Few pieces of legislation could have been more circuitous in the making than that introducing a carbon tax to Australia. The issue spelled the end of Kevin Rudd's prime ministership and his successor has now defied bitter opposition to usher the package through the House of Representatives. Various factors explain this laggardly action by a country that is said to be the biggest emitter per person in the world. An important one was, however, touched on this week by the world's most celebrated climate scientist, who said climate sceptics were winning the argument with the public over global warming.
James Hansen, of Nasa, widely known as the grandfather of global warming, told the Royal Society in London that "climate contrarians" had succeeded in lessening public concern about human-caused climate change. This had occurred even though the science underpinning global warming was becoming ever stronger. Extreme climate events were now occurring over 10 to 15 per cent of the planet annually, whereas between 1950 and 1980 they occurred over less than 1 per cent.
Dr Hansen attributed the science community's failing to two factors. First, the climate sceptic lobby had used communications professionals.
This had left scientists, who were barely competent at delivering their message to the public, floundering. In turn, fossil-fuel companies, which wanted business to continue as usual, had seized on this. The near unanimity of the world's leading climate scientists on global warming had not been enough to offset this push.
Australia provides an excellent example of Dr Hansen's points. Four years ago, its business community acknowledged the need to act against climate change. That changed, however, when several developments provided it with the opportunity to put its own short-term earnings first. One of these was the global recession, which created a new set of urgent problems for governments and their citizens worldwide. Another was the failure of the Copenhagen summit to create an international framework for tackling climate change.
The scientific community has also managed to wound itself. The leaking of the so-called Climategate emails left it open to claims that leading climate scientists lacked honesty and integrity. Much damage was done even though various inquiries by British and American agencies, independent panels and universities found no wrongdoing, and concluded the science remained unassailed.
The Australian business community and the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, have seized on these developments to pursue agendas that owe nothing to the national or global interest. It has, therefore, taken courage for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to push through the carbon tax law, the more so because the success of the climate contrarians means it could well cost the Labor Party the next election. If this is so, its solace will lie in knowing that, finally, Australia has done the right thing.
Mr Abbott has "pledged in blood" to repeal the tax if he wins power. In practice, that will not be easy given the complexity of the 19-bill package. Certainly, its survival could well work to New Zealand's advantage. In 2015, the carbon tax will morph into an emissions trading scheme. At that point, Australia will have to choose to effectively tie itself to our scheme or that of the European Union.
Either way, the country's first step towards a cleaner economy sends a clear message to the world's developing nations. Finally, one of the most notable climate change loafers has acted. The excuses for inaction are dwindling. The tax also delivers a strong verdict on the perils of global warming to the public. In so doing, it heightens the prospect of informed debate.