Last May, the ALP announced a target for greenhouse gas emission reductions that, if observed generally across the world's major emitting countries, would give humanity virtually no chance of avoiding climate catastrophe.
Not surprisingly, Labor's position — of calling for a 60% cut in emissions by 2050 compared with 2000 levels — has met with sharp criticism from informed commentators. But this condemnation drew little publicity until February 21, when professor Ross Garnaut, charged by Labor with preparing recommendations for interim targets, issued a preliminary report calling for the 2050 target to be made much more stringent.
Warning that "global economic growth, the energy intensity of growth, and the carbon intensity of energy in the early 21st Century have all been exceeding expectations", Garnaut's report observes that "Australia would need to go considerably further in reduction of emissions as part of an effective global agreement".
Labor has been sprung, its wretched stance on global warming decisively exposed. Government leaders, especially climate change minister Penny Wong, have been acutely embarrassed.
A safe bet?
The ALP's May 2007 policy statement, entitled Labor's Greenhouse Reduction Target — 60% by 2050 Backed by the Science, was cobbled together largely from out-of-date sources. Its target corresponds to an eventual level of atmospheric greenhouse gases of about 550 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e). This concentration, scientists believe, would propel average global temperatures to around 3̊C above pre-industrial levels — high into the danger zone where further, "non-linear", warming mechanisms could be expected to kick in. Runaway global warming would then be a near-certainty.
For the ALP, the main purpose of issuing the policy statement was evidently to reassure Australian corporate chiefs, in the months before the federal election, that they could live with the climate change policies of a Labor government.
As well as a long-term reductions target, interim targets were obviously required. Dealing with actions needed in the near and medium term, these goals were especially critical if big business was to be kept happy with Labor. In April last year, then-opposition leader Kevin Rudd joined with Labor state premiers in commissioning Garnaut to set these objectives.
Rudd clearly considered Garnaut a safe bet, unlikely to present findings that would draw hostility from business circles. An academic economist, mining company director and former ambassador to China, Garnaut was a Canberra insider with a reputation for generally conservative views. At the time of his appointment, it seems, he had no special familiarity with climate issues.
Garnaut's rejection of Labor's "60 by 2050" position thus came as a shock to many. Garnaut and his researchers, the report makes clear, have not limited themselves to the semi-official (and now distinctly dated) climate science of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, based on research before mid-2005, provided the main scientific input to the Bali climate conference last December.
Instead, Garnaut has also taken account of more recent findings that stress the dangers of non-linear climate processes. At least one of these processes, witnessed in the dramatically increased melting of Arctic sea ice last year, appears already to be under way.
Garnaut's interim report left Wong to grimly defend Labor's May 2007 position. "The government's commitment", she told reporters on February 21, "is the one we made prior to the election and that we took to the Australian people, which is a reduction of 60 per cent by 2050. That is the approach the government will take."
Rather than break an election promise, Wong seemed to intimate, Labor would watch society unravel beneath the blows of heat, drought and collapsing food production.
The ALP, of course, is not so politically scrupulous, having regularly broken promises to voters in the past. But its "60 by 2050" pledge was an election promise of an especially hallowed kind. It was not so much a pledge to voters in general, as to the corporate rich.
It might be tempting to view Garnaut as an environmental hero, blowing the whistle on compromising politicians. Certainly, his report is strong on environmentalist rhetoric. But a close look at the text shows that while Garnaut is a better political tactician than the people in the federal cabinet, he is not, ultimately, more committed to the environmental cause.
What Garnaut has done in his report is to provide Australia's power elites with a tightly reasoned lesson in how they can drag their feet on climate change, and at least for a time, get away with it.
Garnaut's call for stricter limits on emissions is not in the first instance meant to be pursued, just offered in international negotiations. Australia, Garnaut states, "should formulate a position on the contribution that it would be prepared to make to an effective global agreement, and offer to implement that stronger position if an appropriately structured international agreement were reached".
Until such an agreement transpires, the "60 by 2050" target is clearly to remain. Less environmentally conscious countries are to be converted, it would appear, by force of bad example.
Also highly significant in Garnaut's report is his insistence that any global agreement should include developing nations. Implicitly, this is directed at China and India. China is now vying with the US for the dubious title of the world's worst greenhouse polluter in absolute terms.
Among climate backsliders, the argument is a familiar one: for developed countries to curb emissions is futile so long as Chinese and Indian emissions continue rising rapidly, so strong action should wait until China and India are locked into reductions treaties.
One wonders why Garnaut does not instead put the heat on the US. After all, per-capita emissions in the US are around four times those in China.
Moreover, and as Garnaut acknowledges, the Chinese leadership has shown a willingness to address the need for emissions controls. Specifically, it has embraced the testing goal of cutting the energy intensity of economic activity to 20% below 2005 levels by 2010. In the US, the Bush administration has refused to set any emissions reduction target whatsoever.
Garnaut's perceptions of what is possible, like those of Rudd, are restricted to what he believes corporate interests are likely to tolerate. This is shown by the specifics of his "stronger position" bargaining chip.
Australia, Garnaut indicates, should offer to cut its emissions to 90% below 2000 levels by 2050. This is in line with a target for atmospheric CO2-e of 450 ppm. At one point, the report acknowledges that the Australian Conservation Foundation has called for action to stabilise concentrations at 400 ppm, describing the risks of 450 ppm as "unacceptable". Targets below 450 ppm, however, are rejected by Garnaut as "clearly not feasible, given long lead times and lifetimes of energy sector investments".
If fossil-fuel power stations cannot be shut down until after the owners have recouped their investments and made a profit, we are supposed to accept, the Earth must take its chances of roasting by the end of the century.
It is not only Garnaut's targets and general methodological approach that climate activists are entitled to object to. While making ritual noises about "corrective measures against market failures and weaknesses", the report opts squarely for market mechanisms, national and global, as the crucial tool to cut emissions.
On the national scale, and under tight policing, the sale and purchase of emission rights may have a role to play in helping small and medium businesses meet greenhouse abatement requirements. The Earth's climate problems, however, are not the work of little companies, but of large corporations. Given half a chance, these corporations will rig markets and profiteer from the regulatory chaos that often results.
In urging reliance on markets, Garnaut sends the fight against global warming off on a completely wrong heading. Only tough state regulation, backed by popular scrutiny and critical media organs, can stop big business despoiling the environment.
When senior public figures urge policies that offer an odds-on chance of a climate holocaust, the rest of us have a problem, one that is not just environmental but also political. A public campaign needs to be mounted to reject the emissions targets both of Labor and Garnaut.
The only valid emissions targets are those able to guarantee that global warming, already on track to have painful consequences, will not have catastrophic ones. Here, the recent science shows increasingly that developed countries must not be allowed any net carbon emissions. Indeed, they must pursue negative emissions, finding ways to remove large amounts of carbon already in the atmosphere.
This will not be achieved without wrenching adjustments in the way we live and in the institutions of our society. But the alternative is simply unthinkable.
Garnaut's game of cat-and-mouse with developing countries must be rejected. Australia must set out to achieve negative emissions — and fast — whatever steps are taken elsewhere, and whatever treaties might be signed. Only if rich countries are seen to be paying a heavy price will poor countries agree to a lesser one.
No-one can say whether this strategy will work, but it is the only choice we have. The best reason for optimism is that people in India and China are citizens of the same planet as the rest of us — and that they too have hopes for their grandchildren.