Probably the most frustrating argument I have heard in support of the CPRS is this notion that, even though it is acknowledged as appalling policy, “something is better than nothing”.

I’m sorry, that might sound nice, but it’s a logical fallacy.

Of course there are cases where it may be better to do something that is not enough. But it is patently obvious that there are also many cases where doing the wrong thing can easily make a problem worse. Putting the wrong policy settings in place in response to a serious public policy challenge is a grave mistake which can take years to unravel and cause untold damage in the meantime. This is exactly the argument mounted by Lord Nicholas Stern, Kofi Annan and others last year in advance of Copenhagen – that it would have been better to have no outcome from the conference than a bad outcome which holds back action and takes years to unravel and reconstruct.

That we have reached this point in the climate debate is, in my opinion, due in no small part to the way governments such as Kevin Rudd’s have framed their philosophical approach to climate change as “a stark choice between action and inaction.” I’ve written here before about how this is a recipe for business-as-usual dressed up in the rhetoric of action.

Surely we are smart enough as a society to understand that this is a multifaceted problem and the choice we face is a complex one. Certainly there is a choice of whether or not to act. But once the choice has been made to act, there is an array of other choices to follow – how much to do, how fast and in what form are but three of them.

The “something is better than nothing” line is exactly the same kind of logical fallacy “to act or not to act”. It sounds nice, but it is easy to think of plenty of examples when doing ‘something’ is clearly not better than refusing to do what is offered and instead continuing to work towards kind of action we know we need.

Let me tell you a story from my own life.

When I was a young kid, my mother developed severe back pain. The first doctors she visited were sympathetic, diagnosed reasonably predictable conditions and prescribed reasonably sensible courses of action – physiotherapy, painkillers, rest, etc. But my parents, thankfully, felt that there was a deeper cause that was going unexamined and unaddressed. If they had accepted the ‘something’ course of action, my mother would have been rendered paraplegic by the tumour that was growing in her spine.

In this case, doing ‘something’ was clearly not better than nothing. Far from improve the situation, it masked the symptoms, thereby delaying the necessary urgent response to the underlying cause – surgery to remove the tumour. Other, less determined people would have accepted the improvement in symptoms as a good sign and ended up in a far worse situation as the tumour continued to grow.

The first doctors weren’t really to blame  – my mother’s spinal tumour was so unusual that nobody in Australia had seen such a thing. It was outside the scope of the doctors’ old thinking to predict such a thing and took someone familiar with the then very new technique of MRI scanning to work it out.

This was a complex problem from the real world, so of course it is not an exact parallel to what we face with the climate policy challenge. But what it does show is that applying simplistic thinking based in an old paradigm to a complex problem can easily land you in very deep trouble.

The CPRS, as designed, would have masked the symptoms – making it look like we were doing something about climate change – while allowing the underlying problem to continue to get worse. While the government claimed it was about transforming the economy, it quite clearly would have done nothing of the sort, giving polluters certainty of their investment for the foreseeable future. It was so rooted in the existing paradigm that it could not imagine a future beyond it.

It has been put to me that, regardless of the reality of the scheme itself, the moment you put a price on carbon, companies will get over the psychological hurdle and start acting to reduce their emissions. You only have to look at Europe’s experience to realise this is wishful thinking divorced from reality. The EU’s emissions trading scheme has done nothing to change corporate behaviour or investment decisions precisely because it was so obvious that it required nothing of substance to be done. There has been minimal change at the margins, but the real emissions reductions have been caused by the economic downturn and the regulatory measures and government investments driving renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transport.

Unless you introduce a policy which requires a rethink, it will do nothing to drive change. And if the policy locks you in to a weak outcome while allowing the underlying situation to get worse, you are far better off to say no – let’s get this right.

That’s not to say that any individual policy needs to solve the problem on its own – clearly it can’t. But with something as overarching as an emissions trading scheme, if it is designed badly, it can actively hold back progress.

I can understand why some people, battered by disappointment, wish that we could just do something – anything – and it will all be better. But it won’t be. The climate doesn’t work like that. We need to get up off the floor, reject false solutions and demand a real response that will deliver a safe climate.

I’d love to hear any other examples from the real world where something is not better than nothing. Please add them to the comments thread.