WHEN climate change guru Al Gore arrives in Melbourne today, he will find a conservation movement in vitriolic disagreement with itself.
A split has developed between the country's pre-eminent environmental organisation, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), and a bloc of other green lobbyists over the foundation's public support for the Rudd Government's carbon trading scheme.
Both sides will be looking to Mr Gore for any sign that he endorses their position.
ACF chief Don Henry, along with the Climate Institute and WWF, gave public endorsement to the Government's scheme in May, applauding its 25 per cent conditional target for emission reduction. Their comments were promoted by Kevin Rudd and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong.
Mr Henry argued it was "an acceptable starting point" in this year of international climate change negotiations.
But Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society and state-based conservation councils were angered at what they saw as a cynical political compromise. They argue 25 per cent is far too little and, in any event, will never be achieved given the conditions placed by the Government.
They recently launched their "plan B", which included a series of carbon reduction ideas but not a trading scheme, which is the centrepiece of the Government's policy.
The ACF lost members over its stance, including prominent former employee Dr Mark Diesendorf, who said the group had made "a terrible mistake".
Until now, rival organisations have been reluctant to publicly express their anger because of an unspoken agreement that they be polite to each other. But climate campaigner Clive Hamilton has declared the end of that agreement. He told The Sunday Age that Mr Henry and ACF president Ian Lowe were used by Mr Rudd and Senator Wong, that the ACF had been "done over" and had made a "serious strategic error" that would allow the Government to lock in bad policy for decades.
Mr Henry said it was the first time he had ever heard personal criticism of his position.
Mr Gore, a Nobel Prize winner and former US vice-president, is addressing two groups during his flying visit — the ACF's "climate summit" and a new think tank called Safe Climate Australia.
Mr Gore will launch Safe Climate Australia at an invitation-only Docklands breakfast tomorrow in front of a 1000-strong crowd from the investment, science and political communities. The group will not buy into the political debate as it tries to raise $1.5 million a year to find ways to "de-carbonise" the Australian economy.
In the political context, though, Mr Gore's every utterance will be closely watched.
Mr Henry, who is close to Mr Gore, wrote in a May email to members that "Al Gore has let me know that he thinks it is 'great news' that Australia has moved to the 25 per cent target".
But Mr Hamilton, author of Scorcher, the Dirty Politics of Climate Change, said he hoped to see Mr Gore "seriously criticise" the Government's target, though he conceded he was more likely to avoid the topic altogether.
Mr Gore has been dancing around a similar split in the US over its carbon trading legislation, the Waxman-Markey Bill. He has supported that law, which includes a 23 per cent emissions cut, despite the complaint that it lacks ambition and includes too many compromises.
Amplifying these splits is a broader argument over what carbon target the world should be aiming for. Whereas political forums, including Copenhagen later this year, aim at best to stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide at 450 parts per million, an assertive group of scientists and activists argue that the planet can afford no more than 350 parts per million.
The atmosphere currently contains 385 parts per million, and growing. A 350 target means creating a zero-emissions economy almost immediately — the cessation of coal-fired power, finding an alternative to fossil fuel for transport, refitting buildings and industry for energy efficiency, and reinventing agriculture. Hence the need for a Safe Climate Australia think tank to work out how to get there.
The 350 argument is moving into the mainstream. Mr Gore is a "350 man", and even the ACF has now adopted it as a target, though other activists are puzzled at how they reconcile this with their agreement with the Government.
Mr Henry said the fight was over tactics, not policy.
But Mr Hamilton and others, such as the author of Climate Code Red, David Spratt, say Mr Henry's position is a betrayal. Mr Spratt has described the deal with the Government as a "political strategy that will lead to disaster", while Mr Hamilton says the ACF has been a political patsy. "When the election comes along, the Rudd Government is going to use the ACF endorsement of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme for all it's worth."