Our PM has proclaimed himself a climate realist. But what does that mean? It should be interesting to see the newly minted superstar ministers –  investment banking lawyer Malcolm Turnbull and rock star activist lawyer Peter Garrett – clash horns over their respective slants on that question this evening on The 7:30 Report. The real nail biter is whether Kerry will be able to get a word in.

In politics there is never ‘a’ reality. There is only ‘the’. Confusing, then, that there always seems to be more than one. With respect to Australia’s climate change response, two in particular appear to stand out.

Reality 1:

– climate change is a serious problem, but;

– Australia’s emissions are just over 1% of the global total, thus;

– any attempts to reduce emissions, in the absence of similar commitments from big polluters, will damage the resource underpinnings of Australia’s economy, and;

there will be no positive outcome for the environment

Reality 2:

– climate change is a serious problem, and;

– Australia’s emissions are among the highest, per capita, on the planet, thus;

– having enjoyed the fruits of fossil fuel-intensive industrialisation, wealthy nations are both equipped and compelled to lead the decarbonisation effort, otherwise;

– the big polluters, in pursuit of a standard of living similar to ours, will feel no obligation to do what we refuse to, and;

there will be no positive outcome for the environment.

Then there is the simple, unifying climate reality: climate stabilisation requires the drastic reduction in the short-term (ie. this decade), and cessation in the long-term, of net carbon emissions to the atmosphere. If we are serious about addressing climate change, all considerations must flow from this point.

The key speedhump is of course the potential impacts on Australia’s resources sector of pricing carbon, effectively spotlights the role of coal in the Australian economy, which provides cheap energy for the prodigious requirements of the resources sector, as well as being our biggest export earner. Yet it is enormously difficult to imagine an adequate climate response that preserves this position on either count.

In terms of domestic power generation, geo-sequestration may be of some use, but it seems highly unlikely that it will ever be able to sequester the lion’s share of emissions, much less do so safely and competitively. And with respect to export, in contrast to other resources, the coal industry’s fortunes rely more on the responses of other nations with respect to carbon emissions than on ours.

Still, the Australian government argues that it won’t commit Australia to a position that compromises the coal industry. But if the rest of the world moves forward on agreements to cap, price and trade carbon emissions while we wait, that’s likely to happen anyway.

Before Kim Beazley was shown the door, the opposition committed to a 60% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050. That policy stands, but it is unclear how Labor plans to accommodate the coal industry as part of its plan, though they have made positive noises about ‘clean coal’. Hopefully Mr Turnbull will raise that this evening.

In the meanwhile, his turn on the front page of the Age seems a little cheeky: the environment minister of a government that won’t compromise its fossil fuel sector for the sake of climate change mitigation rubbing his hands together at the prospect of selling food to countries where agriculture has been disrupted by climate change.