Today, on the first day of Australia’s 44th Parliament, new Prime Minister Tony Abbott introduced legislation to repeal the carbon tax. Meanwhile at the COP19 climate talks in Warsaw, snubbed by Australian ministers, Filipino delegate Yeb Sano made an emotional plea for action:
It was barely 11 months ago in Doha when my delegation made an appeal, an appeal to the world to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. As then we confronted a catastrophic storm that resulted in the costliest disaster in Philippine history. Less than a year hence, we cannot imagine that a disaster much bigger would come.
With an apparent cruel twist of fate, my country is being tested by this hellstorm called Super Typhoon Haiyan. It was so strong that if there was a Category 6, it would have fallen squarely in that box. Up to this hour, we remain uncertain as to the full extent of the damage and devastation, as information trickles in in an agonizingly slow manner because power lines and communication lines have been cut off and may take a while before these are restored.
The initial assessment show that Haiyan left a wake of massive devastation that is unprecedented, unthinkable and horrific. According to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center estimated Haiyan to have attained one-minute sustained winds of 315 km/h (195 mph) and gusts up to 378 km/h (235 mph) making it the strongest typhoon in modern recorded history.
Despite the massive efforts that my country had exerted in preparing for the onslaught of this monster of a storm, it was just a force too powerful and even as a nation familiar with storms, Haiyan was nothing we have ever experienced before, or perhaps nothing that any country has ever experienced before.
The picture in the aftermath is ever slowly coming into clearer focus. The devastation is colossal. And as if this is not enough, another storm is brewing again in the warm waters of the western Pacific. I shudder at the thought of another typhoon hitting the same places where people have not yet even managed to begin standing up.
To anyone outside who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare them, I dare them to get off their ivory towers and away from the comfort of their armchairs. I dare them to go to the islands of the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Indian ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods, to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling sea ice caps, to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned, to the hills of Central America that confronts similar monstrous hurricanes, to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water become scarce.
Not to forget the monster hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard of North America as well as the fires that razed Down Under. And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.
Climate change will mean increased potential for more intense tropical storms and this will have profound implications on many communities, especially who struggle against the twin challenges of the development crisis and the climate change crisis. Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to delay climate action…
In Doha, we asked “If not us then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?” but here in Warsaw, we may very well ask these same forthright questions.
What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness.
We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw.
It is the 19th COP [Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC], but we might as well stop counting, because my country refuses to accept that a COP30 or a COP40 will be needed to solve climate change. And because it seems that despite the significant gains we have had since the UNFCCC was born, 20 years hence we continue to fall short in fulfilling the ultimate objective of the Convention.
Now, we find ourselves in a situation where we have to ask ourselves – can we ever attain the ultimate objective of the Convention – which is to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system? By failing to meet the objective of the Convention, we may have ratified our own doom.
And if we have failed to meet the objective of the Convention, we have to confront the issue of loss and damage. Loss and damage is a reality today across the world.
Developed country emissions reductions targets are dangerously low and must be raised immediately, but even if these were in line with the demand of reducing 40-50% below 1990 levels, we will still have locked-in climate change and would still need to address the issue of loss and damage.
We find ourselves at a critical juncture and the situation is that even the most ambitious emissions reductions by developed countries, who should have been taking the lead in the last two decades, will not be enough to avert the crisis. It is now too late, too late to talk about the world being able to rely on Annex I countries to solve the climate crisis.
We have entered a new era that demands global solidarity in order to fight climate change and ensure that the pursuit of sustainable human development remains at the fore of the global community’s efforts. This is why the means of implementation for developing countries becomes ever so crucial.
We cannot sit and stay helpless staring at this international climate stalemate. It is now time to raise ambition and take action. We need an emergency climate pathway…
We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life. Because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a way of life. We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, counting our dead, become a way of life. We simply refuse to.
Sano departed from his prepared speech to say (my emphasis):
Super Typhoon Haiyan perhaps unknown to many here made landfall in my own family’s hometown and the devastation is staggering. I struggle to find words even for the images that we see on the news coverage. And I struggle to find words to describe how I feel about the losses.
Up to this hour, I agonize while waiting for word as to the fate of my very own relatives. What gives me renewed strength and great relief is that my own brother succeeded in communicating with us that he has survived the onslaught. In the last two days, he has been gathering bodies of the dead with his own two hands. He is very hungry and weary as food supplies find it difficult to arrive in that hardest hit area.
These last two days, there are moments when I feel I should rally behind climate advocates who peacefully confront those historically responsible for the current state of our climate. These selfless people who fight coal, expose themselves to freezing temperatures or block oil pipelines. In fact, we are seeing increasing frustration and thus more increased civil disobedience. The next two weeks, these people and many around the world who serve as our conscience will again remind us of this enormous responsibility. The youth here who constantly remind us that their future is in peril. We stand with them.
We cannot solve climate change when we seek to spew more emissions. I express this with all due sincerity. In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home and with my brother who has not had food for the last 3 days, with all due respect and I mean no disrespect for your kind hospitality, I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate.
This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this COP until a meaningful outcome is in sight, until concrete pledges have been made to ensure mobilization of resources for the Green Climate Fund [GCF]. We cannot afford a COP with an empty GCF, until the promise of the operationalization of a loss and damage mechanism has been fulfilled, until there is assurance on finance for adaptation, until we see real ambition on climate action in accordance with the principles we have so upheld.
