Making the climate election by Kelly O'Shanassy, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Conservation Foundation

Making the climate election

Address to the National Press Club

by Kelly O’Shanassy

Chief Executive Officer, Australian Conservation Foundation

30 October 2018


Before I begin I want to acknowledge the Ngunnawal peoples who are the traditional custodians of the land upon which we meet today and pay respect to all Elders past and present.

The Australian Conservation Foundation acknowledges that sovereignty was never ceded and that the protection of nature and self-determination for Australia’s First People are intertwined.  

It is now a matter of public record – which is a fancy way of saying it got a bunch of media attention – that earlier this year I met with Bill Shorten at the Great Barrier Reef to show him the dying coral, talk about climate change and well, get on his back about the Adani coal mine.

We visited Opal Reef, which is home to vast underwater forests of staghorn and dinner plate coral.

Stretching beyond the horizon, these coral gardens should have been one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t. Because much of the coral was dead.

Now dead coral is not the ghostly white coral you’ve seen on your TV screens. Dead coral turns a sickly, dull brown colour as algae covers the once vibrant coral gardens. Think a turfing, algal swamp rather than the colour and life of the reef we love. The reef the world loves.

The reef has become the Australian symbol of climate damage. But what we are seeing on the reef is the tip of the melting iceberg.

We don’t have to look hard to see climate damage right across our country.

Climate damage is in rural communities like Moree and Longreach, who are in the middle of a devastating drought.

Climate damage is in our urban fringe communities, who are looking a little more nervously at the neighbouring bush they love, and wondering whether a fast and furious bushfire is coming over the hill.

A fear no longer restricted to the summer months. The winter just gone saw 1600 blazes across Queensland and NSW alone. In Winter.

Climate damage is in our urban communities, who notice that it’s hotter than it used to be. And the days where the mercury soars are getting more frequent than the ones where you reach for a jumper.

Where communities like Penrith sweated through temperatures of 47 degrees last summer – heights we expect in the deserts of Oman, not the suburbs of Sydney.

And climate damage is in our natural world.

Where marine species are moving south to cooler waters. And alpine species are heading up the mountain to where the last snow is.

Where the Bramble Cay Melomys has become the first mammal in the world to have likely gone extinct due to climate change.

This isn’t Australia under climate change at the end of the century. Or mid-century. Or even the 2030s. This is 2018. Climate damage is here, now.

How much worse this damage gets will be determined by what we do next.

Will the world mobilise to urgently cut climate pollution? Will we keep global warming to 1.5 degrees and below?

Only a few weeks ago the world’s leading scientists – working through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – sounded the latest alarm about what it means if we don’t act.

I’m not going to run through all the IPCC’s findings. They speak for themselves.

We know what unfettered burning of coal, gas and oil means for our planet. We know what razing the world’s forests means. We know what failing to find clean solutions for agriculture, industry and transport means. We know that without change we will put at risk the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

We will cook our planet. Trash our only home. And we will do it in the lifetime of many of the people alive today.

I know this is a challenging reality and that grim climate change statements can make people in our community tune out. Some of the people in this room may have started to mentally wander off or perhaps pour a second glass of wine!

I don’t like being the environmental downer. My friends tell me I can be the life of the party… when I’m not talking about climate change.

But we must say these things out loud. Because to be a responsible adult is to recognise our challenges and take them head on.

And so, it was distressing to witness the irresponsible response of many of our elected representatives in Canberra who dismissed out-of-hand the scientific advice that we must rapidly phase-out coal.

People in my position are often polite, not only because that is what our parents taught us but because we work with politicians, quietly yet persistently, to advance our cause.

But as the IPCC findings show, this is no time to be polite. So, let me be clear.

I am talking specifically about the response of our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who repeatedly claims that Australia will meet our 2030 climate targets “in a canter” despite the evidence showing otherwise.

I am talking about the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, who declared the government would not change policy just because of “some sort of report”.

I am talking about the Environment Minister, Melissa Price, who said getting rid of coal to save our Great Barrier Reef was a “long bow”.

And I am disappointed to say that I am talking about Opposition Leader Bill Shorten – who supports clean energy and his party has climate policies, but he says coal will be part of our future.

