Govt votes down Greens’ move to investigate risk posed by rising sea levels.

Climate chaos0

(d) the assessment of the impact of even a moderate sea level rise in Australia remains inadequate for adaptation planning;
(e) assessing the vulnerability of low coastal and estuarine regions requires not only mapping height above sea level but must take into account factors such as coastal morphology, susceptibility to long-shore erosion, near shore bathymetry and storm surge frequency;
(f) delaying analysis of the risk of sea level rise exacerbates the likelihood that such information may affect property values and investment through disclosure of increased hazards and possible reduced or more expensive insurance cover; and
(g) an early response to the threat of a rise in sea level may include avoiding investment in long-lived infrastructure in high risk areas.
(2) That the following matter be referred to the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Committee for inquiry and report by 20 September 2007:

An assessment of the risks associated with projected rises in sea levels around Australia, including an appraisal of:
(a) ecological, social and economic impacts;
(b) adaptation and mitigation strategies;
(c) knowledge gaps and research needs; and
(d) options to communicate risks and vulnerabilities to the Australian community.

Yesterday in Australia we heard from Sir Nicholas Stern, one of the world’s most eminent speakers on the economic impacts of climate change, pointing out that whatever it costs to take action now will be nothing compared with what it will cost if we do not take action. I am asking the Senate to agree to a motion to look at the assessment of the risks associated with sea level rise in Australia, including an appraisal of recent science relating to sea level rise projections, the ecological, social and economic impacts of the full range of projections, adaptation and mitigation strategies, knowledge gaps and research needs, and options to communicate risks and vulnerabilities to the Australian community.

This is an urgent matter; it is an urgent matter because the science is telling us that we can expect not only the current amount of global warming that is locked in because of the levels of CO concentrations in the atmosphere but that we will see accelerating global warming as the concentrations of CO rise. We have to make deep cuts. But, regardless of the deep cuts that we make in the next 10 or 15 years, the sea level rise is going to continue. We have had the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fourth assessment report published in February telling us that the sea level will rise by between 0.18 metres and 0.59 metres by the end of the century. More concerning than that is recent evidence from scientists such as Dr Barrie Pittock, formerly of CSIRO. He says that we have an increase in the outflow of the glaciers from Greenland and parts of Antarctica-increasing to such an extent that the latest papers are suggesting a rise by 2100 of between 50 centimetres and 1½ metres. That is the range that the latest science is demonstrating by 2100. If you take into account the rule of thumb that for every metre in sea level rise the coast will retreat and go inland by 100 metres-so for every metre you can expect that impact of 100 metres-and you consider how many people live in the coastal zone around Australia, we have to be concerned.

Only a couple of weeks ago in Cairns we had a meeting of the Planning Institute of Australia. They talked about the impacts of sea level rise, and we also had the insurance industry there. Both the Planning Institute of Australia and the Insurance Council of Australia are saying that we are reaching a situation where some people will no longer be able to get insurance because of where they are in relation to the coast. Furthermore, they are saying that, in the future, local government in particular will be sued because they have given planning approval for development in coastal zones where it was already known there would be sea level rise. So we have a situation where people are moving to the coast and local government is not taking adequate note of the likely impacts of sea level rise.

Looking at their website today, I was alarmed to see that the Greenhouse Office has not published anything since 2004 on updated impact assessment of sea level rise around Australia. No doubt I am going to hear from the government that they have a Greenhouse Office and that that is the answer to climate change-that you set up the office. It is what the office actually does that is of concern to me.

At that recent Planning Institute conference in Queensland they said that in the Northern Territory nearly 900 coastal buildings, mainly in Darwin, are at risk. Along the Tasmanian coastline more than 17,000 addresses are considered vulnerable-as are more than 60,000 in South Australia, mostly around Adelaide, and over 80,000 along the Victorian coast, mainly around Melbourne. In Western Australia 94,000 buildings have been identified as vulnerable around Perth. But the biggest concern is along the eastern seaboard where more than 200,000 buildings are considered vulnerable on the New South Wales coast, including Sydney. Queensland faces the largest risk with almost 250,000 buildings under threat stretching from the Gold Coast to the Sunshine Coast. So this is not something 50 or 100 years hence-although, as I am saying, we are likely to see increasing rates of sea level rise; these are buildings that have been identified as vulnerable right now because of sea level rise. Add to that the issue of storm surge and you will see that we are facing major disaster around Australia, and we need to spend money right now dealing with it.

In the UK the Thames Barrier in the mouth of the Thames River has been there for a long time to try and stop storm surge influencing the city of London to the extent that it did previously as a result of that coastal flooding and storm surge. At a recent meeting of the conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, there was a discussion about what we know as the Low Countries-and that includes, of course, the Netherlands-considering putting out a tender for a new coastline. It is a concept that is very difficult to even imagine in terms of the costs of actually considering that you might have to build a new coastline. Already in the Netherlands they are actively moving people from areas that are clearly going to be vulnerable to flooding. They face not only the risk of sea level rise but also, with heavier rainfall events, they are going to have flooding coming down the rivers-the two will meet and there will be massive flooding. Certainly Europe is focused on this because of the density of population in what we know as those Low Countries.

In Australia we also have issues with areas like Kakadu and our national parks, coastal wetlands, protected areas and so on. We are going to see sea level rise have a considerable impact as a result of saltwater incursion into our wetlands. I was appalled when I heard earlier this year the federal Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, saying:

There’s a lot of very exaggerated claims and you have to bear in mind that most of our coastal population lives on the east coast of Australia and because of the geology or the typography-

I presume he meant topography-

of the east coast, you know, much of that is adequately elevated to deal with a one-metre sea rise.

