It wasn’t Coventry but the Climate Change Section at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

That’s where Robert Owen-Jones was sent to from Washington after forgetting his briefcase packed with secret documents behind after a meeting at the US Congress while holding one of Australia’s most senior overseas intelligence posts.

It was deemed a safe place to allow an officer highly regarded by his superiors to pay a little penance for the forgetfulness that was embarrassing at the time back in June 2004 without actually compromising any highly classified material.

Now, Owen-Jones really does have a chance to redeem himself as the little section of a big department where he was tucked away on some real significance with the politicians having decided that climate change should be taken seriously.

A key component of Prime Minister John Howard’s approach to combating global warming is that any action Australia takes to reduce CO2 emissions will be nothing but a futile gesture unless it is part of world-wide action along similar lines.

While Labor has not been putting the same emphasis on the need for international cooperation it would in practice be impossible for any government to pursue a policy of destroying Australian living standards while the rest of the world kept making the world warmer while growing their economies.

Elections held every three years would see to that, so targets, whether Labor’s stated one or the Coalition’s target to be revealed after the next election, will be very conditional. The main condition will be whether and when countries actually can come up with, and then start keeping, an agreement on emission reduction.

That is where the Climate Change Section comes in — nestled away well down the departmental pecking order in the Environment Branch, headed by an assistant secretary, of the International Organisations and Legal Division, which has a first assistant secretary plus an Ambassador for the Environment, under the supervision of a deputy secretary who reports to the departmental secretary who is responsible to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The summary of departmental outputs (the public service accounting language these days for what the department tries to do) contained in this year’s Budget papers devoted 73 words out of a total 1600 to climate change:

Sustaining the impetus of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate will remain a key priority for the department in taking forward the Government’s commitment to tackling environmental challenges. Significant progress has been made through the eight sectoral public-private task forces to accelerate low-emission technology development and promote best practice. The Global Initiative on Forests and Climate will play a critical role in combating the contribution of deforestation to climate change.

When it came to the question of additional resources the only mention was $300,000 to be spent on plans to encourage Third World countries to preserve their forests.