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I first encountered Christiana Figueres when I was Minister for Climate Change in the Rudd Government.
We were leaders in our respective delegations at international climate meetings.
Both countries – one developed, one developing – working hard to shape a global solution.
It was not that long ago, but a different world.
It was before the first shots were really fired in Australia’s decade-long climate wars…
…When there was still bipartisan support – albeit fledgling – for the need to tackle climate change, and for serious economy-wide reform to reduce emissions.
…Before hysterical fear campaigns from Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott blew up any progress in preparing Australia for a changing climate.
In December 2007, Kevin Rudd’s first act as Prime Minister was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, signalling to the world that Australia wanted to be part of the global solution in tackling climate change.
Within two years, I had legislated a 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target (increasing renewable energy by four times) and secured a deal with Malcolm Turnbull for an economy-wide emissions trading scheme – the most comprehensive response on climate change anywhere in the world.
It was the framework to set Australia on a path to lower emissions.
Before the Senate could vote on the deal, Tony Abbott tore down Turnbull and began a years-long campaign on what he called a “great big new tax on everything”.
With Australia’s conservative parties overrun by reactionary forces, any attempt at serious climate action – from the Gillard Government’s price on carbon to the Turnbull Government’s National Energy Guarantee – has been sabotaged.
And Australia’s emissions keep rising.
The short-sightedness of all this is that – as we knew then and warned at the time – Australia would be hit hard and early by climate change.
Indeed, the Garnaut Review, commissioned by Kevin Rudd as Opposition Leader, told us in 2008 that
“fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense”.
In fact, he forecast that:
“This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.”
Australians do not need any persuasion of the risk climate change presents to our safety, wellbeing and economy. They can see, smell and feel the climate changing around them.
They are not interested in ideological wars over whether climate change is real, or marketing-speak glossing over why the climate is changing.
The science is settled.
They have seen what a future of a changing climate looks like.
Just as Australians expected political leaders to put the nation first in protecting them from this summer’s bushfires, they now expect political leaders to put the nation first in protecting them from the impacts of climate change.
We have to get on with it.
We need to build the consensus and find the common ground we need to deliver the reductions in emissions demanded by the science.
We need to have less focus on the absolutists on both ends of the spectrum, who have in their own ways stymied progress.
We need to work together: those of us who want action on climate change must work to bring people with us.
We have to end the climate wars – to channel the energy being used fighting each other into tackling climate change.
And we all need to take responsibility for reducing emissions.
It is not going to cut it to just spin lines like ‘Australia produces only 1.3 per cent of global emissions’.
There are two reasons.
First, Australia is, in fact, a major emitter.
For a population of our size, 1.3 per cent is a very big number. In fact, per head of population, Australia is the biggest emitter on the planet. We may be 1.3 per cent of emissions but we are only around 0.3 per cent of the world’s population.
Second, as much or more than any other country, Australia needs the world to act.
So we cannot go to the negotiating table with a hopelessly weak hand – with a complete absence of credibility – asking everyone else to do the work that we won’t do ourselves.
One of the best examples of the shortcomings of the Morrison Government’s approach is its use of “carryover credits” – effectively a dodgy accounting trick in place of actual emissions reductions – to meet their inadequate targets.
Last week in Senate Estimates, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade admitted that:
“There was no other country that advocated or supported that position.”
DFAT also admitted that even the Conservative UK Government wants Scott Morrison to stop using carryover credits, saying:
“The UK Government has expressed a view that their preference would be that the Australian Government wasn’t utilising Kyoto credits.”
Nine top international law Professors wrote to the Prime Minister advising the Government’s plan to use so-called Kyoto carryover credits is “legally baseless in international law”.
This isn’t who we are. As Australians, we pull our weight.
We don’t sit back in a crisis and say, it’s not our doing. As the world faced fascist expansionism, we didn’t sit around in 1940 and say, “sorry, we’re only a fraction of the population”. Nor have we ever since.
I know in political debates we often oversimplify complex problems, but the fact is on climate change, you’re either part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution.
You are either reducing emissions on a path to net zero by 2050 – as the science says we must – or you are condemning the world to dangerous – indeed catastrophic – climate change.
