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imagesMichelle Grattan

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has launched a sweeping attack on Cardinal George Pell for his sceptical stance on climate change.

Rudd – who took a high profile role at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 – has also said the coming Paris climate conference should consider reconvening in the near future to revisit the inadequacies of the international commitments made so far.

Speaking at the University of Melbourne on “Faith, Ethics and Climate Change” on Tuesday night, he declared it was “high time” Pell’s views – which are at odds with Pope Francis’ strong stand on climate change in an encyclical this year – were confronted head on.

Rudd said that after years of silence in response to Pell’s critique of his government’s climate policy, he had chosen to enter the debate on the eve of the Paris conference because “we once again enter into a critical time both for Australia and the world”.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would be carefully considering Australia’s approach, in Paris and beyond. So too would the rest of the international community, he said.

“It is, therefore, no small matter, at this most critical of times, for the ethical waters, at least in the community of faith, to be so deeply muddied, by such radical climate change sceptics as Cardinal Pell, and for his commentary to go without challenge.”

While Pell was free to contribute to the public debate, “it is equally important, particularly now that Cardinal Pell has become a global figure, to have his ‘ex cathedra’ statements on climate change challenged by others in the public space,” Rudd said. “The stakes are now far too high for us all.”

“The pope says the science on climate change is sufficiently clear. Cardinal Pell says it is not, and further that the purported science is without foundation.

“The pope says all of humanity faces a common ethical challenge to protect the planet from climate change. Because Cardinal Pell disputes the science, he says there is little if any ethical imperative at all.

“And on the question of the policy imperative, the Pope speaks with urgency. Cardinal Pell describes policy measures as an unnecessary fad and an unacceptable cost to both companies and consumers.”

Rudd said conservatives in the Church often spoke of the danger of causing confusion among the laity on complex questions of the Church’s teachings.

There must be some sympathy for confusion among the laity on the Church’s teaching on climate change and the environment “where a Prince of the Church elects to embrace a position in such fundamental contradiction to that of a papal encyclical”.

Pell had said of the encyclical that the Church had no particular expertise in science and “no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters”.

“This statement is directly targeted at the fundamental scientific underpinning of the papal encyclical,” Rudd said. “It is remarkable, given his standing, that he would launch such a public broadside against an encyclical carrying papal authority almost immediately upon its release.”

“In summary, Cardinal Pell’s position on climate change is clear. First, he argues it is a matter for science and that the Church has ‘no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters’.

“Second, he argues, based on his own extensive reading of what he calls ‘this stuff’, by which he means ‘the science’, that there is no scientific proof of global warming to the extent that it should cause policy makers to be concerned, yet in doing so, the Cardinal does not reflect on the profound contradiction in his position that as a non-scientist he proclaims the conclusions of the International Panel of Climate Change scientists, made up of thousands of scientists from almost all UN member states, are not simply open to question, but simply wrong.

“Third, the Cardinal asserts the cost of any policy intervention to arrest global warming is prohibitive for the economy and unfair on the poor, when measured against any possible gain to be derived for the planet from so acting.”

Rudd said he fundamentally disagreed with Pell on the science, the policy and the ethics. He said while there were questions and debates about precisely how climate change impacts would manifest, 97-98% of peer reviewed scientific literature agreed the world was getting significantly warmer as a result of human activities.

On policy, Australia’s experience, like a growing number of others around the world, showed economic growth did not depend on runaway greenhouse gas emissions.

“On ethics, I believe that when national political leaders are provided with unambiguous scientific advice from the authoritative international scientific body established for this purpose some 27 years ago, then those political leaders have an ethical responsibility to act to avoid the consequences of which they have been warned.”

Rudd said that as the Paris conference approached, there were grounds for both optimism and caution about the most likely outcome.

“There is optimism that the international community may have learned some of the lessons from Copenhagen,” he said.

But “there still remains a vast gap between aspiration and reality. The cold hard reality is that based on the aggregation of current international commitments on greenhouse gas reduction, the planet will not be able to sustain temperature increases within the 2 degree threshold.”

He said that from scientific, ethical and practical policy perspectives it was critical governments in Paris consider reconvening to “revisit the inadequacy of the international commitments made thus far”.

“Current commitments go one quarter of the distance, or based on other calculations, perhaps one thirds the distance they need to travel. If the Paris agreement, including the national statements associated with it, do not embrace the possibility of an early return to the conference table so that more ambitious commitments can be made, there is a danger we will fall radically short or the mark.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the Coalition parties meeting that Australia would not commit any more than the $200 million already announced to the international Green Climate Fund. It would use its co-chairmanship of the fund to concentrate on the Pacific Island countries, she said.