The Garnaut Review will come to a somewhat quiet end tomorrow morning when the final report is handed to the Prime Minister at 9.30am.

For Australians convinced of the need to do something drastic about climate change, it’s been a rollercoaster ride. The interim and draft reports earlier this year spelt out an unassailable case that Australia faced a major long-term crisis because of its exposure to climate change. But the Supplementary Draft Report earlier this month severely disappointed many, with its recommendation of relatively soft emissions targets under an emissions trading scheme.

Throughout the process, Garnaut’s logic has remained the same. Climate change will inflict major damage on Australia — and there’s not a lot we can do about it unless the rest of the world agrees to seriously tackle the problem. Maximising our chances of enabling a global agreement thus became the focus of the review’s recommendations about Australia’s targets, but it remains unlikely — very unlikely — that we will be able to prevent serious economic and environmental damage. The review outcomes are elegant testimony to how we and most of the world have waited far too long to take climate change seriously.

The long-awaited Treasury modelling will also be released tomorrow, which should provide a welcome corrective to much of the hysteria generated by modelling commissioned by rentseeking industry groups. The delay in Treasury’s numbers has permitted self-interested parties like the Business Council to fill the vacuum with their own invented data. But expect the worst-case scenarios from the Treasury to get much more airplay than the rest.

When he released the supplementary report on 5 September, Garnaut said the final report would contain a much more extensive discussion of adaptation.

On Garnaut’s logic, this is where the debate in Australia has to move next, even as we try to establish an emissions trading scheme. Adaptation necessarily – in the absence of limitless funding — means prioritisation and sacrificing some things — industries, environmental icons, jobs. We haven’t even started having that debate yet, probably because most of us don’t want to. Greenhouse denialists don’t think it’ll happen, and optimists hope it can be avoided. In case you hadn’t noticed, Garnaut’s review has not been exactly been big on optimism.

Except in one area. Garnaut is convinced the real costs of climate change won’t be felt until next century. But there is evidence that the planet is warming faster than even the worst scenarios predict. With any luck, we might have much of this century to adjust to climate change, but there’s a chance we’ll only have a decade or two.

Adaptation will cost a lot. And it will be required at the same time as an ageing population is putting our fiscal position under historic pressure. Currently we’re better placed fiscally than pretty much any other developed country, and the continuing growth of China and India will probably keep us there, regardless of the best efforts of the world’s investment bankers.

But we also face higher costs from climate change than pretty much anyone else. The Government needs to switch at least some of its attention to the problems of implementing and paying for an adaptation strategy, otherwise we’ll start to look like the proverbial frog in the saucepan. More than we do already.

Peter Fray

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