Someone who has steadfastly been part of the solution – to help us get on this path to net zero by 2050 – is Christiana.
She was appointed to the role of Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – and charged with the responsibility of leading international climate change negotiations after the disheartening result of the Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Copenhagen in 2009.
Copenhagen had failed because of the deep and entrenched division – largely between developed and developing nations.
Global momentum, political will, and the concern of citizens around the world, built in the lead up to Copenhagen. The opportunity for progress had never been greater.
In Copenhagen, the most powerful people in the world were gathered in one room. Collectively, they could have done anything.
I will never forget the claustrophobic room in the Copenhagen convention centre where leaders and ministers from 20-odd countries met through the night, desperate to clinch a deal – in the so-called ‘summit within the summit’.
Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Kevin Rudd, and like-minded leaders, imploring other countries to do more.
Likewise I will always remember President Mohamed Nasheed reminding the conference of the existential threat climate change represented to the Maldives and other low-lying countries.
And still, Copenhagen failed to reach the agreement necessary to protect the planet, and all of us, from the worst impacts of climate change.
In the dark days that followed, reaching global agreement to tackle climate change seemed impossible.
It was an attitude that Christiana admits weighed heavily on her when she assumed the role of Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.
It was her job to facilitate the creation of global consensus.
But how was she going to take that debate forward from the depths of despair following Copenhagen?
Christiana talks about the need for a change in attitude. Her own attitude – and the attitude of leaders around the world.
She recognised the need to cast aside the sense of inevitability that comes with an attitude of impossibility.
Christiana championed a new style of international diplomacy. She capitalised on the reality that climate change is a problem that no one nation can tackle alone – and that we all must take responsibility and do our bit if we are going to overcome it.
When confronted with national governments which refused to take responsibility and recognise the need for urgency – she looked to sub-national governments.
Christiana brought together national and sub-national governments, corporations and financial institutions, and civil society.
She worked to build an infrastructure that allowed leadership amongst and collaboration between regional and city governments, and gave them a platform to contribute to the international debate.
It was an approach that helped to circumvent the intransigence of our own government.
When the government now led by Scott Morrison displayed no sign of taking the urgent action we know is necessary, and refused to play the leadership role we need to internationally – state and territory governments stepped up.
Under the leadership of my good friends, former Premier Jay Weatherill and Minister for Climate Change, Ian Hunter (who is here tonight), South Australia developed an ambitious Climate Change Strategy. The Weatherill Government shared its knowledge and experience with other sub-national governments as Co-Chair of the Climate Group’s States and Regions Alliance.
It was this kind of optimism, paired with political pragmatism, which helped to deliver international agreement in Paris in 2015.
And key to the success was overcoming the attitude of impossibility – and finding consensus.
…Overcoming entrenched views and positions that had seized negotiations and stopped progress.
It is a lesson we must continue to learn from.
In this book, Christiana and Tom remind us that we have a choice. That the future is not inevitable.
Christiana and Tom show us two futures. One in which the world continues to hurtle towards the most damaging impacts of climate change, and one in which we embrace the opportunities of a low-carbon future.
That future is painted optimistically. Coloured with the benefits that a transition to a low carbon economy will have for all of us. Skilled and sustainable jobs, cleaner, more efficient and cheaper technologies, more liveable and healthier cities and towns.
And as Anthony Albanese has made clear as he emphasises the economic benefits of climate action, existing jobs in traditional industries will be critical in enabling emerging industries.
I make this point because in politics, it is often said that fear is the greatest motivator.
We know that fear has been exploited by those who do not want action. Fear for what we might lose, fear for how we might suffer, fear that we might not be the winners.
And for many of us – fear that our path forward is inevitable, that the future we have left for our children is dark.
We have to build a new consensus for action and leave the climate wars in the past.
Christiana’s contribution to the success that culminated in the Paris Agreement has been recognised around the world.
By governments, civil society, the media – in the naming in her honour of a tropical moth, an orchid – even a wasp (which I guess is flattering in its way!).
It is my hope that history will recognise her contribution even more profoundly.
For that to happen, national governments like our own must step up their action in meeting the commitments we have signed up to in the Paris Agreement.
It is within our reach. We have wasted too many years. We have to get on with it.
It is my distinct pleasure to introduce Christiana Figueres.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.