Report on Bendigo climate election forum

I was involved in running an election candidate forum yesterday. The following report was prepared by Sue Wight.


A State Election Forum on Climate was held in Bendigo on Tuesday November 11. Bendigo straddles two electorates, Bendigo East and Bendigo West and falls into the upper house region of Northern Victoria. Candidate attendance was as follows:

Bendigo East

  • Greg Bickley (Liberal candidate): Unavailable
  • Jacinta Allan (ALP sitting member): Present
  • Jennifer Alden (Greens candidate): Present

Bendigo West

  • Michael Langdon (Liberal candidate): Unavailable
  • Maree Edwards (ALP sitting member): Present
  • John Brownstein (Greens candidate): Present
  • Elise Chapman (Country Alliance): No response
  • Sandra Caddy (Rise Up Australia): Appointed too late for invitation

Northern Victoria

  • Amanda Millar (Liberal MLC): Present
  • Wendy Lovell (Liberal MLC): Unavailable
  • Damian Drum (Nationals MLC Minister for Veterans Affairs): At Remembrance Day event
  • Charlie Crutchfield (Sex Party candidate): Present
  • Lola Currie (Animal Justice candidate): Unavailable
  • Liz Crooks (People Power Victoria – No Smart Meters): Appointed too late for invitation

In order to frame consideration of the policies in the context of the scale of climate change, James Wight of gave an overview of the latest climate science and the urgent need for action. He emphasised that the world is already facing dangerous climate change, having warmed by 0.8 degrees. “Climate change is observable pretty much everywhere: air temperature is rising over every continent, the oceans are heating up and expanding, ice is melting on land and at sea. And make no mistake, the warming continues: last year the Earth’s oceans accumulated energy at a rate of 12 Hiroshima bombs per second.” And there’s more warming in the pipeline: “Polar ice melt has passed tipping points threatening to set off a chain reaction of metres of sea level rise, carbon emissions from permafrost, and accelerating warming.” Current policies put us on track to a catastrophic climate four degrees warmer than today. “The idea that we can somehow adapt to such an enormous change is laughable.” He called for action at all levels of government to prevent such a scenario. [James: Scroll down for the full text of my speech.]

With Liberal lower house candidates, Greg Bickley and Michael Langdon, both unavailable, MLC Amanda Millar spoke mainly about the Liberal Party’s Climate Adaptation Plan and the potential for technological innovation e.g. carbon capture and storage. Speaking of markets she enthused about the enormous ability to adapt when we are “prepared to create the right environment.” When asked how Bendigo citizens could be expected to adapt to the effects of four degrees of warming, and whether the Victorian Liberals would take action to prevent further warming, her response was that climate mitigation was a matter for the federal government, with the state’s role one of adaptation. This view was not well-received. She stressed that the market determines which energies are required, driven by individual choice. When it was pointed out that fossil fuel subsidies mean the market is not a level playing field, she responded along the lines that government support for various industries changes over time, in response to the market. In regards to wind farms, she said that it was important to listen to the community and the government had listened to “concern about the collateral damage” of wind turbines.

MLA’s Jacinta Allan and Maree Edwards marked the difference between the ALP and the Liberal Party by clearly acknowledging the science and the need for action and leadership at a state level and enumerating the damaging climate policies of the Liberal government. Both were very vocal on the ALP’s support of renewables, especially in relation to local jobs. Maree Edwards said she was against coal seam gas, that the moratorium should be continued, a parliamentary enquiry conducted and consultation held with the community. Jacinta Allan talked about expanding support for commuting with projects such as the Bendigo Metro-Rail. She also said Labor support the RET and want it to survive but that consideration of a Victorian RET depended on what happens federally. Despite talking about transition, admitting the world is turning away from brown coal and that Victoria “could be left with stranded assets in the industry”, both Labor candidates carefully shied away from a time-frame to phase out coal-fired power stations. Instead they advocated the reduction of greenhouse emissions over the long term. They said Labor opposes the 2km and 5km wind restriction zones but, when pressed for assurances that they would repeal the wind farm bans and what level solar tariff would be set under a Labor government, Jacinta said the Labor policy had not yet been released and she could not preempt it. She could not give a date for the release of this policy. Afterwards, one attendee commented that parties should be required by law to release policies by a certain point in the campaign so that candidates can answer questions about them at events such as this one.