This is despite seeing the dead parts of the Great Barrier Reef and knowing this will be the fate of most of the planet’s reefs if we continue to burn coal for decades to come.

This concerted effort to talk down clear scientific evidence must be condemned in a modern society.

There is no room for burning coal for much longer if the world is to stay below 1.5 degrees.  

To do our fair share, Australia needs to close 12 coal plants in the next 12 years.  

That’s the task for our next government.  

Politicians who shirk their climate responsibilities are not serving their country or the communities they represent.

Let’s take the Prime Minister’s electorate of Cook. How will it be affected by climate damage?

140,000 people live in Cook. Climate model projections applied to Cook by the Australian National University for ACF show that these 140,000 people will experience 48 more days over 30 degrees and 4 more days over 40 degrees by 2050. 

A child born in Cook today will not experience the same seasons her parents did. There will be no winter as we currently know it. Seven and half months of her year will be dominated by existing summer conditions and those of an extreme “new summer”, the likes of which her parents have never seen.

She worries about her grandmother because she knows that prolonged hot periods – like a heatwave – can prove fatal, especially for the elderly, the sick, the young and pregnant women.

She is one of the lucky ones because Cook’s proximity to the coast and rivers mean it is one of Australia’s electorates that experiences more modest changes.

The reality will be worse for many of our outer suburban and rural areas.

The ANU has crunched these numbers for many federal electorates around the country and we will release the full results closer to election day.

But for today it is clear that by dismissing climate action, by being a spruiker for the coal industry, the Prime Minister is not representing the 140,000 people in his electorate. Or the families who love them.

In fact, he is harming his constituents and all Australians and doing so with his eyes wide open.

Most Australians are agitated by the lack of national climate action. And the political bickering.

If you step back from the political contest for just a moment – and I’ll admit that’s hard for most of us in this room – then there are lots of reasons for hope.

Poll after poll shows the community wants action.

And in good news, the solutions for stopping climate damage are here, now too.

Sensible national climate policy may have stalled, but clean energy is nearly unstoppable in Australia.

Banks and super funds are shifting capital away from coal.

Globally, there are at least two million electric cars in operation.

Here in Australia the red meat industry has committed to carbon neutrality by 2030. The property industry goes further, committing to being “carbon positive”.

Many of our largest companies are committing to the goals of the Paris Agreement – even if their business practices aren’t quite there yet.

A clean future is inevitable. The momentum in the community and business, and in local and state governments is accelerating.

The question is, will it be fast enough to avoid further significant climate damage to ourselves and our planet?

The answer to this question depends on whether our national government speeds up or stymies action.

Right now, it doesn’t look good. Australia is in a climate policy deadlock. We are nowhere after two decades.

While we should lay the blame for this at the feet of the pollies, we are all a little culpable. There have been missteps from the environment movement, no matter how well meaning.

And there has been bad faith lobbying from irresponsible business – to say nothing about the monsters that come out after dark on Sky News.

But the unity across community, business and many state and local governments is clear to see.

We are tired of the climate disfunction coming out of Canberra.

For decades ACF has knocked on the doors of Parliament House with climate policy solutions, supported by community and business, only to see them vanish into thin air because of weak political leadership.  

We are tired of this.

We are tired of hearing disingenuous arguments that Australia is just one per cent of the problem when we are the world’s largest coal exporter.

We are tired of fighting to stop the Adani coal mine – that will unlock dangerous levels of climate pollution and profoundly threaten our planet.

We are tired of the games in Parliament House, hiding climate data and handing around lumps of coal while our country bakes and burns.

And we are tired of government after government at the national level, failing Australians on climate change.  

And so, we decided to do something about it.

ACF along with our friends are working in the community to make this election a turning point for climate action in our country.

We are making this the climate election.

Climate damage is here, now, and the actions of Australia’s next Federal Government matter.

And so, we need the major party with the strongest climate policy to win the federal election and form the next government of Australia.  

ACF doesn’t care which party that is. We are not partisans. It doesn’t matter if it is the Liberal / National Coalition or Labor. Heck it could be the Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party. So long as they govern with an ambitious and credible plan for our climate that is rooted in science.

And when you allow science to lead the way, the core elements of that plan are remarkably obvious.

