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John Quiggin

Our world really is ending

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

22 November 2007

After a months-long pre-election buildup, a mostly soporific campaign and billions of dollars worth of me-too promises from both sides, a lot of voters might well be asking why they should bother to prefer one side over the other. The release, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of its fourth assessment report summary, Risks And Rewards Of Combating Climate Change, might help to answer this question.

As befits a document produced by a consensus of experts nominated by the governments of the world, including those of the US and Australia, the IPCC report is cautious and conservative. On many issues, such as the contribution of melting ice sheets to sea level rise, the report takes a view that the evidence is not firm enough to venture an estimate.

But it is that very conservatism that makes the report so alarming. Its projections suggest a range of consequences, from more extreme climate events to lower food production and higher food prices, if we continue with the ‘business as usual’ approach we have followed so far.

Humans will be able to adapt to many of these consequences, though the costs will be significant. Vulnerable coastal settlements can be moved. Agriculture can be relocated as rainfall and temperature patterns change.

Natural ecosystems can’t adapt at the required pace and will suffer catastrophic damage from uncontrolled climate change. The most vulnerable, such as coral reefs, are already experiencing severe damage. Scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies recently warned that ‘Without targeted reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the ongoing damage to coral reefs from global warming will soon be irreversible ...The world has a narrow window of opportunity to save coral reefs from the destruction of extreme climate change. Substantial global reductions of greenhouse gasses must be initiated immediately, not in 10, 20 or 50 years.’

The destruction of coral reefs is a precursor to a potential mass extinction. The IPCC states that ‘as global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5 degrees C, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe.’

Labor’s policy response to climate change, while lacking in some details, is straightforward. By ratifying Kyoto, Labor will bring Australia back into the policy mainstream. Although the formal process of ratification will take time, the effect will be immediate, allowing us to participate fully in the negotation of a successor, beginning at Bali in December.

By contrast, the government has something for everyone, from diehard rejectionists to mainstream supporters of Kyoto.

The best-known Liberal ‘sceptics’, Nick Minchin and Ian Macfarlane, have been pretty quiet for some time now. But even after the election was announced, National Party leader Mark Vaile couldn’t resist saying there was conflicting scientific evidence on the issue. As with his subsequent attacks on the Reserve Bank and the Auditor-General, Vaile backed down, but the cat was already out of the bag.

At the other end of the spectrum, a judicious leak revealed that Malcolm Turnbull had pushed the government to neutralise the issue by ratifying the Kyoto protocol before the election. This would have made obvious political sense but apparently the fear of a clash with the Bush Administration overrode Howard’s normally finely-tuned survival instinct.

A rather more surprising intervention in support of Kyoto was that of former NSW Opposition leader Peter Debnam, generally regarded as a hardline conservative. Debnam owes John Howard no favours, and he’s in a position to speak his mind freely, with no need to pander to the strident anti-scientific orthodoxy that dominates the right-wing commentariat and keeps most conservatives in line. His statement suggests that the Australian public’s strong support for Kyoto extends into the conservative heartland.

The government itself has charted an erratic course. On the crucial issue of binding emissions targets, the government has shifted from outright opposition, to endorsement of targets in principle, to the Shergold Committee’s safety valve, and now back to ‘aspirational’ targets. (If the defeat of the Howard government brings an end to the use of this all-purpose weasel word, that will be a small victory for the language.)

Nothing sums up the government’s position better than Howard’s response to the IPCC report. After noting the serious of the challenge, Howard observed that ‘the world is not coming to an end tomorrow’. Indeed not, but Australian voters might prefer a leader who can look a little way beyond tomorrow.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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