November 09, 2017




Thank you very much for coming to the electorate of Port Adelaide for your conference and thank you for the very warm welcome to country. I also acknowledge that we meet on the land of the Kaurna people and I pay respect to elders both past and present.

Welcome to the Lefevre Peninsula. This is a beautiful part of South Australia at the end of an extraordinary stretch of coast, sand dunes, and beautiful beaches.

It is also right near a working port, a dolphin sanctuary, very significant industry including power plants and ship-building - the meeting of Mother Nature with 20th and 21st century industrial development is very much exemplified here in Port Adelaide. It brings together a whole range of issues that you are grappling with and which I will talk about in my capacity, not so much as the Member for Port Adelaide, but as the Shadow Minister for Climate Change.

You know better than me that Australia, really more than any other nation, has a coastal culture right at the core of our self-identity.

Eighty-five per cent of Australians live within 50km of the Australian coast. We are one of the very few countries to border three oceans.

Whenever we think about ourselves or try to project Australia to the rest of the world - the coast, the beach, and the culture that goes along with that is always the core of our message.

Even though not all of us have the great luxury of living on the coast, we often flock there in times of leisure and holiday. And,  as many of you know, particularly those who are involved in planning, many of us want to build there. We want to build homes; we want to build hotels, and a whole range of other things that raise the increasing difficulty of reconciling some of those aspirations with the pressures that we feel on the coastal system that I am going to talk about.

All of that reinforces how important it is that we don’t take for granted the beautiful coast we have here and throughout the whole of our very vast continent.

I want to talk a bit about the climate change threats that we are confronting here in Australia and around the world, and what we should be doing about them.

Particularly I want to talk about the impact on sea levels that climate change or global warming is already having and is projected to have over the course of the next many decades, and well into the next century - what that means for policy at all levels of government and for the private sector.

As we know, and were reminded in the welcome to country, ours is a continent that has hosted the oldest continuously surviving culture on the face of the Earth, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture which has been here for 50-60,000 years.

Over the course of Aboriginal stewardship of this continent, sea level changes are nothing new.

20,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, sea levels were perhaps 120 meters lower than they are now. And as relatively recently as 10,000 years ago, sea levels were about 50 meters lower than they currently are.

We have a continuous oral history from Aboriginal peoples of those times. Fitzroy Island for example, off Queensland, was not an island. We know from oral history, it was something Aboriginal people used to walk to.

The Narrunga people of the Yorke Peninsula talk about a time when there was no Spencer Gulf. They have a traditional story of what we now understand to be the Gulf being created by the scraping of a big Kangaroo bone across the land.

We have Aboriginal artefacts at the bottom of Sydney Harbor, from a time when Aboriginal people in that part of the country were able to walk across what is now one of the world’s most recognisable waterways.

This is really something quite extraordinary for anthropologists that a culture was able to maintain an oral tradition over 300 generations at least - quite unique for anthropologists throughout the world who are used to oral traditions dying off within several dozen generations, not the 300 generations that have been able to maintain the tales of the vast changes, the monumental changes in sea levels that occurred over Aboriginal time here in Australia.

As we all know, sea levels have been pretty steady for several thousand years, or at least the last 3,000 years. But they are now rising again.

They are rising again overwhelmingly because of human activity.

The 20th century saw the fastest rise in sea levels for around 3,000 years, and right now sea levels are rising at about twice that rate.

What we have been doing since the period of industrialisation, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, will continue to 'bake in' ongoing sea level rises into the system not just for decades to come but for centuries.

You all know, probably more than me I’m sure, how climate change sea level rise occurs - through a mix of thermal expansion and the addition of new water to the oceans, through the melting of ice sheets and through extra run-off driven by changes in land use.

You also know that sea level rise is not uniform - as the relevant scientists say, it's not like filling a bath.

Sea level rise is very different in the south of our continent, compared to the north of our continent, and compared to the 'global mean' sea level rise as measured around the world.

We know, for example, that the Southern Ocean to the south of our continent sees sea level rise measurements of about twice the global average.

While sea levels are rising at about 3.3 or 3.4cm per decade at the moment, they're rising at closer to 5cm per decade across the south of the continent, including here in South Australia. Across the north, the rate is closer to 7.5cm per decade.

The East Australia Current - which I don’t think most people would have heard of before the film Finding Nemo - keeps sea level rise on the East of our continent to about the same as the global average.

We also know that there is increasing evidence that changing wind patterns across the Southern Ocean is amplifying the wind energy hitting the south of the continent and adding to coastal pressures.

