Radio Adelaide: 24/07/17

July 24, 2017



MONDAY, 24 JULY 2017


JENNIE LENMAN: Mark Butler’s new book, Climate Wars, addresses the consequences of lack of action from governments when it comes to addressing the serious imminent threat of climate change. He makes the case creating cleaner energy in Australia can be achieved by bold action from government. The Member for Port Adelaide, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy and author of Climate Wars, Mark Butler, joins us in the studio live, good morning.   


LENMAN: Why do you think addressing climate change has become a war of sorts?

BUTLER: This has been an ongoing issue for Australia for 25 years but it particularly headed up about 10 years ago when Tony Abbott toppled Malcolm Turnbull as the Liberal Party leader and since then we’ve really been shifted into what I’d describe as a parallel universe in Australia talking about climate change. We just don’t talk about the same things that the rest of the world is talking about. Over that period the scientific consensus around the seriousness of climate change has just become clearer and more solid. We’ve also started to see the impacts of climate change unfold before our eyes. Most distressingly I think, is two very serious bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef over the last 18 months. Yet still the public discussion in Australia is about if we should open more new coal mines and should we revisit the Murray Darling Basin plan and start to pull back some of the water for the river into irrigation. While in the rest of the world they’re actually getting on with the business of decarbonising their economies and discharging what I think is a really serious commitment to future generations to keep global warming well below 2-degrees.   

LENMAN: It’s interesting that the Prime Minister in the past has acknowledged the threat of climate change. Why do you think it is such a challenge for someone in politics to stick to their core beliefs?

BUTLER: Unfortunately I think when Malcolm Turnbull returned to the leadership of the Liberal Party had to give a commitment to the right-wing of the Coalition, the sort of Tony Abbott forces if you like, that he wouldn’t change Tony Abbott’s policies. I think a whole lot of people in the community held out real hope that Malcolm Turnbull’s return to the leadership would change the nature of politics, would really sort of soften from the very hard edge that Tony Abbott brought to national politics, but also that Malcolm Turnbull would start to bring things back to the centre on things like marriage equality and climate change. I think he has disappointed a lot of people by not doing that.

In the meantime what has happened is all the jobs and the investment that come along with the clean energy revolution, they are not happening in Australia, they are happening elsewhere in the world. Instead we are experience a very serious energy crisis because of the investment freeze in renewable energy, which means that everybody’s power bills are skyrocketing up.  

LENMAN: Now you argue that time wasted over the fight over climate change distracts us from taking real action. So what do you think needs to be done in order to stop this timewasting?

BUTLER: First of all we need to confront this small but incredibly loud minority that continue to argue that climate change is just crap. We need to take that argument on and say the scientist who work in this area are exactly as certain about the impact of climate change as medical scientists are about the link between lung cancer and tobacco use. The debate is over. We know that this is real; we know that it is a very serious risk to particularly the living standards of future generations as well as our beautiful natural environment.

It is now time to get on with talking about how we deal with it and there are all sorts of really exciting economic opportunities here for us, particularly in the energy sector where Australia has better solar resources, better wind resources and other renewable resources really than any other place on the face of the earth. We have a really exciting technological revolution coming in transport, with electric vehicles and other low-emissions or no emissions vehicles. But we are nowhere on that debate and we need to clean up the way in which we use our land sector, we need to stop the broad scale land clearing that is again happening in far north Queensland, imposing very serious stress on the Great Barrier Reef and putting lots of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. All of the solutions are there in front of us; we just have to get over this political warfare over the basics of climate change.

LENMAN: When there are so many consensuses, what is it like 97 per cent of scientists agree that climate change is real and man-made, why doesn’t this penetrate into politics? Why are politicians so afraid of facts?

BUTLER: Well it is still a minority group of politicians, but they are loud and they have got significant influence, particularly on the right-wing side of politics and in very important and influential parts of the media. They think that the vested interests that are challenged by this, particularly in the fossil fuel sector, are so important that they need to fight against climate action.

Australia is quite unique in this; you see it a bit in America particularly under Trump, but even in the United Kingdom where there is a Tory government, a right-wing government that has been in place for years. A parliament where there are very fractious politics over there particularly since Brexit, they don’t fight about this stuff. Instead they are getting very deep cuts in their carbon pollution levels. They produce less carbon pollution than Australia, even though they have three times the population. They still produce three times as much steel, they still have a car industry, but they are doing extraordinary things in renewable energy and in transport. They installed four times as much solar energy as Australia did in 2015. This is a tiny nation where the sun shines about three days a year, but they are killing us on solar energy. That just makes me feel embarrassed when you look at that. The reason why is they don’t have a political debate about climate change, they just accept the science and are now getting on with harnessing the enormous opportunities that come with a clean energy revolution. They won’t have coal-fired power within a few years. Coal-fired power is already about less than 5 per cent of their electricity system and they will close their last coal-fired power station probably by about 2023 or 2024. Yet here, we are having a debate about whether the federal government should fund new coal-fired power stations in Australia, it is just crazy.       

