Rudd stranded

Sydney (dpa) – Last weekend’s by-election results presented Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with an inconvenient truth: Australians are warming to the opposition Liberal Party’s do-nothing approach to climate change.

With an election to contest next year, the sensible thing would be for Rudd to assuage voters’ fears of higher electricity bills by setting a rock-bottom price for carbon when the proposed trading scheme starts in 2011.

But just as the Labor Party leader prepares to fly to Copenhagen for the climate change conference, another inconvenient truth has emerged: Australia is not going to get away with a token target of 5-per-cent emissions reductions on 2000 levels by 2020.

“Other countries in these negotiations are assuming Australia will cut by at least 15 per cent, that the 5-per-cent target is not really on the table any more,” Climate Analytics director Bill Hare told The Australian newspaper.

Tripling the offer, while helping save the planet, would play into the hands of the climate change sceptics who last week successfully stormed the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Rather than returning from Copenhagen the hero he had hoped, Rudd could come back to opinion polling showing Liberal scaremongering over the costs of carbon trading had set him up for a very tight contest at the ballot box in less than 12 months’ time.

Up until last week’s brawl that saw climate change sceptic Tony Abbott wrest control of the Liberals from environmental activist Malcolm Turnbull, both the government and the opposition supported a carbon trading scheme.

Bipartisanship has now ended, with Abbott steadfast against both carbon trading and a carbon tax, and admitting that his lack of action would make even a 5-per-cent target hard to meet.

The collapse of consensus put Rudd in a bind: should he go to the polls trusting that Australians are ready to do their bit in bearing the cost of curbing temperature rises, or should he narrow the difference between the major parties by trimming the expense of his pollution reduction plan?

His dilemma was sharpened not only by last weekend’s surprising show of support for the Liberal’s minimalist climate change position but by the build up of pressure at Copenhagen for Australia to match the emission-reduction offers from other big-polluting rich countries.

Rudd has plonked himself centre-stage at Copenhagen by spending this year jetting around the world with his eco-catastrophist message that climate change is the “greatest moral challenge” of our time.

Just last week he was in Washington with United States President Barrack Obama to generate momentum for resolute action in Copenhagen.

But at home, the sound bites that lead the news bulletins wereAbbott’s rather than Rudd’s.

Flaying the government’s proposed cap-and-trade carbon scheme, Abbott said: “It’s going to put tens of thousands of jobs at risk around Australia – the last thing we want to do is jeopardize the competitiveness of Australia’s export industries, on which we all depend.”

Abbott is a protege of John Howard, who for the 11 years he was prime minister joined with the US in refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol that the Copenhagen negotiators are hoping to replace.

While Australians tell opinion pollsters they support international action to address climate change, they delivered Howard four election victories.

Abbott reckons voters will continue to shirk multilateral action and reject Rudd’s mantra that sacrifice is inevitable if the planet is to be saved.

“Anyone who argues that there is a cost-free, pain-free way for Australia to act on climate change is not being honest,” Rudd said. Abbott’s riposte is this: if action is costly and painful, don’t act.