When historians have their say on this period in Australian politics, the Climate Change Authority report published on Wednesday could make a handy shorthand – a simple illustration to underline the yawning gap between the rhetoric of the public debate and the underlying facts.
Last month, the hundreds of scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said they were more confident than ever that greenhouse gas emissions pose a problem, uncertainties about the long-term impact notwithstanding.
Meanwhile, Australia is preparing to become the first country to repeal laws requiring big business to pay for the right to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – the most effective way of reducing emissions, according to most economists.
The two main parties are committed to cutting emissions by 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, and notionally up to 25 per cent depending on what other countries are doing.
Yet the political debate is stuck on familiar totems: the price of electricity, Tony Abbott's nod-and-a-wink scepticism, Labor's policy confusion and a largely strawman debate over whether climate change is linked to the current NSW bushfires. Long-term risk management is pushed to the margins.
It is only a draft report, but the Climate Change Authority cuts a clear line. It finds the countries that Australia is often compared with – most notably the US and China – are looking to the long term and stepping up plans to cut emissions. The 5 per cent on the table is considered inadequate, whereas 15 or 25 per cent are comparable with what others are doing.
Perhaps most strikingly, it reinforces that the cost of more ambitious targets would be limited.
The economy would keep growing under all scenarios. If the government set a target of 15 per cent and allowed business to buy international carbon credits, the report projects that the pace of economic growth would be only three months slower in 2020 – effectively, the level that would have been reached on January 1 will kick in by the time the footy season starts.
Adopt a 25 per cent target and economic growth would be slowed by just five months.
These are not the musings of a group of far-left greenies. The authority is chaired by former Reserve Bank chairman Bernie Fraser and includes views from across the spectrum, including serious business minds Heather Ridout, former Tomago Aluminium head John Marlay and AustralianSuper chairwoman Elana Rubin.
Based on the British model of a kind of carbon reserve bank advising government, the authority has considered the science, what other countries are doing and the social and economic impact of emissions cuts.
It suggests that Australia should cut emissions by 35 to 50 per cent by 2030 – and that will be easier if it moves now.
It is a worldview that recognises climate change is not a moral challenge Australia can solve on its own, but that as one of the world's top 20 emitters Australia has a significant proportional role to play.
And it is the latest report to show the government's direct action response does not measure up. Several independent analyses have found the government is unlikely to reach even a 5 per cent cut by 2020 through its plan to buy emissions cuts from some businesses using a budget fund.
The authority has found that the effective cost of reaching the 5 per cent target without buying international permits would be $65 a tonne of carbon dioxide – far more than the current carbon tax.
Previously, the Climate Institute think tank found it would cost the budget another $15 billion in 2020 to reach a 25 per cent target.
The government has reiterated it has no plan to review its greenhouse target before 2015 and baulks at allowing in overseas carbon credits, but it has some significant decisions ahead.
Next year, countries are expected to nominate their final 2020 and 2030 targets ahead of the United Nations meeting in Paris in 2015, where the world is, again, aiming to reach a global climate treaty.
The government can ignore the advice of the authority and abolish it as promised, but it can't as easily ignore physics or the international processes it has signed up for.