ABC Newcastle: 1/08/17

August 01, 2017




SUBJECT/S: Climate Wars, climate change, just transition, Paris Agreement, global attitudes on climate change action

GARTH RUSSELL: Climate change is one of those divisive topics for our politicians to say the least. With not a lot of decision making happening on either side of politics due to the constant arguments around the issues, and we know the issues in the Hunter only too well, one of them is jobs. But like it or not the future of our climate is on the national agenda. Mark Butler is the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, he is in the Hunter today to launch his new book Climate Wars at the University of Newcastle and he joins me in the studio this morning. Mark Butler, good morning to you.     


RUSSELL: You must be multi-skilled, a politician and an author?

BUTLER: Well really the book reflects my job, which is to talk about climate change and energy policy on behalf of the Labor Party. It really is an extraordinary privilege to be a Minister or a Shadow Minister in just the number of people you talk to who are passionate, who are informed, who are thinking about these issues really whatever your portfolio. I was previously in health portfolios, social policy, and I had the same experience. Really people are very generous with their ideas, whether they are here in the Hunter or across in WA. I think having a culture where politicians reduce those thoughts in an extended way into a book is something you see a lot in other countries, like the UK and the US, you don’t see it so much here and I’d like to see more of it. The royalties from this book go to the Alzheimer’s Australia foundation, as did the royalties from my last book. It’s not an earning venture; I see it as part of our job. Any royalties, if anyone does happen to buy the book, should go to a good cause like that.  

RUSSELL: Would it be fair to say that some politicians get more engaged in their portfolios than others? It sounds like you’re one that really does immerse yourself in the portfolio you have? 

BUTLER: Well this is an incredibly challenging portfolio. Intellectually challenging, it is obviously politically difficult, which is the subject matter of the book. I was listening to a few of your listeners who were calling in to your program Garth, I think people get that this has been a highly contested area for Australian politics for a number of years now. So we have to find a way to break through this and develop the sort of consensus around this issue that you see in a number of other countries. The United Kingdom is a great example. They don’t fight over this anymore; they just talk about which policies they should put in place. The sort of political fight of whether climate change is real or whether we should do renewable energy or not, you don’t see that in most countries of the world. I would like Australia to get to that position because this is a critically challenging issue for Australia. We are a vulnerable continent; we’re seeing that in terms of rainfall patterns in vast parts of the continent already. We already have heat events which push right up against the limits of human tolerance; we are going to see more of them. We can’t mess around for too much longer, we have to come to grips with this.  

RUSSELL: The economics of climate change policy is another thing. Is that another reason why you’ve chosen the Hunter to launch this book? I’ll ask you in a moment a bit more about this, but why the Hunter?

BUTLER: My job as the Shadow Minister is to travel around the country and talk about my policy areas. Really there is no better area of Australia, if you want to talk about energy policy, to visit than the Hunter. You really have the best expertise here in the country around electricity policy in particular. We’re not getting rid of electricity, if anything we are going to need more electricity in the future as we electrify our transport system with electric vehicles and so on. So I try to come here relatively regularly, a number of times a year. I’m up at the University of Newcastle, talking to the Institute of Energy and Resources this morning. I was at the Eraring Power Station yesterday afternoon. I’m having a roundtable with Sharon Claydon, and the Lord Mayor, later today about the transition in our economy. This really is a hotbed for ideas about energy, whether it is 20th century energy systems or 21st century energy systems. Some of which are really being developed at the CSIRO here in Newcastle, the Institute, the centre for organic electronics and many other enveloping pushing innovations that we see here.    

RUSSELL: People are concerned about the climate but people are also concerned about their jobs, particularly in this region. What do you say to a miner or a company that is reliant on the coal mining industry, who employs hundreds of people, about this transition? It is one thing to transition energy but it is another thing to transition jobs and have jobs for people that have been doing a certain type of job for generations.

BUTLER: This is really one of the core missions of the Labor Party and it has been since we were formed 130 years ago. Inevitably these transitions come along in our economies and the job of a Labor government is to manage them in the best possible the way. The gold standard for that are the Hawke and Keating governments of the 1980s and 1990s. We could have done that very differently, we could have done it in the way Margaret Thatcher did in Britain, and in the way Ronald Regan did in America, where there was not a lot of government support for adjustment programs. Not a lot of government support to make sure those industries and communities were able to get through what was essentially a global phenomenon. It wasn’t something thought up in Australia, these are global economic shifts. We are very focused on making sure particularly in the fossil fuel sector, which is going to be at the pointy end of this transition over the coming decades, that there is a lot of support in the government to make sure, in the words of the Paris Climate Agreement, that this is a just transition. That is a very strong focus of mine and also Pat Conroy, who is a local member in the Hunter Valley area and who is my assistant Shadow Minister. His particular focus is on that just transition question.

RUSSELL: Mark Butler is my guest this morning, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, and in the Hunter to launch his book Climate Wars. You talk to Joel Fitzgibbon who obviously is responsible for being a local member in this region; he’s pretty pragmatic about jobs, about how you transition. Do you have conversations with him about his concerns from his constituents?

BUTLER: Regularly, he is a close Shadow Cabinet colleague. I work closely with him really in two respects. Firstly as a senior member of the caucus from the Hunter Valley he has a very deep particular experience and knowledge - 

RUSSELL: Do you agree with his concerns about holding onto those jobs or phasing it out in a way that is not going to have a huge economic impact in this region?

