Opening Remarks: Climate Integrity Summit | Richard Denniss

Richard Denniss delivers the opening remarks to the Climate Integrity Summit.

There’s probably no greater test of our integrity as individuals, or as communities, than climate action.

Thank you, Auntie Violet, for your warm welcome. I’m proud to be standing here on Ngunnawal land this morning, and your welcome is the perfect introduction to what we want to talk about today, which is integrity. Talking about your grandchildren, talking about how you want to picture your granddaughter, thinking about future generations is what tackling climate change is all about.

Because we’re literally trying to make decisions today that will help other people in the future. And we don’t have to.

Let’s be clear, we don’t have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We don’t have to transition our economy. We don’t have to stop building new coal mines, or new gas wells.

It’s a democracy. We are free to be as nasty, and selfish, and greedy as we want. There is nothing in the Constitution that says we should be nice. It wasn’t a joke. There’s nothing in there, there’s no obligation on us. There is no obligation on the people we elect to make good decisions that will help future generations, let alone ourselves in ten or twenty years’ time.

To be clear, we are already experiencing the harms of climate change.

To be clear, they will get a lot worse if we collectively don’t change course.

So we’re here at the Climate Integrity Summit, so thank you so much for coming. But let us be crystal clear. Everything that we talk about in relation to climate change, and particularly climate policy, is a test of our integrity. Because we don’t have to care about Vanuatu. We don’t have to care about future generations. We can choose to. And unfortunately, as someone who takes politics seriously, as someone who takes democracy very seriously, I say this purely as a description, it is easy for politicians to promise things and not do them.

This is not a new phenomenon, but usually we find out quite quickly how big the gap is between the promise and the delivery. And with climate change, we literally don’t have time.

A), because we’ve spent 30 years promising and not delivering, the science says we’re running out of time.

And B), the consequences of our actions are irreversible. We can cut spending on a program today and reinitiate it in five years’ time. In five years, people might have missed out on it. But if we cause climate change in the next 20 years, we don’t get to refreeze the polar ice caps.

So I hate to say it, it’s a semantic point, but we have to be careful not to say ‘we have to do this’, ‘we must do that.’ We don’t have to do anything. But if we act with integrity, if we take the evidence seriously, if we take our obligations to our children and our future generations and other countries seriously, if, and that’s a big if, if we act with integrity, we have no choice but to act.

But the word integrity is not mentioned in the Constitution.

Australia is the third largest exporter of fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Australia. We are the third largest exporter of fossil fuels, and there are currently 114 new fossil fuel projects in the development pipeline in Australia. 114 new ones.

The IEA says that we can meet a 1.5 degree target without building any new coal or gas anywhere in the world. That’s the IEA.

The U.N. Secretary General says we don’t need any new coal and gas, the UNFCCC says we don’t need any new coal and gas. And in Australia, the third largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world, the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, the second largest exporter of coal. Australia wants to more than double its fossil fuel production. But of course, in Australia we know we’re committed to tackling climate change, right? You know that, we had a climate election, right? There was a swing to the Greens. There was the swing to the teals. The public made clear, the government was elected, it announced a 43% emission reduction target.

Australia’s promising to reduce its emissions and committed to expanding its fossil fuel production. And the only thing that fills the gap in that rhetoric are accounting tricks.

Carbon credits of dubious merit, and the accounting distinction between coal that’s mined in Australia and coal that’s burned in Australia.

Because while it’s exciting that we’ve stopped the coal mine only ten kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef because we’re afraid of runoff. Let’s be clear, we wouldn’t want to harm the reef with runoff, but if you want to build a coal mine 100 kilometres away, or you want to build 114 new fossil fuel projects that will destroy the reef, well, that’s quite different isn’t it? Because we managed the runoff problem, we just aren’t quite ready to act on climate change consequences.

It doesn’t matter who burns our coal, it will cause our climate change. It doesn’t matter who burns our gas, it will cause climate change.

Accounting distinctions between who will burn it are irrelevant to the atmosphere, but they’re very relevant for politicians simultaneously trying to tell voters they’re acting, and tell the fossil fuel industry that their expansion plans are fine by them. Is that integrity? I don’t know.

Today we’re going to talk about what climate integrity might mean, in a range of different spheres. Everyone has their own sense of integrity. I find it hard to understand how expanding fossil fuels and urgent climate action can fit together in a cohesive whole.

One version of integrity challenges us to think about the collective, not the individual.

So thank you for coming today, I just want to wrap up where I started. Thank you again, Auntie Violet, for your welcome. Thank you for encouraging us to think about future generations. I think Australia has a lot to learn from Indigenous cultures. I’m excited that Karrina Nolan will be speaking this afternoon about the role that Indigenous communities must play in understanding our transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. But of course that assumes we do really want to make that transition. So thank you for coming. Thank you for caring about the issue of integrity. We may not agree on what the definition of integrity is, but hopefully by the time I’m wrapping up this afternoon we’ll all be a lot closer to that. Thank you very much.

— Richard Denniss, Executive Director of the Australia Institute, at the Climate Integrity Summit.

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