Climate change does for Liberals what terrorism does for Labor – which is why a focus on global warming in the last days of the campaign is bad news for John Howard.

Immediately after 9/11, both parties marched in lockstep into the Global War on Terror. Yet, politically, the Liberal Party always owned the terror issue.

It wasn’t just the advantage of incumbency. When Labor politicians mouthed the rhetoric about sub-Churchillian anti-terror rhetoric just like Bush and Howard, they never sounded quite convincing. Too many ALP members still possessed a lingering attachment to civil liberties, which led them to choke slightly even as they repeated their lines about bearded fundamentalists.

Some time back, Wired magazine produced a handy chart compared the risk of dying from terrorism to other possible risks. As it turns out, you’re far more likely to suffer a ruptured appendix, accidentally fall over in the street or get shot by a cop than you are to fall victim to bin Laden.

Yet, to make political capital out of the terror threat, politicians could not admit to any hesitations or vacillations: terrorism had to be the biggest single risk facing each and every one us. Imagine, for instance, the howls of outrage from the Right if, in the immediate aftermath of 11 September, a Labor leader had said about al-Qaeda:

My view is that there is a serious challenge. My view also is that the world is not coming to an end tomorrow.

Howard could never have uttered such lines about international terrorism. His use of them about climate change illustrates his difficulties with the UN’s latest document.

On the one hand, he knows that most normal people feel aghast at what’s happening to the planet. Despite the years of bin Laden hysteria, Australians rate climate change higher as a threat than any of the bogeys associated with the Global War on Terror.

So Howard must, at the very least, acknowledge global warming as “a serious challenge”.

Yet denialists infest the Liberal Party like worms in compost while a claque of Tory cheerleaders in the newspapers and on the internet have made climate skepticism a matter of principle for the Right, to the extent where Howard risks an internal mutiny if he ever sounds too enthusiastically green.

So, when he talks about protecting the environment, the PM sounds grudging and peevish, and pleases no-one. Of course, comparisons between terrorism and the environment only go so far. Australia has, after all, committed an astonishing $20 billion to the war on terror, even though terrorism presents the most minimal threat to Australians.

By contrast, the latest UN report suggests that climate change will mean mass extinctions, extreme weather conditions, water shortages, hunger and disease. Earlier reports suggest a death toll far beyond any terrorist event, with hundreds of millions of people no longer able to feed themselves. But do you see either party offering to spend $20 billion on global warming?

As Ken Davidson points out in the Age yesterday, the actual differences between the parties on environmental issues are minimal.

But the Libs can’t neutralize Rudd by pointing out these similarities. Instead, their most recent TV commercial labels Garrett as a “Green extremist”, thus reinforcing the notion that Labor’s environmental credentials are immeasurably better than their own.

Mass extinctions? It seems increasingly likely they’re going to start in Canberra on Saturday.