Reporter: Tara Brown
Producer: Stephen Taylor
It's the story of our lives, the most crucial issue, the most controversial. The very future of planet earth.
For almost 20 years, we've heard the warnings about climate change, yet so many of us know so little about it.
We're told we should prepare for the worst, more floods, more storms, more droughts. And of course, it's all our fault.
If we don't act now, if we don't change our way of life, the world as we know it is finished.
But is it really that bad, are we really doomed? The skeptics say no, not necessarily.
But with so much at stake can we risk it? Can we afford to sit back, do nothing and hope for the best?
WEBCHAT: 60 Minutes presents a live interview with mathematician and scientist, Dr David Evans.
TARA BROWN: It's strange but true. The devastating effects of global warming are often best seen in the most spectacular parts of the world. A story on the melt-down of the Arctic ice cap could easily be a picture postcard luring tourists to Greenland. Just this sublime, stark landscape where you are a mere witness to nature at its most spectacular. Just as a look at polar bears facing an ever-warming environment can become a face-to-face adventure... Oh my God. Oh no. And even here at home, the beauty of this vast watery wilderness - South Australia's Coorong - blinds you to the fact this place is choking to death.
DAVID PATON: Where we are standing, there probably was almost 1 metre of water here, just a year ago.
CHARLES WOOLEY: This isn't a lake or a waterway, it's a desert.
TARA BROWN: For almost 20 ears now, we have travelled to these places. Places, which - if you believe the dire warnings of global warming - may be doomed. Certainly our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd believes them. How big a challenge is climate change to mankind in 2008?
PM KEVIN RUDD: I think it's probably one of the biggest if the not THE biggest challenge for the century and the reason's pretty clear - it affects everything.
TARA BROWN: So convinced is the Federal Government of the threat, it is about to introduce a controversial carbon tax that will not only change the way we live, but have a huge impact on our economy.
PM KEVIN RUDD: I'm not going to lie to you and say this is going to be cost free. This is a tough decision, we need to take it for the country's long-term future and its long-term economic future. But economic cost of not acting is massive, it's through the roof. Think about food production, the Murray, think about the impact on tourism in QLD, no more Barrier Reef, Kakadu, no more Kakadu. Think about the impact on jobs, it's huge.
TARA BROWN: How certain are you that mankind is the cause behind global warming?
PM KEVIN RUDD: Well, I just look at what the scientists say. There's a group of scientists called the International Panel on Climate Change - 4000 of them. Guys in white coats who run around and don't have a sense of humour. They just measure things. And what they say to us is it's happening and it's caused by human activity.
TARA BROWN: Man's desire to create great economic wealth has fuelled an unabashed lust for energy. It means we've treated the planet as a dump pumping whatever we wanted wherever we wanted. But increasingly, smoke stacks have become symbols of environmental embarrassment rather than industrial envy. For years, the experts have told us these emissions cause global warming.
DR TIM FLANNERY: That is the most important thing. Stop burning coal and other fossil fuels and stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because that is what is warming the atmosphere and that is what's driving the changes.
TARA BROWN: But we've also met the sceptics.
PROF. RICHARD LINDZEN: We need CO-2. It's not a poison, it's not a pollutant. It's essential for life on earth. I mean how much are we going to depend on people's ignorance in order to produce panic?
TARA BROWN: They may not be as well known but there are many scientists - in fact thousands around the world - who don't think carbon dioxide is the climate-change culprit. Scientist and mathematician, David Evans, says man is not to blame and so to cut carbon emissions is misguided.
DAVID EVANS: I think it's an utter waste of time and that's why I'm speaking out. The picture that our decision makers have is wrong. It's going to cost us a lot of time, effort and money and it's gonna make a lot of us a bit poorer and there's no evidence that carbon emissions cause any significant warming at all.
TARA BROWN: So, if nothing else, their hearts are in the right place?
DAVID EVANS: Yeah, sure, however their brains are in the wrong place and we didn't elect them for their hearts, they've got to use their brains as well.
PROFESSOR LONNIE THOMSON: The ice gives a very clear story I think it is our most visible evidence of global warming.
TARA BROWN: The science of climate change is relatively new but relies on some very old evidence, as Liz Hayes discovered when she met Professor Lonnie Thompson on the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies.
LIZ HAYES: Now Lonnie, is this an example of what you were talking about - this glacier? PROF.
LONNIE THOMPSON: Yes, if you look at the history here as we know it, it has retreated about 1.5 km since 1844.
LIZ HAYES: Glaciers, according to scientists like Lonnie Thompson are the equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. When they start disappearing we are all in trouble. And just about every glacier on the planet is melting. PROF.
LONNIE THOMPSON: What we've been seeing in the last 20 years is that that rate is accelerating and it is becoming fast even for a glacier.
TARA BROWN: No doubt the ice is melting, but the big question is - are we to blame? The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change reports it is 90% certain we are. But other equally eminent scientists believe what were seeing is just part of Nature's great cycle.
DAVID EVANS: Now since 1990, western governments have spent about $50 billion looking for evidence that carbon causes global warming and they haven't found any.
