Just over forty years ago, in 1977, the US National Academy of Sciences warned that average temperatures could rise by 6°C by 2050 as a result of burning coal. It wasn’t a bad stab at it, even if the figure now looks a touch alarmist. Not long after, in 1981, NASA scientist James Hansen predicted that burning fossil fuels would increase temperatures by 2.5°C by the end of this century. That figure now looks too cautious.
In Australia, Barry Jones raised the issue the following year in his book Sleepers, Wake! As science minister in the Hawke government he set up the Commission for the Future which, among other things, produced a report on the greenhouse effect that received international recognition. Later in the decade, the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which produced its latest report this week.
Australia’s environment minister, Graham Richardson, an archetypal NSW Labor-right exponent of “whatever it takes” (which was also the title of his memoirs), had much more political clout than Jones. But in 1989 he couldn’t persuade the Hawke cabinet to adopt his proposal to stabilise emissions at 1988 levels by 2000 and reduce them by 20 per cent by 2005. Treasurer Paul Keating won the day by arguing that the economic costs were too high, and so the Coalition under Andrew Peacock went to the 1990 election with a stronger climate target than Labor’s.
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