Can our adversarial political system cope with something as complex as climate change?

An eminent political scientist once likened our democracy to a pair of buses travelling in the same direction. Every time the government bus, travelling in front, hit a bump in the road, people would fall off and be picked up by the following opposition bus until such time as the trailing bus had more people on board than the leading bus, and the positions would be reversed. The opposition would become the government and the process would restart.

Thus is the zero sum game of electoral politics, revolving as it does around quick fixes and recalibration of policies – all aimed at either holding onto or picking up those stray passengers. The long-term destination of the buses remains unfixed and subject to interminable delay and detour.

Australia is by no means alone here. Global warming confronts all the Western democracies with a very real dilemma, and one challenge they are singularly unable to deal with.

Because liberal democratic systems such as we have in Australia operate in short electoral cycles, the view over the horizon is sacrificed for short-term pragmatic gain. It is a world increasingly tied to quarterly profit reports, annual balance sheets and a pervasive demand for instant gratification. Thus, hard decisions are not taken and in that fundamental neglect the long-term problems simply worsen.

The problem John Howard has with the electorate is his reputation as a greenhouse sceptic, and no one believes anything has changed except the opinion polls. To have acknowledged the scientific arguments sooner would to his totally political mind simply have given credence to ideological enemies. Worse, it would have called into question his political success, economic growth. To acknowledge the warnings would have been to tacitly admit that the much-vaunted growth was predicated on scientifically unsustainable foundations.

The Labor Party has no such dilemma, and it is harder to accuse Rudd or Garrett of faking their concerns (but they of course need to pick up the passengers wanting to leave the government bus).

Now the tactics of the government are to try to scare the passengers about the sort of ride they might expect if they change buses, even though Labor appears to have more of a desire and a coherent plan to address the issue. But if the government scare tactic starts to bite, might Labor then be forced to back off a little? Might a potential hard decision be softened to the point of uselessness?

The challenges of the politics of climate change, as with the politics of water, might simply be beyond the capacity of our very limited political system and its powerful short-term drivers.

Clearly, what stands in the way of sensible long-term policy settings are conflicting political imperatives, and there is no sign of these disappearing just as there is no sign of global warming slowing.