On August 12, 2009, Greg Combet, as minister assisting on climate change, delivered a ministerial statement on climate change science to the House of Representatives. It was an exemplary explanation of the science, culminating in exhortations to recalcitrant parliamentarians to support the government’s emissions trading scheme (CPRS) as the cornerstone of Australia’s contribution to stabilising atmospheric greenhouse gases at 450ppm CO2e.

Fast forward to the Lowy Institute on November 6, 2009 and the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made an impassioned condemnation of the climate sceptics, emphasising the need for urgent action and nailing his climate leadership credentials to the mast, again with the exhortation to get behind the CPRS.

Noble rhetoric indeed, apart from the fallacy of assuming that the CPRS is the solution to our problem. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The same scientists who wrote Combet’s statement would also have told him that the latest science clearly indicates that we now run a rapidly increasing risk of catastrophic failure of some part of the climatic system and that the 450ppm CO2e target, supposedly restricting temperature increase to 2oC relative to pre-industrial levels, is hopelessly out-of-date.  In the light of the mounting evidence of deteriorating climatic conditions from the Arctic, the Amazon, the world’s glaciers and ice-sheets and the oceans to name only a few, a realistic target is now about 300ppm CO2 (350ppm CO2e) and less than 1oC.  A far greater task than our leaders admit, which requires not just an extremely rapid reduction in emissions, but also the reduction of carbon already in the atmosphere.  All of which is achievable, but not with the dishonesty that characterises the current political debate.

The weak, inconsistent, compromises that now represent Australian climate-change policy would, if adopted globally, probably result in catastrophic temperature increases of about 3-4oC by 2050, representing devastation for large parts of Australia, let alone the world.

We need effective emissions trading.  But our proposed scheme contravenes virtually every recommendation in the book.  The emission reduction targets are far too weak, there are escape clauses at every turn, compensation to established emitters is obscene.  The net result is that it will make money for carbon traders and banks, windfall profits for high emitting fossil-fuel industries, but do nothing to reduce emissions. Worse, it will slow innovation toward a low-carbon economy, create great investment uncertainty due to the scheme’s inadequacy, in the process undermining the credibility of emissions trading and destroying our enormous opportunities, competitiveness and job creation potential as we enter the low-carbon world.

To pretend that Australia is a leader on climate change, as the Prime Minister would have us believe, and to strut the global stage as a “climate saviour”, is hypocrisy of the highest order.

The Liberal Party are also well aware of this scientific advice, which makes their current implosion all the more despicable.  At least, after years of successfully preventing any serious action on climate change, the closet Liberal sceptics are being seen in their true colours.  As for the Nationals — it is hard to see how they can retain any credibility with the rural constituency they supposedly represent.  The rural sector is being hit hardest by climate change already and this will only intensify.  To have ideologically blinkered politicians preventing the introduction of reforms that would have enormous benefits for that sector in managing climate impact, as well as making a major contribution to improved agricultural performance, beggars belief.  In effect they are condemning their own constituents to penury.

But behind it all are the puppet masters of the fossil-fuel industries, who have been even more successful in pulling the strings of the Rudd government to dance to their tune than they were with the Howard government.

Clearly the government is in fear and trembling at the thought that the lights might go out if the Latrobe Valley power generators took their ball and went home.  What absolute nonsense!.  Those companies paid too much buying into the industry at a time when they knew full well that carbon pricing was coming rapidly down the track.  Now they expect the Australian taxpayer to bail them out for their poor judgement with compensation to prop up their share price, not least to maintain nonsensical executive incentives.  Has it ever occurred to government to call their bluff; we should be using the recent threat by TRUenergy in its advertising campaign as a spur to accelerate investment in alternatives. As for the potential job losses, there are far more sustainable jobs that will be created in the new renewable energy industries than will be lost in the old.  We do not give in to threats from terrorists; why do so to terrorism of the corporate variety?

Similarly with coal exports.  What possible justification is there, in the light of the latest climate science, for the money being poured into doubling our coal exports when we have no possible means of sequestering the additional carbon that will be produced for at least 20-30 years, if then? This is morally bankrupt.

And then there is the LNG industry, perhaps the most successful compensation generator of all, with the least justification.  In an era of the peaking of global oil supply, no LNG project of any merit will be held back because of the introduction of even a high carbon price, the blustering of Woodside’s Don Voelte nothwithstanding.

At a broader level, corporations have the intellectual capacity, and obligation, to understand the latest science, and they must be the powerhouse driving the solutions. Business proudly proclaims “we know how to do risk management!” and climate change is likely to be the major risk affecting companies in the coming decade. Yet in the face of catastrophic risk, business leaders are silent. Why are they not speaking out publicly and supporting the impassioned pleas from leading scientists to take these matters far more seriously?

Our response must be raised to an entirely different, emergency level, built around the latest science. What the events of recent months have demonstrated is that the existing myopic political system and corporate attitudes are, between them, incapable of handling the depth and breadth of reform that is now needed.  It is time to recognise this and seek other solutions.  We are at the point where constructive players should be convened to form an apolitical Council of National Unity, with full power to design and implement an emergency climate change policy.

As the Bard might have put it: “A pox on all your houses — time for something new.”

Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive.  He chaired the Australian Coal Association in 1987-88, chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998-2000 and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors from 1997-2001.  He is deputy convenor of the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil, Director of Safe Climate Australia and a member of the Club of Rome.

Peter Fray

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