The impact of sea level rise

Over the course of the 20th century global sea levels have risen by about 20cm on average.

Flooding events over the course of the 20th century tripled in frequency in places like Sydney and Fremantle because of that extra 20cm.

There are already villages being displaced in smaller islands in the Pacific region because of the impact of sea level rise in those areas.

And we are reading increasingly about challenges to substantial parts of economies around the world.

For example, the Rio de Janeiro beach economy employs about 250,000 people. Since the early 1990s they have recorded a five-fold increase in damaging storm surges which regularly impact the livelihoods of the quarter of a million people who work in that beach economy.   

Perhaps the most closely reported event, when it comes to the impact of sea level rise, was Super Storm Sandy, which caused about $12 billion of damage, particularly in New York. People will recall the extraordinary images of subway stations being flooded.

There are different estimates about the degree the climate change impacted Super Storm Sandy.

Lloyd’s insurance suggests that as much as 30 per cent of the damage that resulted from Super Storm Sandy in New York was a direct result of sea level rise.

Like South Australia, the sea levels around New York City have increased by substantially more than the global average - around 30cm over the course of the 20th century rather than the global average of 20cm.

Projections of future sea level rise


I want to focus now for a bit, not so on much what has happened since industrialisation, but on the projections about what is likely to happen over coming decades if we don’t take the opportunity that is before us to undertake substantial decarbonisation of economies around the world, to keep global warming well below 2-degrees Celsius.

The scientific work for the United Nations Climate Change processes is largely conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Incidentally, the IPCC was heavily supported in its inception by Margaret Thatcher, which surprises some people.

The IPCC’s most recent projections about sea level rise go back as far as 2013, in their fifth assessment report (AR5). And it won’t be formally revisited until the sixth assessment report which will be published in 2022 or 2023.

Universally, scientists working in this field agree that projections in AR5 by the IPCC are deeply conservative.

The higher end projections are around 90cm of sea level rise - assuming there is not much progress in decarbonising the global economy - by the end of this century.

At the low end, the IPCC suggested there might be only 30cm of sea level rise, again at a global mean level.

There have been quite dramatic shifts since even the work that led up to the fifth assessment report which have been the focus of particular attention from organisations like the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO here in Australia, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States; in particular, the dramatic acceleration of the melting of the Greenland ice sheets, since as recently as the 1990s.

All of those organisations have reported a more than six-fold increase in the amount of melting in the Greenland ice sheets over the course of the decade of the 2000s, compared to the decade of the 1990s.

This has had a global impact. The melting of those Greenland ice sheets only made about a five per cent contribution to global sea level rise in 1993. By 2013, that had increased to 25 per cent.

The dramatic increase we have seen only in the last 25 years in sea level rises is largely driven by that dramatic acceleration in the melting of the Greenland ice sheets.

Less clear is what is happening to the Antarctic ice sheets. There is a lot of research going on, some of which has been published over the last couple of years that suggests that those ice sheets are particularly vulnerable to further increases in global warming. Particularly vulnerable to any warming that is above the two-degree threshold that is incorporated into the Paris Agreement.

As a result of all of that, particularly what we now understand is happening in Greenland and may well start to happen in the Antarctic, NOAA published updated projections about likely sea level rise in January this year, which are much more dramatic than the IPCC’s 2013 conclusions.

The headlines of NOAA’s 'extreme' scenario, which assumes no progress in decarbonising in the global economy, will see sea levels rise on average by as much as 2.7 meters over the course of this century, which is really quite difficult to get your head around.

Even NOAA’s intermediate scenario, which is the third lowest of the six scenarios, would see global mean levels rise by about a meter. That is off 2000 levels, not 1990 levels. Again I say, and stress, that is on average.

If that came to pass, you would see sea level rise in South Australia, by the end of this century, substantially more than one meter.

That has significant ramifications for the planning parameters for South Australia.

As you know, there is a substantial compound effect between sea level rise and flood risk.

Every 10cm of sea level rise will see a compound effect of flood risk.

We are advised by the Climate Change Authority and the Climate Council that an increase over the course of this century of around  1 or 1.1 meters in sea level will lead to a 1 in 100 year flood risk starting to appear several times every year – as much as ten times every year.

The Climate Council and others have done work about what that means for a coastal economy like Australia. They have suggested that a 1.1 meter level of sea level rise over the course of this century would expose, in current value, about $226 billion of assets to inundation.