LENMAN: State Labor is the frontrunner when it comes to addressing climate change in Australia, but Labor still supports some dirty energy. Where do you think we can strike the balance there, because we are not 100 per cent ready for 100 per cent renewables?

BUTLER: No we’re not 100 per cent ready for 100 per cent renewables, but last year 76 per cent of our electricity was produced by coal-fired power and that is one of the highest shares in the world. That is why our electricity system is twice as polluting as America’s, twice as polluting as the OECD average because we are just so addicted to coal-fired power. So what we need to do is have a transition plan to reduce that reliance and build up renewables.

As you say, South Australia has lead the way on this. Now South Australia has copped a lot of crap, frankly, from News Limited and from the Liberal Government in Canberra for leading the way, but you don’t only see it in the deployment of renewable energy generation, we are now leading the world in big battery technology with the Tesla battery announcement that was recently made. I think in 10, 15 and 20 years we will look back on this and see that it was realty brave for South Australia to lead the way because we know that once the world has transitioned to renewable energy, Australia will have a cost advantage. We will have a competitive advantage over China, India, Europe and over the United States because we have such better renewable resources here that are so much more efficient, so much more powerful, and leading the way really might involve some difficulty in the transition, but overtime it will be something that future generations thank us for.

LENMAN: A lot of commentators said that blaming wind power on the power outages last year was a bit of a scapegoat, what was your thought on that?

BUTLER: Well it was wrong, and the Australian Energy Market Operator when they did their final report on the statewide blackout in South Australia, the Chair of it said the blackout wasn’t about renewable energy. When you have steel transmission towers blown down by tornadoes, they will trip gas generators, they will trip coal-fired generators and they will trip renewable generators. It is the sort of thing that happens if your toaster goes in your house; it creates a problem for the system which causes the whole system to shut down. We need to get over that stuff.

In the opening of the book I talk about the Adele concert here in Adelaide, which my daughter went to. When the revolving stage at the concert pulled a power line out of a socket News Limited jumped onto twitter and blamed renewable energy. Chris Kenny went onto Sky news and blamed renewable energy; he said there was another power blackout in South Australia because of renewables. The wire got pulled out of the socket, and once it got put back in everything was fine.

We do have to get over this ridiculous, peak stupid debate about renewable energy in Australia. Once we do that we will be fine, we will be discharging our obligations to future generations and we will be deploying a lot of clean energy that not only cleans up our power system but means our air quality is better and a whole range of other benefits.

LENMAN: As a politician do you take seriously when people write into you and share concerns about issues? Do you think constituents can make a big difference here if people call up their local politicians?

BUTLER: They do but I don’t underestimate the power of those vested interests, the power particularly of big media in Australia. But I know around the community, in the face of all of the attacks around the country that have happened on renewable energy, particularly since the statewide blackout, support within the community has remained really strong. It’s wide, it’s deep, it’s really ambitious, the community wants Australia to transition to renewable energy more quickly than is practical really - because of how long it is going to take us to build new renewables and shut down the existing system.

But in the face of all those attacks, what I take heart from is that there is a very strong will out in the community to shift to renewable energy and to do the right thing by future generations because the community recognises the threat of climate change. They see it, they feel it, and they look at the news stories about the Great Barrier Reef and the increase in extreme heat events in a very hot continent like Australia, the reduction in rainfall and streamflow in our agricultural regions. People understand this and they know it is just going to get worse for our children and our grandchildren if we don’t take action now.   

LENMAN: Royalties from your book Climate Wars, will be donated to the Hazel Hawke Alzheimer’s Research and Care Fund, tell us why you chose this fund?

BUTLER: I was Minister for Ageing under the Gillard Government for a number of years and worked with this organisation and there are not many families out there that aren’t touched by Alzheimer’s. It is a very serious condition that effects pretty much every family at some stage. Hazel Hawke who was really one of the first public figures to talk openly about her challenge with Alzheimer’s, set up this great research fund that is overseen by Alzheimer’s Australia. The proceeds from both the books I have written, the first was about the politics of ageing and the retirement of the baby boomer generation, and now this one are donated to that really worthy cause.

LENMAN: Great and we can catch you tomorrow at the Don Dunstan Foundation. 

BUTLER: You can!

LENMAN: Yes and that will be for the launch of the book here in Adelaide. Mark Butler it has been an absolute pleasure to have you in the studio, thanks for coming in.  

BUTLER: Thanks for having me.