The media storm over climate sceptics in the Coalition, triggered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Lowy Institute speech last Friday and the ABC's Four Corners program on Monday night, is bringing much needed rain for a government whose climate credentials were looking very dry.
It has very effectively framed the debate in the Government's superficial way - the choice between action and inaction - and, in so doing, allowed the Government to again escape scrutiny at a crucial moment here in Australia.
I say here in Australia because the Rudd Government is not escaping scrutiny on the global stage, where its woefully weak targets and obstructive negotiating stance are coming in for some serious and sustained criticism.
The Climate Action Tracker website, a highly credible joint effort of Ecofys, Climate Analytics and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research, has labelled Australia's position "inadequate" and the Climate Action Network International has called the conditions Rudd and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong put on lifting their target to the still weak 25 per cent level "obnoxious".
Most telling, and most high-profile internationally, the entire team of negotiators from the developing world, led by the African delegation, walked out of pre-Copenhagen negotiations in Barcelona last week for 24 hours in protest against the refusal by rich nations to commit to scientifically credible targets of 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. Although it received almost no attention in Australia, the walkout was from a meeting chaired by Australian delegates and Kevin Rudd was singled out in a post-walkout press conference.
Sudanese delegate and lead negotiator for the G77 plus China, Lumumba Di-Aping, focused his press conference on the hypocrisy of the rich nations at climate talks, asking the assembled media to "tell me of any politician who delivered on his political manifesto. Is it Gordon Brown? Is it Kevin Rudd?"
The African position exposes the Rudd Government's "action versus inaction" frame for the triumph of spin over substance that it is. That frame assumes that any action is sufficient in the face of the climate crisis when the most basic science tells us that that is not the case. If we take action in line with the Rudd Government's CPRS (what I call the Continue Polluting Regardless Scheme), for instance, we will trigger tipping points in the climate just as surely as if we do nothing at all. Action isn't enough - we must do what the science tells us is necessary.
On that question, I was fascinated to hear what Rudd had to say last week in expanding the definition of climate sceptics to include those who pay lip service to the science while either blocking any action or saying we must wait for the rest of the world to act before doing anything ourselves. As far as he goes, he is absolutely right.
But he left out the fourth kind of climate sceptic - the most dangerous and insidious sceptics of all - those who claim to take the science seriously, who stake out the moral high ground, and yet whose actions utterly fail to match their words. Rudd and Wong fit fairly and squarely into that category.
What does it say that, for all their fierce rhetorical battles, the actual policy prescriptions of the Rudd Government are barely different from those of the Howard government or the Turnbull Opposition? The design of the CPRS mirrors the emissions trading scheme designed by Peter Shergold for the Howard government in 2007 in its allocation of free permits to polluters at the expense of the community.
In many ways, the CPRS is actually worse - for instance the Shergold design would not have insulated transport from the scheme by offsetting the carbon price cent for cent with a cut in fuel excise as the Rudd plan does. And, for all the talk of climate scepticism, the Opposition has signed up for exactly the same targets that the Rudd Government has nominated. Their proposed amendments barely shift the goal posts on the scheme, simply sandbagging polluters marginally more.
While the media may choose to ignore what a serious response to the climate crisis looks like - the Greens' Safe Climate Bill - there is no excuse for the failure of serious analysis and commentary on whether the Rudd Government's actions match their rhetoric, let alone the science.
It is no exaggeration to say that the decisions being made in Australia and around the world in coming weeks will shape every aspect of the world that we will all grow old in. We cannot allow those decisions to be ruled by spin any more than we can defer to scepticism. Now is the time for science and substance.