This process under the UNFCCC has been called many names. It has been called a farce. It has been called an annual carbon-intensive gathering of useless frequent flyers. It has been called many names. And this hurts. But we can prove them wrong. The UNFCCC can also be called the project to save the planet.
None of this has made the slightest impact on the Australian Government. The Australian reports on a leaked document revealing Cabinet’s decision on the position Australia is taking to Warsaw. The document, in combination with recent comments by Tony Abbott, makes clear Australia will not strengthen its 5%-by-2020 emissions target unless there are “very serious like-binding commitments from other countries”, and may even wind back action “in light of the science and international developments” and “fiscal circumstances”. Australia will refuse to agree to any new funding or taxes, which the document describes as “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”. This means no funding for poor countries like the Philippines, a stance which has won Australia a “Fossil of the Day” award from the Climate Action Network.
Meanwhile at home, Abbott is forging ahead with his carbon tax repeal legislation, insisting it is necessary to reduce electricity prices. The introduction of the repeal bills today was greeted with screams of protest from the public gallery, while Abbott made an emotional plea for the Labor opposition to support the repeal:
It delivers on the Coalition’s commitment to the Australian people to scrap this toxic tax. It is also, Madam Speaker, a cornerstone of the Government’s plan for a stronger economy built on lower taxes, less regulation, and stronger businesses. Madam Speaker, repealing the carbon tax should be the first economic reform of this Parliament…
This is our bill to reduce your bills, to reduce the bills of the people of Australia. When the price of power comes down, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will be ready to ensure that these price reductions are passed on to households and businesses…
Repealing the carbon tax removes over a thousand pages of primary and subordinate legislation. Repealing the carbon tax cuts the size of the climate change bureaucracy. So repealing the carbon tax will reduce the cost of living, make jobs more secure, and improve the competitive position of our country… Why would anyone be against that?
Repealing the carbon tax is what the employers, and what the jobs providers of our country, want now. The Business Council of Australia supports the windup of the current carbon pricing mechanism because it places excessive costs on business and households and because our carbon charge is one of the highest in the world. The carbon tax has ripped through the economy, hitting schools, hospitals, nursing homes, charities, churches, council swimming pools, and community centres…
Unfortunately the new Government cannot undo the past. We can only make the future better, and that is what we intend to do…
Madam Speaker, the carbon tax is a $9 billion hit on the economy this year alone. It’s a $9 billion burden on jobs, a $9 billion burden on investment, and a $9 billion burden on Australia that we just don’t need.
Whether Abbott intends to fast until the legislation is passed is not known.
Recently elected coal mining billionaire Clive Palmer said he would abstain from the carbon tax repeal vote because of conflicts of interest, but his party’s Senators won’t and it’s their votes that will matter. So it is almost certain the legislation will pass. Abbott intends to replace the carbon tax with a laughable voluntary scheme which will pay polluting companies to supposedly avoid emitting CO2 they otherwise would have – but it is unlikely to be passed by the Senate.
In addition, I’ve been informed by an email from 100% Renewable that the Government sneaked onto today’s agenda the Clean Energy Finance Corporation Abolition Bill, which was not released for public consultation along with the carbon tax repeal bills a month ago (you can sign a petition against the CEFC abolition here). The Government also sneaked in amendments to cut the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) budget by two-thirds.
Meanwhile, Abbott has given the strongest indication yet that he will sabotage the Renewable Energy Target:
We’re taking this review very seriously and one of the things that we’ll be looking at is the impact of renewable energy on power prices because not only is the carbon tax adding about 9 per cent to everyone’s power bills – and we’re going to get rid of that quickly as we can – renewable energy targets are also significantly driving up power prices right now.
In opposition, Abbott’s Liberal/National Coalition advocated making the government more accountable to the parliament, including electing an independent speaker and allowing time for backbenchers to ask ministers questions. In government, they have elected the Liberals’ Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker, and decreased parliamentary accountability with new rules including: shorter maximum speaking time, shorter sitting hours, banning supplementary questions, banning crossbenchers from committees, and generally greater powers for the Speaker.
Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke compared the new Speaker to the fictional villain Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I think that was a low blow. But Coalition politicians would do well to read Order of the Phoenix for a different reason: it depicts what happens when a government, instead of responding to a crisis, denies its reality and tries to silence those who speak out about it.
The new Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, repeated Abbott’s description of Labor leader Bill Shorten as “Electricity Bill”. Burke said this name-calling was unparliamentary and not the adult behaviour promised by the Abbott government, but was overruled by Bishop. Subsequently, Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt repeated leader Christine Milne’s description of Tony Abbott as “Typhoon Tony”, which Bishop also allowed.
Abbott responded by saying no single typhoon can be attributed to climate change (and had the audacity to cite CSIRO, to which he has recently announced large cuts). But no single electricity bill can be attributed to the carbon tax.
Some journalists have described Bandt’s typhoon reference as insensitive. And maybe it is – Bandt, unlike Sano, is not part of the Filipino community. But Abbott’s grandstanding about electricity bills while human lives are being lost is a lot more offensive.