Dr Jennifer Alden and John Brownstein (candidates for Bendigo East and Bendigo West respectively) acknowledged the urgent need for leadership on climate and said that the Greens would ban new fossil fuel based power stations, and coal seam gas exploration and development. They would also implement strong pro-renewable policies and get behind the divestment campaign. Jennifer talked about the health benefits and savings in moving away from the fossil fuel era and foresaw a 100% renewable future for central Victoria, whereas “the old parties are wedded to dying industries.” John saw a moral duty to deal with climate change, stressing governments can create the conditions for markets to change. He lamented taxes “being poured into a black hole” to support fossil fuels. He promised the Greens would introduce a Solar Bank to assist households to move to solar without the upfront costs; set a 1:1 solar tariff; remove the Liberals’ wind farm exclusion zones; regulate the phase out of existing coal power stations and ban new ones along with coal seam gas exploration. He pointed out that it is ridiculous that Victorians have a right of veto over wind farms and no right to object if someone wants to mine their land for coal seam gas.

Charlie Crutchfield for the Sex Party acknowledged the science and outlined broad support for a speedy transition to renewables, but admitted the party was fairly new and environment not their lead policy. He called for more investment in a transition to renewables, repealing the ban on wind farms, the provision of 24 hour transport on weekends and said the Sex Party is against fracking.

In thanking the candidates for their participation, Bendigo Sustainability Group president Keith Reynard observed that, “Being a Member of Parliament is a very privileged position: you do carry a lot of influence and ability to make a difference and we’d like to believe that whoever is in that position has the issues that have been on the table here tonight as a prime consideration whenever you make decisions about influencing government direction in the future.”

In wrapping up, the M.C. reminded attendees, “It’s our climate, it’s your vote: use it wisely.”

Speech by James Wight

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth synthesis report. It may be the most thorough report ever produced in human history: years in the making, written and reviewed by hundreds of scientists, mostly volunteers, citing mountains of scientific papers, and their conclusions reaffirm what we already knew.

Human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases have been the dominant cause of the observed global warming since the mid-20th century. Climate change is observable pretty much everywhere: air temperature is rising over every continent, the oceans are heating up and expanding, ice is melting on land and at sea. And make no mistake, the warming continues: last year the Earth’s oceans accumulated energy at a rate of 12 Hiroshima bombs per second.

As important as it is, the IPCC report seriously underestimates the problem, because it relies largely on outdated advice that major impacts and feedbacks lie beyond two degrees of warming. But the latest science is telling us we’re already hitting some at just three-quarters of a degree.

Polar ice melt has passed tipping points threatening to set off a chain reaction of metres of sea level rise, carbon emissions from permafrost, and accelerating warming. Already heatwaves, floods, droughts, and fires are intensifying, costing lives and reducing crop yields.

Here in Bendigo we’ve experienced: almost running out of water in 2007, the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, record flooding in 2010-11, Australia’s hottest year on record in 2013, and extreme heatwaves that keep on coming. I can’t emphasize enough that these things are happening at the current temperature.

There’s much more warming in the pipeline. The last time CO2 was as high as today, global temperature was many degrees warmer, sea level tens of metres higher, and the Arctic warm enough to trigger massive carbon feedbacks.

So, we have already gone too far. The stable Earth that sustained us is gone, and we are entering an unfriendly, unstable climate spiralling out of our control.

Security agencies call climate change a threat multiplier. That means whatever issue you care about – whether it’s feeding your kids, preventing terrorism, fighting injustice, or staying safe in an increasingly uncertain world – global warming will make it harder.

As long as we keep emitting, the problem will keep getting worse. Because CO2 is already too high, we cannot consider any further amount of carbon to be safely “burnable”. We must leave in the ground as much fossil fuel as possible, and approach zero emissions as soon as possible. In other words, we need to act at a rate much faster than governments are currently talking about. We no longer have a non-radical option: it’s either radical change now, or radical collapse later.

The disconnect between the scientists’ warnings and the politicians’ dawdling has never been more stark. Global fossil fuel emissions have risen 61% since 1990. Climate talks put us on track put the Earth on track to four degrees by 2100 – that’s four degrees plus the feedbacks I just talked about.