First. Set strong climate pollution reduction targets for Australia that are consistent with achieving net zero pollution before 2050.

Then, enact policies to repower Australia with clean electricity by 2030.

Finally, don’t fuel climate damage with new coal mines like Adani.

This is common sense but it is not easy to do. It will only happen with strong national policy from our next government.

Policy that drives a phased and orderly closure of Australia’s coal-fired power stations and coal and gas exports.

Policy that trains and supports workers and communities affected by the transition.

Today I want to endorse the proposal, put forward by the organised labour movement, for a national Transition Authority to oversee an orderly closure of Australia’s coal-fired power stations.

Good people work in these industries, they need a steady, well paid job to provide for their families. The absence of a strong climate policy and transition plan abandons these people in the face of the inevitable change already underway.

Moving beyond coal is not the only issue ACF believes critical for our nation.

Today I launch ACF’s National Agenda which contains ten actions to protect nature and stop climate damage.

What might strike you as you read through the National Agenda is how far away it is from the current political debate.

But I urge you to read it in conjunction with the IPCC’s latest report. And with the 2016 Australian State of the Environment report in mind. And thinking about someone you love.

Through that lens you’ll see it is a serious consideration of the measures required to stop climate damage and protect our natural world.

Along with the three climate actions I’ve already mentioned, it outlines further actions that would protect nature.

Climate damage threatens all life – human, critters, and ecosystems. This is not just about coral reefs, but forests, rivers and land that house the planet’s wonderous diverse life and provide humans with clean water, clean air and pollination.

Nature is the canary in the coal mine.  I could give a whole other speech about how we must protect nature. Somebody should stand here and do that soon. But for now, let me highlight one fact.

Since Australia’s national environment laws were enacted 20 years ago, threatened species habitat larger than all of Tasmania has been bulldozed and logged.

That is not giving nature the best chance in the face of climate change. We urgently need new national environment laws, overseen by an independent national Environment Commission to set standards that protect nature and a national EPA to enforce those standards.

Ambitious yes, impossible no. The only barrier between the possible and the impossible is political leadership. So, the actions of the next federal government matter.

How then, do ‘we the people’ make sure that the major party with the best climate policies wins the next federal election.

In the face of multi-million-dollar ad campaigns from political parties, unions and large business lobby groups, this task appears overwhelming.

But what we lack in resources we make up for in people power. And people can be more powerful than money.

People power gave women the vote. It stopped apartheid and abolished slavery. It saved the Franklin and I’m hoping it will Stop Adani.

Today, ACF has more people power than ever before, with more than half a million supporters across our country. Other environment groups boast similar numbers. And while I can see many in this room doing mental calculations in their heads about the combined populations of Newtown, Fremantle, West End and Brunswick, let me assure you that ACF’s supporters come from right across our country and all walks of life – rich and poor, young and old, city and rural.

In fact, around half of our supporters live in rural and regional areas and the outer suburbs.

This might surprise the battle-hardened warriors in or around national politics. But it shouldn’t.

Today people are less likely to congregate around broad political ideologies and major parties. Instead, they are drawn to issues that affect their lives, and the politicians that pledge to do something about it.

If you want evidence for this, look no further than the Wentworth by-election.

The winner of this most blue ribbon of seats – Kerryn Phelps – an independent. The lack of national climate policy was a major reason in the result.

Look to the chorus of responsible Liberal MPs who said so after the campaign.

Look to the exit polling results commissioned by the Australia Institute, which found 78 per cent of Wentworth voters said the issue had some influence on their vote.

It strikes me that when progressive organisations like the Australia Institute and more conservative liberal MPs are on the same page, there must be something to it.

The opponents of climate action have for too long successfully told those who care about the environment that they are in the minority. That they are inner city elites. Or latte sippers. Or tree huggers. Or Prius drivers. Or activated almond eating, yoga doing, find-yourself-in-India-types. But they are wrong.

There is a large mainstream constituency for climate action in this country.

Farmers, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, IT workers, mums and dads, business executives, cooks, cleaners, school teachers and our grandparents.

We are activating them all to be climate voters to make this the climate election.