Incidentally, Port Adelaide was one of the most vulnerable parts of the country. You won’t be surprised as you look around the Lefevre Peninsula and the Port River that there are very substantial economic assets that have been built right on the river that are very vulnerable to sea level rise - as I said before, power plants, substantial manufacturing, the submarine corporation and such like.   

But overseas, this raises existential threats - not just very substantial economic dislocation as you would see in a country like Australia.

We know for example in many areas of the Pacific, where the small islands are, sea levels are already rising by as much as 12cm per decade, leading already to villages having to be effectively picked up and moved elsewhere.

If you see anything like the sea level rise that NOAA projected in January this year, those islands would simply disappear.

I meet quite often with Bangladesh officials as they travel to Australia. They are very exercised by this and are very focused on the internal displacements that are already happening because of sea level rise in their low-lying country.

They know that by the middle of the century, even with relatively conservative projections around sea level rise, about 1/6th of the Bangladesh land mass will be underwater, displacing tens of millions of people, certainly internally, but I suggest inevitably beyond Bangladesh and into the rest of the world.

The UN High Commission for Refugees, recognising that this is pretty difficult to measure scientifically, has suggested that by the middle of this century there may be as many as 250 million people displaced as climate refugees, although that term is not known to the refugee convention yet.

What do we need to do?


All this raises the question, what do we do?

I often talk to people who are frustrated by the lack of attention on adaptation policy here in Australia - taking measures to deal with the impacts of climate change that are already here, or are unavoidable in the future.

When Penny Wong was the Climate Change Minister in the first term of the Rudd Government, she set up the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) and funded it quite substantially to the tune of about $10 million a year. It started to do some very important work.

Funding was slashed by the Abbott Government and terminated altogether by Malcolm Turnbull. We don’t know what the future of NCCARF is because of its funding being terminated in the 2017 Budget.

Coast Adapt and a range of other great tools that have been developed under the NCCARF umbrella are critically important to continue.

We know while there has been an ebb and flow of attention on adaption at a Commonwealth level; state governments like South Australia, many local councils and private organisations have stepped up to start to do that adaptation work and are thinking about what these issues mean for coastal planning.

I want to reinforce to you that, as important as that is, the challenge of mitigation is also critically important.

President Obama said, “Ours is the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation with the ability to do something serious about it.”

That is absolutely true.

Countries of the world are meeting now in Bonn, Germany - attending the latest conference of the parties (COP) of the UN climate change convention, chaired by Fiji which is an important symbol.

There is critically important work to be done at Bonn to start to fill in the gaps that were left at the Paris Conference in 2015.

We need to recognise that our country is simply not even coming close to doing enough.

The target that we took to Paris - and when I say we I mean Tony Abbott’s target that Malcolm Turnbull adopted - would suggest that Australia should reduce carbon pollution levels by 26 per cent by 2030 off a 2005 baseline.

That is generally regarded and labelled as a 3-degree target. Not a 2-degree target.

If countries of the world matched our target there would  be no way to keep the central agreement of the Paris Accord to keep global warming well-below 2-degrees, let alone pursing efforts as the Paris Agreement requires us do, to try to keep warming to 1.5-degrees.

A target of 26 per cent is inadequate.

In comparison, the United Kingdom is tracking to a carbon budget at the same time which would see a reduction over the same period of 61 per cent.

This is a country that still makes three times as much steel as Australia; it still employs 800,000 workers in the automotive industry at a time when we are shutting ours down. They are able to get those deep levels of decarbonisation while still maintaining a strong industrial base.

We have to do better than 26 per cent.

But the challenge in front of us at the moment is that we are not even tracking to 26 per cent.

The United Nations, as it did its survey of countries progress against their Paris commitments, has uncovered what the Government itself admitted in its data published December last year - that we are actually tracking to a zero per cent reduction in 2030.

Nowhere near the 26 per cent reduction, and we have to do better.

We’ve got to put together a comprehensive plan across all sectors of the economy.

We need a fair and strong contribution from our country, one of the most carbon-intensive countries in the world, to reduce our carbon pollution levels.

It is the proper thing to do as a responsible member of the international community.

It is an important thing to do in terms of our own vulnerability as a hot, coastal community.

Perhaps most importantly of all, it is utterly critical for us to do given our responsibility to future generations of Australians.

All the very best for your conference - congratulations and thank you for the work that you do.

We have a long way to go in this country in dealing with this monumental challenge that is in front of us and I know that you are doing everything you can to keep us up to pace.

Thank you.