This is extremely reckless in light of the mounting evidence that less than one degree is dangerous. Four degrees could mean mass extinction, collapse of the food chain, 40% more extreme rainfall, the Amazon rainforest burning up, southern Australia turning to desert, Australian heat deaths overwhelming the healthcare system, devastation of Australian crop yields, the end of irrigated agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin – and more! Climate scientist Kevin Anderson says four degrees would be incompatible with human civilization.

Imagine life in Bendigo after four degrees of warming. A dry, hot, desolate city in a state of decline and social dysfunction. The idea that we can somehow adapt to such an enormous change is laughable. It’s not an option we want to consider.

To make matters worse, Australia is backtracking on its promises. Countries like Australia have an internationally agreed obligation to take the lead, because of our wealth and high responsibility for emissions. Yet our federal government has dropped the ball.

They’ve repealed just about every one of the country’s climate policies, and continue to attack the remaining ones such as the Renewable Energy Target. These are to be replaced with a fund that will pay polluting companies who voluntarily don’t emit greenhouse gases they otherwise, supposedly, would have emitted. All independent analysts say the fund won’t even stop Australia’s emissions from rising. Indeed the fund is explicitly designed to allow emissions to increase wherever economic production increases. Meanwhile Australia is rapidly expanding our fossil fuel exports, which are our largest contribution to climate change yet aren’t counted in our emissions targets.

The state government too, has dismantled Victoria’s climate policies. They repealed the state’s emissions target in the Climate Change Act. They’ve opposed the federal carbon price and Renewable Energy Target. They abandoned plans to close Hazelwood and introduce emissions standards for power stations. They’ve scrapped energy efficiency policies. They’re actively obstructing wind farms. They’ve slashed solar feed-in tariffs. They’ve continued to subsidize fossil fuels to the tune of $35 million annually, plus recent grants to new coal projects. They want to open up a brown coal export industry, and even launched a taxpayer-funded PR campaign to promote it. Hopefully we’ll hear some better ideas from our Liberal representative tonight.

As the IPCC points out, action is required at all levels of government. Here in Victoria we have plenty of potential solar and wind energy. Next door, South Australia is getting over a third of its energy from renewables. Victoria has some of the country’s biggest coal power stations; we can close them. Imagine Bendigo in this alternate future: a thriving, socially connected regional hub and a leader in clean and sustainable technologies.

Government policy can make this a reality. What’s lacking is political will. We have most of the technologies required for zero emissions, though some argue the required speed of action may be incompatible with a growing economy.

Whether or not that turns out to be true, it’s clear we need to deprioritize economic growth – and there are other reasons to do that. We’re beginning to run up against resource limits, with unprecedented resource price rises in the last decade. Meanwhile growth appears to be doing little to improve our wellbeing in developed countries. There is a large body of evidence that individual and social wellbeing in developed countries is determined by the level of economic inequality rather than growth. We need to start prioritizing sustainability and equality over growth.

Unfortunately, as I explained before, there’s already too much carbon in the air, so ultimately cutting emissions won’t be enough. Now part of me is reluctant to raise this issue because there’s a danger of getting distracted from the urgent task of cutting emissions, but it’s difficult to avoid concluding that we humans must now take on the hazardous role of climate engineers. We need to find ways to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and maybe even directly cool the planet. This is a very controversial issue, but something I think we need to start talking about. There are a lot of complex problems with geoengineering which I don’t have time to go into, so it’s no get-out-of-jail-free card, merely a Band-Aid to treat the symptoms it is too late to prevent. Our inescapably urgent priority is to stop putting carbon up there in the first place.

Human-caused global warming is the greatest threat facing humanity. The decisions made in the next few years will determine the extent of global warming for millennia. We are in a climate emergency, which requires an emergency response.

So I’m hoping to hear the candidates here tonight address not just the need to cut emissions – hopefully we all already agree on that – but the urgency and scale of action required to actually get out of fossil fuels as fast as we can, and onto a pathway back to a stable climate.

We need candidates who will stand up to the fossil fuel corporations, rather than letting them run the state.

Our future depends on it.

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