Someone should explain to Michael Costa that the point of an emissions trading scheme is to reduce greenhouse pollution. It’s not a PR exercise so that it looks like we’re doing something about climate change. Because in the meantime, as Professor Ross Garnaut pointed out in his draft report on Friday, increased temperatures will wipe out the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian ski season, and agricultural production in the Murray Darling Basin.

It’s a shame that Garnaut’s strong message on the seriousness of the problem has been overshadowed by the hysteria of the few who can’t see beyond their own short-term interests. Garnaut – who is not a climate scientist himself but a prominent economist and previous advisor to the Hawke government – reiterates that without effective action in the next few years “the risks of dangerous climate change, already significant, will soon have risen to dangerously high levels”.

Despite this, his strong recommendation to limit greenhouse gas emissions through an emissions trading scheme has met vehement opposition in the media over the last few days. An emissions trading scheme, if managed well, can deliver significant emissions reductions by making it increasingly expensive to emit greenhouse gases. This will provide economic incentives for companies and industries to find less polluting ways of operating. If employed in conjunction with measures to drive investment in renewables, it can provide a pathway to slashing our emissions and ultimately avoiding catastrophic climate change.

The naysayers have pulled out two rickety arguments against Garnaut’s reasoning. The first, favoured by the federal Opposition, is that Australia shouldn’t put itself out to tackle climate change, because our tiny contribution to global greenhouse gases isn’t going to make the difference to the survival of the Reef. This childish approach to international politics overlooks the glaringly obvious fact that Australia’s actions influence the actions of other countries. It was developed nations who created this climate change mess: why would China and India trouble themselves to aggressively reduce their own emissions if the culprits aren’t even willing to lift a finger?

The second, espoused by Michael Costa and the Australian Workers Union, is that an emissions trading scheme sounds like a responsible way to tackle climate change, so long as major greenhouse polluters are not penalised. Infallible circular logic! We’ll put a price on carbon emissions, but we’ll exempt those industries that cause a lot of greenhouse pollution from paying the price, because otherwise it would obviously be too expensive for them to continue to pollute!

When will politicians wake up to the fact that climate change mitigation is not an optional policy choice, like an ‘education revolution’ or a GST? Garnaut repeatedly emphasises the need for Australia to take strong action to set a good example for the rest of the world. When a senior economist tells us we are gambling with our children’s future, and he doesn’t mean it in a merely economic sense, we would do well to take heed.

See our political analysis of Garnaut’s draft report, and how the Rudd government should respond.