In 2008 Tony Abbott said “a carbon tax was the easiest, simplest and best way of reducing emissions

7 April 2011: It’s impossible not to love the magnificent scenery and spectacular glacial mountains of Milford Sound on New Zealand”s South Island.

I began to think it would be a great place to retire to, but its isolation and long cold winters made me reconsider this otherwise attractive idea.

Now the latest global warming observations and predictions are leading me to have second thoughts. The new research is deeply disturbing on how quickly global warming impacts are developing and how close to the edge of the precipice we are.

NASA climate science director James Hansen is now saying less than one degree of warming, which is where we are at now, takes us close to the limits of conditions for a safe climate in which people can continue to live in the same place and with secure food production.

He says current temperatures are at the highest they have been over the time of human civilization known as the Holocene, and that no “cushion” is left to avoid dangerous climate change.

Hansen also says “…goals of limiting human-made warming to 2 degrees and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million (ppm)”, as advocated by Rudd at Copenhagen, “are prescriptions for disaster.”

Because of the repeated global policy failures, researchers at the UK”s Tyndall Research Centre say there is little chance of maintaining the global average surface temperature below 2 degrees.

Moreover, the adverse impacts associated with 2 degrees have been revised upwards so that 2 degrees represents the threshold between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” climate change.

Recent Potsdam Institute research shows if we continue along the high-growth and fossil-fuel intensive path, the catastrophe of a four-degree warming could envelope the planet as early as 2050. If the action taken is limited to the uncertain commitments made by nations at Copenhagen, four degrees may be upon us by the end of the century.

At this point, the planet is likely only to sustain a population of less than one billion people, and the very survival of humanity and most species will be on a deadly tightrope.

It makes the Australian (Labor) Government’s past policy, along with the other large per-capita polluters, look inadequate, and reaffirms the weak commitments at Copenhagen are a prescription for disaster.

As for Tony Abbott, he continues with opportunistic flip-flops on climate change. In 2008 he said “a carbon tax was the easiest, simplest and best way of reducing emissions”. He now is doing his utmost to try to whip up a scare campaign over Labor’s yet to be determined “great new (carbon) tax” claiming despite ample evidence to the contrary, it will seriously damage trade exposed industries.

What he should be focusing on is the National Australia Bank claim that the total cost of recent floods alone could shave off 1.5 per cent of our GDP in the March quarter.

The conservative parties don”t seem to grasp that if we don”t act now we will be subject to even more extreme weather events that will, over time, impose a greater cost than the 2 to 3 per cent of GDP per year required to take us to a clean, renewable energy economy. In the front line of these impacts will be our farming communities which they purport to represent.

While the climate movement cautiously welcomed the Labor/independents/Greens announcement on the architecture of a carbon price mechanism, it was bereft of detail and may only end up being a small, inadequate step in the right direction.

Will the starting price on carbon be greater than the $20 per tonne favoured by the PM which wouldn”t even close down Hazelwood, our worst polluting power station?

How fast will it rise if the Government finally realises that it needs to steadily increase the price to more than $120 over ten years to propel the transformation to a renewable energy based economy, and how will compensation be structured? Will they pay out compensation monies to big energy polluters and continue to subsidise massively profitable polluting companies?

How can a future emissions trading scheme in three to five years provide a stable price on carbon- something needed by industry groups to make decisions to phase down coal based power and expand solar, wind and thermal power?

Will the final measures be sufficient to stop the building of twelve coal-fuelled power stations the Gillard Government is currently supporting? Will it result in the phasing out of most of our coal based electricity production over the next 10 years and avoid replacement by gas?

Will coal industry based communities be properly supported in a just transition to new jobs and industries? In short, will we have a path laid out that rapidly de-carbonises our society?

While all of these questions remain to be answered, the claim by Chief Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery that a 5per cent reduction in emissions by major polluters will lead us to go no more than a two degrees rise in temperatures is acceptable, is a bad omen for what Gillard and Combet are possibly pushing for. It would represent only a baby step in terms of what is required and has no basis whatsoever in peer reviewed climate science.

Surely by now they must understand that any chance of avoiding runaway climate change must entail deep emission cuts, adoption of clean renewable energy technologies and a massive draw down of atmospheric CO2 through new land management practices.

Leading climate scientists say it can and must begin now.

Rising temperatures over the coming decades will seriously challenge our capacity to withstand unrelenting extreme heat, water shortages, dwindling food supplies, and occasional floods, severe bushfires and massive cyclones.

That’s why somewhere on high ground, deep in New Zealand”s south-west corner, close to the wonders of Milford Sound, maybe a retirement option well worth considering.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times and is reproduced with permission

Geoff Lazarus is a co-founder of Climate Active Australia and of Climate Action Canberra