Friday 22 July 2011

Turnbull on the science of climate change | Unedited text | audio

Malcolm Turnbull (ABC)

Respect the science. Respect the Turnbull

Shortly before 8.00pm last night, the space shuttle Atlantis re-entered the earth's atmosphere and touched down at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

A permanent marker will be placed on the runway to indicate the spot where the 135th mission brought to an end the 30-year shuttle program.

Around the globe, many watched the landing with a sense of the passing history it represented. These missions long ago became commonplace so the viewing audience was likely small, but the sense of awe and pride was still obvious in the voice of the NASA announcer as Atlantis glided to a halt. This was modern science and the boldness of mankind's search for knowledge on display.

Half an hour later, Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech defending science against its critics and doubters. That he felt the need to do so seemed indicative of a deep despair about the quality of political debate in Australia, although Turnbull was at pains to stress his natural optimism.

The Federal Opposition frontbencher addressed the Virginia Chadwick Memorial Foundation, so named in honour of a former NSW Liberal minister and CEO of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Chadwick is remembered for her work in negotiating a dramatic increase in the number of highly protected areas of the reef, increasing them from less than 5 per cent to around 33 per cent.

Turnbull began his speech by speaking of the "fragility and vulnerability" of the reef. It is "brutally confronted" by two aspects of global warming. As ocean temperatures rise, coral bleaching increases. Put simply, the coral dies. As more CO2 is absorbed into the ocean, its acidity increases.

What to do? Turnbull turned to the crux of the climate debate. Real leadership is needed to see beyond the short-term trade-offs between, for example, fishing and tourism. Real leadership looks to the long-term where continued use of the reef is possible on a sustainable basis.

"Lift your eyes," he said, to the "larger, long-term existential threats". As a healthier person can resist disease, so a healthier reef can adapt to the consequences of climate change.

Turnbull declared that "climate change is not a matter of ideology or belief". It's not a matter of left versus right. It's a matter of respecting the science and engaging in "risk management". Even that old Tory Margaret Thatcher said so nearly three decades ago.

So this is a time for "no regrets policies", the kind of policies that are worth doing anyway. Reducing pollution. Planting more forests. Developing renewable energy sources. If people like Thatcher can support this, "it can hardly be the mark of incipient Bolshevism".

In tandem with this commonsense view, Turnbull implored his audience not to reject the CSIRO or the Australian Academy of Science - the places where our best scientists can be found - in favour of "less reliable views" that race around the internet. Be rational, he seemed to be saying. The CSIRO isn't part of a "global green conspiracy".

As evidence of the ease with which irrational ideas circulate, he cited a friend who charged that the CSIRO was wrong on climate change and offered up a so-called scientific paper which turned out to have been written by a man jailed for securities fraud. The only peer review this "scientist" had experienced came from a criminal jury.

We have to get real about respecting the science of climate change, Turnbull said. The war on science must be rejected. "Do not fall into the trap of thinking that what Lord Monckton says or what some website says is superior to what our leading scientists at our leading universities would say."

He turned to the US to illustrate his next point. It's not just that climate change policy is political - of course it is - but the politicisation of climate science itself has profound implications. Despite perceptions, the difference between the climate change policies of John McCain and Barack Obama in the 2008 election was marginal. The swing since then has not been against particular policies, such as cap and trade, but against the science itself.

"Discrediting the science is the ultimate justification for doing nothing about it," Turnbull said. If the Coalition forms a government and seeks to meet the 5 per cent emissions reduction target by 2020, the opponents of climate science "will criticise that policy too with as much vehemence as they denounce Gillard's carbon tax".

Turnbull doesn't run away from the moral dimension. Not only will the consequences of climate change be felt by our children, it will be felt by the poorest in the world and by those who have contributed least to the problem. "There's a grave injustice here," he said. "When people say it's not a moral issue, they're wrong."

Turnbull told the story of an unnamed "distinguished environment minister from our region" who thought "human selfishness and greed was so great that there would be no effective action to reduce greenhouse emissions, and by the end of the century our planet would be uninhabitable for billions of people."
As he listened to those words, Turnbull said he "felt a chill going down my spine".

You couldn't help but wonder how these words will be greeted inside the Liberal Party.

Throughout the speech, Turnbull was at pains to cover himself politically. He criticised Gillard and cast no aspersions on Abbott's direct action policy. He noted that "a successful climate change mitigation policy does not depend on one particular policy."

But his fears are obvious. "The rejection of the consensus scientific position is not Liberal Party policy," he offered optimistically.

On the carbon tax, he said: "We must not allow opposition to one policy to undermine or diminish our commitment to take climate change seriously."

At the end of the speech, Turnbull tackled the thorny question at the heart of Australia's climate change debate: the future of the coal industry.

If the target cuts are to be achieved by mid-century, he said, energy will need to be generated by zero emission sources. If coal is to remain an energy source, its emissions have to be captured.

Turnbull acknowledged the reality that Australia exported close to $60 billion of coal in 2009. This explained the vested interest that some have in muddying the waters on climate science in order to prolong the life of coal exports. It's akin, he said, to the tobacco companies who once sought to deny the connection between smoking and cancer.

The vested interest in coal that we should have, he said, is in developing carbon capture and storage. Yet the Government led by Gillard - "a woman fond of a hard hat" - has cut funding for research and development in this area. Coal producers and the Gillard Government know we won't reach the targets by mid-century, so "what are we to make of their inaction?"

It's a good question. The answer lies somewhere in the futile campaign Gillard has waged these past two weeks in attempting to shore up the Labor vote in supposedly Labor seats. It lies in the god-awful speeches and slogans Gillard and Abbott deliver with all the pretend conviction they can muster as they travel the country in their perpetual campaigns against each other.

For a time last night, however, it was difficult not to be impressed by a very different kind of speech from Turnbull. Even as it disturbed you, it lifted you up.

Unlike Abbott, Turnbull sounded like he knew what he was talking about. Unlike Gillard, he sounded like he believed it.

He spoke to his audience, not at them. It was individual, evocative, classy even, with none of Abbott's menace or Gillard's awkwardness.

Online, the speech caused a flurry of interest. Not all of it was supportive, but most seemed to be inspired.
In one sense, the speech was unremarkable. It contained little that was new. The Age reported it this morning in six paragraphs.

But in its clarity and conviction it captured the tragedy of our politics. On the one hand, a feeble government led by a prime minister hopelessly compromised. On the other, a lightweight but rampaging opposition entranced by impending victory. Turnbull represents some kind of middle ground that both sides are either unwilling or unable to move to. Like Kevin Rudd, he's in political purgatory.

As the space shuttle Atlantis returned to earth last night, one day after the anniversary of the first moon landing, many wondered whether the scientific achievement has stalled. When will humans next reach for a vision beyond themselves?

Halfway around the world, one Australian politician was asking the same question.

Malcolm Farnsworth publishes He tweets about politics as @mfarnsworth.

Unedited speech including audio

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