Our goal is to inspire one million climate conversations across our nation. On the streets, in pubs, outside train and bus stations, online and over the phone. These conversations are helping Aussies understand that climate damage is here now, and so are the solutions. And that who they vote for in the federal election matters because the next government matters for our climate.

Through these conversations, we are asking Australians to vote for a party that pledges to stop Adani and repower Australia with clean energy.

We are not working alone. Across the country our partners are also mobilising to spread the climate action message.

For example, we are partnering with the team at One Million Women to take the pulse of Aussie women and how climate damage affects their lives. And of course, the Stop Adani movement is already knocking on doors around Australia.

This is not something we will do, we’re already doing it.

In the week the Federal Liberal Party changed the Prime Minister, ACF quietly launched our community campaign to make this the climate election.

In that short time, we’ve held close to one hundred thousand climate conversations.

So far, six out of 10 people we connect with say they only will vote for a party that will stop Adani and repower Australia with clean energy.

Now we know national sentiment alone is not always enough to shift climate policy. So ACF has chosen three seats where we will focus our efforts.

The three seats are Chisholm and McNamara in Victoria and Bonner in Queensland. We chose these seats for three reasons.

One, the winning margin is close, so parties must compete to win. And we want that contest to be over ambition on climate action.

Two, our internal polling shows that a third of the people in these seats already have climate change in their top issues of concern.

And three. We have 178 volunteers in those seats already knocking on doors. And we have hundreds of volunteers from as far away as Perth and Darwin already making phone calls into those seats to hold climate conversations.

Our goal is to hold at least 15,000 conversations across Bonner, Chisholm and McNamara, greater than the winning margin of these seats.

We’ve already had nearly two and half thousand conversations in those seats and we are seeing even greater commitment to climate action than we see nationally.

During a door knock a few weeks ago, 8 in 10 people said they will only vote for a party that will stop Adani and repower Australia with clean energy.

This commitment to people power does not mean ACF is abandoning our traditional strengths in analysis, advocacy and policy development. This will continue.

And as always, we’ll rate the parties' policies in a non-partisan scorecard to help people make informed choices when they go to vote.

Where parties end-up on our scorecard is up to them. Have a strong climate plan, be prepared to protect nature, and your party will rate well. It’s not that complicated.

Our scorecard will be spread far and wide to remind people to be a climate voter for our planet and for people we love.

There is one thing that we will not do, and that is to tell people how to vote. We will leave that to the political parties. ACF does not care about the colour of the party that wins, just the colour of their policies. 

For the sceptics out there, it is worth remembering ACF was born from conservative roots. The initial spark for ACF was Prince Philip. The first person ever to address the National Press Club was Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick in 1963 – who also happened to be a Liberal politician and ACF’s first President.

We want a race to the top like we see in conservative-led countries like the UK, Germany and Denmark and progressive- led countries like France and New Zealand.

We will only achieve lasting climate action, when parties with progressive and conservative values come together.

Aussies know its hotter than it used to be. That the droughts don’t seem to end. That the seasons don’t quite start at the times they used to. That flowers are blooming earlier than when we were kids.

For decades our elected representatives have consistently underestimated climate change. A path of politically dead Prime Ministers from Howard to Rudd to Turnbull, and those in between, is testament to this.

After the past 15 years of conflict it’s time for our elected representatives to listen to the Australian public and finally get going on the action we need.

It’s time for Australia to be a great mate to the world and take action to stop climate damage.

My warning to those in the house up the hill is that if you ignore climate change you do so at your political peril.

Wentworth was a warning shot.  The mood of the nation is changing. We don’t want your thoughts and prayers, we want action.

Before I close let me take you back to Opal Reef.

What I didn’t tell you was that amid all the death at one point I noticed a tiny little coral starting to grow. Tucked away beside the murky brown algae was a tiny red coral, about the size of a teacup.

Professor Terry Hughes, the coral scientist who came with us was surprised and declared ‘that shouldn’t be there’.

Maybe I’m too optimistic. But this tough, tiny little coral that defied the warming oceans reminds me…… where there is life there is hope.

All is not lost. The future is not set. But we must make the future what we want it to be. And elections are when we the people shape our future. 

For our planet and the people we love, we must make this the climate election. 

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