man-made.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other senior officials outside of politics who are prepared to tell the truth. For example, the former deputy commissioner of the New South Wales fire brigade, Ken Thompson, said:

The problem with Australia is that we are probably more prone to these disasters than many other countries but we are probably one of the least prepared simply because we don't have this overarching government framework that is needed to help us plan.

Outside of government and outside of the public sector, pressure is also mounting in the corporate world to take climate change more seriously. In a news story published just today in the Guardian newspaper, workers at Amazon—one of the world's biggest companies—have decided to go on strike. The report says:

Since late last year, a group of workers within Amazon have been organising to push the company to radically reduce its carbon emissions. Yesterday, they announced a major new action: on 20 September, Amazon workers around the world will walk out of their offices to join the Global Climate Strike. So far, more than 1,000 workers have pledged to participate. The organisers have three demands. They want the company to commit to zero emissions by 2030, to have zero custom cloud computing contracts with fossil fuel companies and to spend zero dollars on funding climate-denying lobbyists and politicians.

Back in Australia, what do Australian citizens think of climate change and the response of our political leaders? The answer is that they are very concerned, and they want real action.

Today, the Australia Institute released its annual Climate of the Nation report, which this year shows increasing levels of concern amongst Australians about the impact of climate change. Here are some of the findings from the 2019 report released today:

  • eight in 10 or 81 per cent of Australians are concerned that climate change will result in more droughts and flooding. That is up from the previous survey last year;
  • seventy-six per cent of Australians are concerned about climate change resulting in more bushfires;

  • the majority of Australians (around two-thirds) agree that the government should plan for an orderly phase out of coal so that workers and communities can be prepared;

  • the majority of Australians (54 per cent) reject the idea that Australia should not act on climate change until other major emitters, such as the US and China, do so. In fact, only one in four believe that we should wait for others to take the lead; and

  • almost two-thirds of Australians (64 per cent) think the country should have a national target for net-zero emissions by 2050, similar to the UK scheme.

In conclusion, this motion, if it passes, will be the clearest statement yet that members of the South Australian parliament are serious about tackling climate change. Business as usual is just not an option.

By declaring a climate urgency, the parliament is saying to the young people who will be striking for climate action next week that we are listening to them. It is saying that we share your vision for a more sustainable world and that we will do whatever we can to ensure a stable climate for the benefit of all people and the environment on which we all ultimately depend. I commend the motion to the chamber.