BUTLER: Of course. As I’ve said, whether it is Pat Conroy, Sharon Claydon, Meryl Swanson, Joel Fitzgibbon, we are all focused in a very clear way on making sure that this is a transition that is managed responsibly -

RUSSELL: Because it is about storytelling. It’s about telling the right story where you can be really specific and not sort of make general comments.

BUTLER: That’s right.

RUSSELL: You’ve got to be able to give people a sense that there are specific ways that they can find other work.

BUTLER: That’s right and I think Joel, Pat and others are placing a real premium on being honest with people. At the end of the day the export coal mining operations in the Hunter Valley for example, their future is not going to be determined by Canberra, their future is going to be determined in Mumbai, New Delhi, in China and all those other export markets which are starting to reduce their reliance on thermal coal exports. Now choking coal is a different question that will continue to be strong for a very long time because we don’t have other ways of making steel. But if you just look at the use of coal for power generation in China and India, which really are the two big growth markets, we know that there is a decline coming in the global market. Now the Hunter Valley is probably the best coal you can export into that market so it’ll probably be the last market to be impacted by that. But there is no question that it will be impacted.

We also know that some of the power stations across New South Wales and Victoria in particular, which are getting towards the end of their design life, are going to have to be replaced. We are very focused on the workforce in the electricity industry, particularly the coal-fired part of the industry, much of which was built in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, is also very strongly supported to manage this transition.

RUSSELL: One quick question, I guess globally what are your concerns about where the US stands at the moment, under the Trump Administration? 

BUTLER: The US is obviously always important in these big geopolitical questions. I think the really interesting thing out of the Paris Agreement was the leadership of other nation. Europe obviously has been very strong in this area for some time; China’s leadership was very strong. They are not shifting just because there has been a change of perspective in the White House. Interestingly, within the United States there is not a big shift happening. Unlike in Australia, a lot of the drive there is at a state level. States like California and New York, which combined is something like the sixth or seventh biggest economy in the world, they’ve still got 50 per cent renewable energy targets for 2030, which is Labor’s position in Australia. They are not changing their position. The private sector is not changing its view that it is moving to low-carbon economy investment opportunities in America. There might be some slowing down in the US because of the Trump factor but it is certainly not going to be a reversal of the momentum that had built up under President Obama during his second-term.  

RUSSELL: We’ve got a question here from Louise, we’ve asked people to contribute, she says it is health, education and transport that matters. Have you looked at any of these issues while you are here?  

BUTLER: I spent a lot of time looking at health when I was here in my previous portfolio. For many years I was a health minister, Minister for Ageing, Mental Health, Housing and so on and so forth. So those are really responsibilities for other portfolio shadows but I entirely agree that the day to day priorities for Australian households at the moment are around cost of living. Are around making sure that if their child or their parent gets sick, or needs some aged care, that those services are available, high quality and affordable.

Climate change is a longer term challenge but it is a challenge we need to think about because as it becomes more immediate, as we see the impacts of climate change unfold before our eyes, there are going to be health impacts. There are going to be impacts on the security of our infrastructure. Particularly in coastal regions like the one you and I live in. I’m from Port Adelaide; an enormous amount of our infrastructure is going to be impacted over the course of the coming decade by sea level rises. So I don’t pretend that this is the most important issue facing households this morning as we’re talking to your listeners in Newcastle but it is something that the Australian political system has to come to grips with and frankly it hasn’t’ sufficiently over the last ten years.

RUSSELL: Young people are concerned about the politics that is being played in climate change. Do you have any answers as to how it can be more bipartisan? That the politics can be taken out of this issue?

BUTLER: I really draw hope from a number of other countries around the world, and particularly the UK. Given our long ties with the United Kingdom have a look over there; see what they have done there over the last few years, particularly since David Cameron took over the leadership of the Tory Party. They don’t fight about this issue, even though their politics is heavily divided, heavily contested. It looks a bit chaotic after the Brexit vote. They are still engaged in a rally ambitious program of lowering their carbon footprint, putting in place much more renewable energy than Australia, which is extraordinary really. In 2015 the UK installed four times as much solar energy as Australia did. That small island where it seems to me the sun shines about three days a year, put in place four times as much solar as Australia, this vast sunny continent. They are doing great things and the reason why they are doing it is because they have put aside the politics.

RUSSELL: Do you think it is more likely to happen under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership if he shows his true colours?

BUTLER: There is an important opportunity here. The Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, gave a report to all of the governments: the New South Wales government, the Commonwealth, and other state governments a couple of months ago now. He recommended a Clean Energy Target as a way forward. That is not our preferred policy position but Federal Labor has said we will sit down and work with Malcolm Turnbull to break the climate wars and try and get a bipartisan position to introduce some certainty into energy policy. Because we know that the policy paralysis is the key thing driving power prices up. The Chief Scientist has said that, the industry has said that, it is beyond doubt now. The next parliamentary sitting, we go back to Canberra next week, really is an opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to get some authority from his party room, sit down with us and start to develop bipartisan policy.

RUSSELL: Nice link to your book Climate Wars there, thank you very much for coming in and enjoy the rest of your time in the Hunter.

BUTLER: Thanks Garth.