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Make Polluters Pay

Speeches in Parliament
Adam Bandt 24 May 2021

They knew. They knew. The big coal, oil and gas corporations knew, in some cases as far back as the 1970s, that their product was causing damage and could kill people, but they went ahead and did it anyway. But, just as the law caught up with the asbestos corporations and the tobacco corporations, who knowingly caused harm, so now must the law catch up with these big coal, oil and gas corporations. And that's what this bill will do.

This is a bill for every tourism business that depends on the beauty of nature—unburnt forests, clean rivers free from algal blooms, a healthy ocean not overrun with acidification, and a Great Barrier Reef absent of deathly white bleaching. 

It is a bill for every farmer that will again suffer through drought and everyone who lost their home in raging infernos during the fires of 2019 and 2020 or the floods of our last summer. 
This is a chance for justice for everyone bearing the brunt of the climate crisis and a chance to make the polluters pay for some of the costs of their pollution. The polluters knew decades ago the economic harm they would cause to businesses, families and communities everywhere, but they went ahead and did it. And, just as the law caught up with asbestos and tobacco companies, now it is catching up with the climate polluters too.

COVID has occupied our recent memories, but we cannot forget the megafires that were of a scale we'd never seen before, flipping over eight-tonne fire trucks and tearing through 13 million hectares. It was made possible because of a prolonged deep drought. Over two long months we lived through dust storms, heatwaves, floods, hailstorms and smoke over our two biggest cities and our capital city, for days on end. 

Estimates of the damages from these disasters ranged from $4.4 billion, if we narrowly define 'damage' to physical assets and infrastructure, up to a more credible $100 billion, if we include tourism losses, human health and ecological destruction. 

The climate crisis will cause many multiples more damage than the recession that COVID inflicted, and it will permanently impair or destroy businesses. But, unlike COVID, with climate damage we know exactly who is to blame. We know who is pillaging profits at the expense of every single one of us who cherishes our children's future. 

The answer is coal, oil and gas corporations. Their business of mining, fracking, burning and exporting their products has turbocharged these natural disasters. They have been profiting from their pollution. With the brief exception of two years during the carbon price, they have never had to pay a cent for the damage that they are inflicting on our society. 

Minister Hunt and Minister Dutton and former Ministers O'Dwyer, Brough and Pyne are famously photographed in this chamber celebrating the legislation that abandoned these polluters having to pick up some of the tab for their carnage, instead pushing the cost onto taxpayers. 

This latest budget saw a government funded insurance scheme for natural disasters in northern Queensland and multiple new funding streams for natural disasters, but, in the very same budget, a staggering $1.1 billion in new funding for coal, oil and gas companies was revealed. Then, the very next week, the government committed a further $600 million for a new gas generator and $2.3 billion in subsidies for oil. It is crazy.

People feel helpless. They feel anxious and they feel frustrated at politicians who are protecting their political donors—the big corporations—and are not doing what is needed to keep the Australian community safe. 

The Prime Minister often says it's the first responsibility of government to keep people safe, but, when it comes to climate damage, he is putting us all in harm's way so that his corporate and billionaire donors and supporters can keep making a buck.

This bill, the Liability for Climate Change Damage (Make the Polluters Pay) Bill 2021, will ensure that victims of the bushfire crisis and victims of other climate impacts will have a pathway to hold big corporations responsible for the damage that they have helped cause. 

In October 2016, Noel Hutley SC issued a legal advice on climate change and the responsibilities on company directors. He said that, in his opinion, section 181 of the Corporations Act—which puts a duty of care and diligence on directors—extends to them a responsibility to consider the risks of climate change.

The advice that climate change is a fiduciary duty has since been cited approvingly by our major regulators—ASIC, APRA and the Reserve Bank—who are all now working on their own regulatory frameworks to manage climate risk.

This bill will clarify the situation under Australian law. What this bill does is put it beyond doubt that the coal, oil and gas companies are liable for the climate damage they have contributed to. 

This will give survivors of natural disasters the legal right to bring an action against these corporations for damages. It will allow businesses who have been hurt by the climate crisis to bring action against those big corporations who've contributed to it. It will allow farmers affected by the record drought to bring actions against those who have contributed to it.

It will allow the Federal Court to determine the amount of damages that the major emitters are liable for. When deciding, the court may assume that the major emitter's share of the climate change damage is at least the same as their proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, to total global greenhouse gas emissions, and may even apportion a higher share of damages if that's appropriate, especially taking into account what the corporations actually knew. 

It will also give state and federal governments the right to seek reimbursement for the damage to public infrastructure, the expenses involved in responding to climate induced disasters, and the cost of analysing, monitoring and researching weather systems and our rapidly changing climate systems. This is fair. The message to the big corporations is very simple: if you broke it, you buy it. You are liable for contributing to the cost of the damages that people are suffering. 

These companies have known what they have been doing and the damage they are causing, just like with big tobacco, who knew their cigarettes caused cancer for decades but kept on selling their product, and just like with asbestos. It is time to hold these big corporations to account.

We know that at least since 1990, when the world was put on notice by the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, every corporation knew, from that day onwards every corporation knew, that their product, wherever it was burnt, was contributing to this damage. This bill will make them liable from at least that day onwards. But some knew even earlier. 

In an internal memo from 15 May 1981, the President of ExxonMobil Research & Engineering Co. was briefed that, at predicted rates of fossil fuel growth, within 100 years there would likely be a three-degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures and a 10-degree Celsius rise in temperature at the poles. These corporations knew, sometimes as far back as the 1970s. 

The law caught up with the asbestos companies and the tobacco companies when it was proved that they knew. We know these big corporations knew at least as late as 1990 but possibly in the 1980s and possibly in the 1970s, and so they should be liable for the damage that they have knowingly caused.

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