Switching on climate control

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt reportedly thanked Tim Flannery and his fellow Climate Commissioners as he politely but firmly ushered them out of government's tent on Thursday.

For many climate change sceptics, however, it was a case of "good riddance'' - underlining the extent to which politics, personality and propaganda have increasingly come to intrude on this most contentious of debates.

Those who would prefer the focus was on the weight of scientific evidence (which overwhelmingly points the acidification of the world's oceans and unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere) argue the ad hominem approach is as deliberate as it is calculated.

It would be wrong to characterise the new Coalition government as intent on slyly encouraging appeals to prejudice and emotion on global warming rather than pursuing a reasoned and principled approach - even though Tony Abbott has never really convincingly recanted his 2009 remark that "the argument [behind climate change] is absolute crap''.

Mr Hunt has said he accepts that climate change is "real and significant, and a long-term challenge'' and Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane - whose portfolio takes in science matters - has said that he bases his politics "around the facts of science''.

Yet the climate change policy which the Coalition took to the election, Direct Action, does little to dispel impressions that it regards global warming as a problem to be kicked down the road.


Mr Hunt has committed the government to achieving a 5 per cent reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions by 2020, but at the same time Mr Abbott has declared that Direct Action will be capped at $3.2 billion regardless of whether the policy helps meet that modest target or not.

Mr Abbott consistently characterised Labor's carbon tax as a crippling impost on families and business, overlooking the economic and environmental benefits that would have likely resulted in due course - and the fact that those least able to afford it were always due to be compensated.

The agencies Labor set up to enable the switch to a lower-carbon economy, including the Climate Commission, were portrayed as a pointless waste of public money. That this reactionary, anti-tax mantra helped the Coalition regain government is not in doubt; though we're left to wonder whether it would have been as appealing to the electorate had the drought that gripped the east coast in 2006 not ended in 2012.

The Coalition has implemented its promises in swift fashion but global warming shows few signs of abating. Quite the opposite in fact. Next Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - the UN body charged with assessing the science of global warming and its environmental and socio-economic impacts - will be releasing its latest assessment.

It represents the most recent scientific research on climate change, including studies of sea-level rises, changes in global temperatures and retreating glaciers, and it is likely to confirm most, if not all, of the findings of previous reports. These were that ice-sheets and glaciers are melting faster than predicted, that the retreat of sea ice has been underestimated, and that sea-levels have risen almost twice as fast from 1993-2010 as they did from 1901 to 2010.

The report is likely to be scrutinised by sceptics looking for inconsistencies or findings that help them debunk the many threats that global warming is said to pose.

Casting aspersions on the credibility of the people who prepare IPCC reports has also been a favoured method of muddying the waters, despite the fact that IPCC assessments reflect the agreement of the world's top climate scientists.

That climate activists like Professor Flannery are pilloried in certain quarters for their lack of expertise in climate science when sceptics like Ian Plimer (a geologist) are not is passing strange.

Professor Flannery has said he will continue to assert the right of Australians to "authoritative, independent and accurate information on climate change''.

Such information is also vital for effective environmental policy-making. The scrapping of the climate bodies, together with Mr Abbott's decision not to have a science minister in cabinet, suggest the government has already made up its mind. But Australians are entitled to the facts and Mr Hunt must assure us that the advice and analysis on climate change that will now come from the Environment Department will be heeded - even if that advice and analysis proves inconvenient.