That demonstrates the complete ignorance of the government about what a one-metre sea level rise would mean for coastal Australia. It would be absolutely devastating to infrastructure and to millions of people. But consider for a moment what it would mean for our Pacific neighbours. We already recognise that a large number of people will be dislocated and will have to move from the islands where they live. Not only will their lives and their culture be disrupted but they will need somewhere to go-and Australia, of course, is resisting even the definition of an ‘environmental refugee’ in the refugee convention, let alone agreeing to have future arrangements and treaties whereby Australia would take some of those people, even though Tuvalu and the New Zealand government have had an understanding that New Zealand will absorb a number of people from Tuvalu because of sea level rise and saltwater incursion into fresh water supplies.

Returning to Australia, a recent report by the Risk Frontiers Natural Hazards Research Centre at Macquarie University talked about the wider Sydney region, including the central and south coasts. It said that there are almost 13,000 dwellings below two metres above mean sea level and over 140,000 dwellings below six metres above mean sea level. It noted that, during spring tides, sea level is almost a metre above mean sea level in Sydney. Another study found that, for a given sea level rise of 20 centimetres by 2050, coastal erosion of up to 22 metres is projected for the Collaroy-Narrabeen beach, rising to 110 metres given a one-in-50-year storm surge, with associated economic losses of $230 million.

Also, an interesting rumour has been handed down from generation to generation of public servants in New South Wales that, as long ago as under the Wran government, the planning department there did an assessment on sea level rise impacts on Sydney and coastal New South Wales. When those planning people delivered that to the Wran government, they were told to bury it-and it has been buried ever since-because of the devastating impact it would have had on coastal property prices at that particular time. No doubt that is why people do not want to have this kind of assessment into the future impacts of sea level rise and storms and storm surge on coastal Australia associated with global warming, because not only will it have a significant impact on future infrastructure planning-and it is absolutely appropriate that it should have-but also it will place a lot of councils and state governments in all sorts of quandaries about what they will do about protecting existing infrastructure.

Of course, that has to be done in conjunction with the insurance industry, which will be moving rapidly to take away people’s insurance cover. I am glad that the Insurance Council of Australia has come out with a plan that says we have to deal with this matter as soon as possible. In Tasmania, I pointed out that Lauderdale, which is not far from Hobart, is probably one of Tasmania’s most vulnerable communities to sea level rise. That was identified in a coastal vulnerability analysis done for the state government. The population of Lauderdale are already suffering a rise in the watertable as the sea level rises and they are vulnerable to overwash. However, the insurance institute representative in Tasmania said that it was not a problem as far as the insurance industry was concerned. I think that was a serious misleading of the local population about the likely impacts on people in that area being able to continue to maintain insurance cover.

However, all this goes to the point that, in Australia, we need a proper assessment, as has been done in the UK and in countries like the Netherlands. In the UK, they have gone along its southern coast and have identified communities that will be saved by infrastructure-new groynes, seawalls, new port facilities and so on. They have identified other coastal areas for what they call ‘managed retreat’. That has not even come onto the agenda in Australia. However, huge conflict is being caused on the southern coast of the UK, with the government there announcing that they will start identifying communities to be saved and others for managed retreat. Unfortunately, one of the main considerations for many of those communities is the extent to which they are well-known tourist locations. So a place like Lyme Regis, where TheFrench Lieutenant’s Woman was filmed and which is a major tourist attraction, has been identified as a town that has to be saved, with millions of pounds being spent on groynes and seawalls. However, other communities nearby, which local people would say are more reflective of the culture of southern England and so on, have been identified for managed retreat.

That is how seriously the UK government is taking the figures on sea level rise. The Netherlands government is considering such measures and I have mentioned the Thames Barrier. It will require vast amounts of money in adapting to existing projections of sea level rise, not to mention that sea level rise will become unmanageable unless we act soon to mitigate further concentrations of CO that will make the matter worse. So we have to adapt to what we know is coming and reduce greenhouse gases to make sure that the situation does not get worse.

That is why I am calling for the Senate to support an inquiry into this issue of sea level rise. It is not complicated. We know what the situation with global warming is. We know the projections for sea level rise. We need to look at Australia’s coastal vulnerability to sea level rise, because we need to consider infrastructure into the future. I hope that the Senate will support this reference. I referred a matter last year to the rural and regional affairs committee relating to Australia’s future oil supplies and that was an extremely successful Senate inquiry. I take these Senate inquiries seriously. If this reference gets up, I will be at all the hearings and I will work hard in this context so that we get a collaborative approach and, hopefully, a majority report-because I think it makes an important contribution and raises awareness of the issues in local communities.

I urge the government, the opposition and the Democrats to support this reference. It has been circulated to members of the committee. As I said, it is not a complex idea that we would move to look at the science on sea level rise projections, the likely impacts for the full range of projections and scenarios, the adaptation of mitigation strategies, the knowledge gaps and the research that we need to undertake, and our options to communicate those risks and vulnerabilities to the Australian community.

I recommend this reference to the Senate. I will be interested to hear the response of my colleagues and hope that we can get this up and make a serious contribution to stopping what will be major disasters if we just pretend it is not going to happen.

Question negatived.