In normal circumstances the Government’s announcement to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5-15 per cent over a decade would be a significant policy move. But circumstances are not normal.

The climate emergency demands a political response that transcends the usual approach of balancing competing interests to minimise political pain. Yet the White Paper reflects the Prime Minister’s repeated claim that his task is to weigh the demands of industry against those of environmentalists.

When Kevin Rudd told Kerry O’Brien last week that he would not be caving in the “extreme environmentalists”, he was not just defining a “moderate” space to occupy, but casting doubt on the climate science. He was saying that we should take the conclusions of the scientists — that the industrialised world must cut its emissions by 25-40 per cent by 2020, with the developing world following soon after — with a grain of salt.

The scientists are not extremists and nor are the environmentalists. In fact, they are both restrained. Publicly, the scientists display the usual professional caution, although privately they are panicking. The mainstream environmental organizations, concerned to protect their access and maintain “relevance”, are pushing a “moderate” position. A policy that reflected the science would be one that swept aside the pleading and bullying of the fossil-based industries and pursued nationally the emission cuts that will best advance the global response that is needed to protect us all from climate catastrophe.

Yet it is precisely the pragmatism of political trade-offs that the White Paper pursues. It mirrors the fundamentally conservative “realism” of Ross Garnaut that plays into the hands of industry obstructionists.
Rather than moulding the science to conform to the politics, the politics must conform to the science. And the science calls for emergency measures. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, released in early 2007, is now widely recognised as being worryingly out of date. The scientific work on which it is based is now five years old and in that time there has been a rush of studies indicating that the situation is much more dire than the IPCC concluded.

It is now expected that Arctic sea-ice in the summer will disappear entirely before 2015. The weakening of the albedo effect and warming of the Arctic Ocean will have a heating effect up to 1500 kilometres away thereby increasing the rate of melting of the permafrost with its vast stores of frozen carbon. That’s a tipping point we really don’t want to get to.

The only bright spot in the politics is the continued commitment by the Government to begin the emissions trading system in 2010. Delay makes no sense for anyone. The economy will be coming out of recession at the beginning of 2010 and business will be looking for good investment opportunities, so why not direct it into clean energy?

The certainty provided by the ETS will stimulate investment and economic growth. The Opposition’s proposal to delay the scheme’s start-up to 2012 makes no sense economically or environmentally. It would only create uncertainty, undermine confidence and delay the recovery.

Join a Crikey liveblog to discuss the Government’s ETS White Paper here.