Global warming is not amenable to political compromises.
PROFESSOR Ross Garnaut, as an economic adviser to a succession of state and federal Labor governments and the author of the climate change report that initially shaped the government response to global warming and led to the legislation setting up the emissions trading scheme, is a man who chooses his words very carefully.
In response to a question last week on The 7.30 Report about whether it really mattered whether the ETS was passed by the Senate before or after the climate change conference at Copenhagen in December, he replied: ''Well, I think this whole process of policy making over the ETS has been one of the worst examples of policy making we have seen on major issues in Australia.''
Given Australia's history, this is a big statement. But it is true. The substantive issue - global warming and how to deal with it - has been put aside by both the Government and the Coalition in the search for political advantage.
The Greens (and some environment lobbies) that want to negotiate a better ETS are in danger of making the same mistake as the Democrats, whose support evaporated after the leadership was seduced by the Howard government into passing the goods-and-services tax. They misunderstood the purpose of third-party politics as it is understood by their supporters.
Green parliamentarians privately understand that better ETS schemes than the carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS) have not worked elsewhere and, once passed, the CPRS will lock Australia into an expensive polluters' rort for 11 years. Do the Greens want to be identified with that?
The danger is that the central message - that the science of global warming is immutable - will become blurred. It is now up to the Greens to keep the central message alive, that solutions to global warming are not amenable to political compromises.
The Greens' credibility with environmentalists (including those from the major parties) depends on advancing policy that is consistent with the science and proportionate to the impending crisis. How else to turn public opinion around before the consequences of climate change become obvious, but too late to reverse?
The issue requires leadership. It is clear that Kevin Rudd won't and Malcolm Turnbull can't. Therefore, an enraged public opinion is the only option to force Rudd to put climate change before the vested interests of the coal industry, and to create the political space to allow Turnbull (who gives the impression of understanding the climate issue) the space to take the Coalition in the right direction.
Without parliamentary leadership offering clear, consistent support and hope to grassroots campaigners, the danger is that activists will begin not-so-civil disobedience activities and the concerned middle will lapse into fatalistic apathy.
The Copenhagen climate change meeting will not be our salvation for the simple reason that, like other developed countries, Australia is not willing to sign up to ambitious enough targets. European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso says that unless the 250-page draft text for the meeting is sorted out, ''it risks becoming the longest and most global suicide note in history''.
Australia's carbon pollution reduction scheme is a Luddite's delight. The CPRS is structured so that the coal industry, including Victoria's brown coal, can expand, providing it can expand its export markets.
All the coal industry and other heavy polluters have to do to meet their carbon reduction obligations is to purchase carbon credits from unlogged rainforests or some other equally dubious ''emissions reduction'' offset scam from developing countries such as Papua New Guinea or Indonesia. (The credits are similar in nature to the ''indulgences'' that were sold by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages so the rich could continue sinning without fear of going to hell.)
Treasury modelling of the CPRS from 2005 to 2050 shows that Australian emissions will still be above the 1990 baseline until after 2035.
Unless global emissions peak in the next five years, it becomes nearly impossible to avoid two degrees of warming. Containing global warming to two degrees is no longer acceptable. The latest science suggests that a two-degree rise means there will be no Arctic sea ice, Greenland and the Himalayas will be past their melting tipping points, and in Australia the probable destruction of the Murray-Goulburn basin as our most important agricultural production zone and the death of the Great Barrier Reef.
The risk of destruction of Australian economic assets, even with two degrees of warming, is in the order of tens of billions of dollars. Incremental politics won't do. While the Greens' amendments to the CPRS are a mile ahead of the major parties, they are still well short of what needs to be done for a safe climate.