A number of the inhabitants of a small blue planet are concerned that their reliance on carbon-based forms of energy is creating a feedback loop in their atmosphere that is heating the planet’s surface up. Most of their best scientific minds are urging action to move away from a dependence on carbon.

A small, relatively insignificant country in the planet’s southern hemisphere, which produces about 2% of the carbon causing the problems, is furiously debating how best to do just that. The leader of the country’s more successful political group — let’s call them Labor — wants a complex scheme that ostensibly exploits the entrepreneurial spirits of the country’s businesses to drive the shift away from carbon. But many of the country’s businesses demanded that they not have to do any such thing and got Labor to change the scheme. It now amounts to a complex mechanism for recycling money and allowing carbon emitters to keep doing what they do now.

The leader of this small country’s less successful political group — let’s call them the Liberals — wants a similar but more generous scheme, which provides more encouragement for carbon emitters to continue what they’re doing, but somehow also provide more incentive to stop doing it. But he has a problem because many people in his grouping don’t even think that the planet is heating up. He also has a problem because if he doesn’t support the plan of the leader of the more successful group, the latter will call an election.

But one of the leaders of the small country’s least successful political grouping — for our purposes, the Nationals — which is in a coalition with the Liberals, doesn’t want to do anything at all and says so volubly and repeatedly. And a strange man who is in a political grouping of two — he and the deity he worships — feels the same way, and also says so a lot, primarily as a way to attract attention.

None of the small country’s politicians except for one group — let’s call them the Greens — will come out and say that you can’t move away from carbon dependence without some short-term pain.

The media of this small country finds this non-debate absorbing, and each utterance from Labor, Liberal, National and others is carefully parsed and scrutinised for its implications.

But when it comes to the Liberals, the least interesting explanation is the one that is most likely. The leader of the Liberals knows exactly what sort of bind he is in and is working assiduously to achieve the least worst option for both him and his party, which is to get at least some of his party to support the scheme, even if the Nationals won’t. Bit by bit, he has to get his party used to the idea of backing Labor’s scheme, if he can secure some changes that will save face.

It’s a slow and painful process, inch by inch, dragging the recalcitrant to a realisation of their own interests through a gradual change in position. But it should not be mistaken for that leader being in conflict with his own party. The leader will succeed in his task because political survival will be a more powerful motivation than principled objection, as it usually is on this planet.

The real problem for the Liberal leader is that the Labor leader isn’t going to do anything to help him. The Labor leader’s higher priority is damaging his opponents.

The scheme will become law, and make precisely no difference to the country’s carbon emissions. Nor will it make any difference to the planet’s overall carbon levels, which will continue to rise, dragging temperatures up with them.

In a century’s time, the debates between these “Labor”, “Liberal” and “National” people will be forgotten. Most people won’t even remember which side the leaders were on. But the impact of their decisions, and those of politicians just like them in most other countries on the planet, will be clear for everyone to see. And they’ll rue the failure of their forebears.