TARA BROWN: Dr David Evans has six university degrees and once worked for the Australian Government's Greenhouse Office. But he no longer thinks global warming is caused by our carbon dioxide and so isn't concerned about his or any one else's carbon footprint. So does that mean don't give up your V8 cars? Does that mean continue flying, don't worry about changing light bulbs, don't worry about trying to capture carbon or shutting down coal-fired power stations? Is that what that means?
DAVID EVANS: Well, I'm just here to report on modern science and where it's up to, personally I don't worry about those things too much, no.
TARA BROWN: Perhaps nowhere in the world is there more compelling evidence against the man-made carbon dioxide argument than Greenland. Long before the Industrial Age, the Vikings lived here and happily grew wheat and vegetables. It was known as the 'Medieval Warm Period' and temperatures were even hotter than they are today. For 400 years the Vikings called Greenland home. No-one really understands why they suddenly disappeared but most historians believe there was a sudden, harsh cold snap and, unable to adapt, the Vikings became Greenland's early victims of climate change. 1,000 years on, Greenland is enjoying another warm period and for the first time since then growing a variety of vegetables.
KENNETH HOEGH: Oh yes, that's sweet.
TARA BROWN: It's like you're in a lolly shop.
KENNETH HOEGH: Yeah, that's right.
TARA BROWN: While some believe this warming could simply be part of the world's natural cycle not so former US vice-president Al Gore. In his Oscar-winning documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth' he paints an apocalyptic picture of the future - rising seas, longer nastier droughts, more severe storms, more misery unless we make drastic cuts to our emissions.
AL GORE: When there is more carbon dioxide, the temperature gets warmer because it traps more heat from the sun inside.
TARA BROWN: Everyone agrees the solution to climate change is de-carbonisation. Stop the carbon emissions.
DAVID EVANS: Well with respect, Al Gore has been saying that the debate is over since 1991. We have learnt a great deal about the climate since 1991.
TARA BROWN: And what we should know, according to David Evans, is since 2001 temperatures around the world have stopped rising. And that's despite increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the air. So statistically, in the last seven years, the flattening and perhaps even slight cooling of temperatures - is that significant?
DAVID EVANS: Yes, yes it is significant. Once it gets up to five years or so it’s really quite significant. Whatever was driving the temperatures up has taken a break for a while and meanwhile carbon emissions have continued and the level of carbon in the atmosphere has gone up about 5% since 2001, yet we see no more warming.
PM KEVIN RUDD: Here's a measurement which people should just sit back and pay a bit of attention to - the 12 hottest years in human history have occurred in the last 13 years. That's a fact.
TARA BROWN: It's not my position to correct you Prime Minister but Ive been told that in fact during the middle ages the global temperatures were two to three degrees warmer than now. Certainly we've had the hottest 12 years in recent history but the planet's been a lot hotter.
PM KEVIN RUDD: Well, I stand by what the International Panel of Climate Change Scientists have had to say. There will always be argy-bargy about elements of the detail.
TARA BROWN: Global Warming certainly attracts lots of argy-bargy. But one thing climate scientists agree on - if global warming is caused by CO-2 emissions then the CO-2 will leave a distinct signature their computer models predict a big red hotspot above the equator. The problem is thousands of weather balloons equipped with some very sophisticated thermometers have measured the temperatures in the atmosphere to test the theory, and guess what, no hotspots.
DAVID EVANS: There's no hotspot, there's no hotspot at all. It's not even a little hotspot and it's missing. We couldn't find it.
TARA BROWN: So, this is the crux for you, this is evidence?
DAVID EVANS: Yes. If this had come out the other way, if we'd measured it and we'd found a hotspot I'd be saying, "Cut back carbon emissions."
TARA BROWN: A very simple question, is there any chance you're looking in the wrong spot?
DAVID EVANS: No.
TARA BROWN: But still, carbon emissions are blamed for global warming. And in turn, global warming seems to be at the heart of every grim climate story we've reported in the last 20 years.
CHARLES WOOLEY: I've spent a life time reporting drought in Australia and this time even I'm surprised.
TARA BROWN: Certainly, Charles Wooley thought he had seen drastic climate change close up in country NSW.
CHARLES WOOLEY: Because, believe it or not, this is the reservoir for the city of Goulburn - now down to 8% of capacity. If it were full I should be 10 metres under water.
JEFF PRELL: The last 5.5 years of rainfall are 25% below the 100-year average, so this is not only a dry, it's a big dry.
TARA BROWN: That was June 2005 and thankfully since then, much of Australia has received rain.
PROF. MARTIN THOMS: This is an oasis in an otherwise dry landscape.
PETER OVERTON: You like talking about this stuff don't you?
PROF. MARTIN THOMS: Who bloody wouldn't?
TARA BROWN: But even when an 8-year-long drought breaks and the beauty of new life appears, the overwhelming question remains - how our land will cope with predicted bigger dries of the future.
PROF. MARTIN THOMS: Our concern is really that the timing between drinks is changing, it's getting longer because of climate change, because of development.
PETER OVERTON: If the water goes up or down just a little bit then their very survival, their existence, is on a knife's edge.
PM KEVIN RUDD: In Australia we are the hottest and driest continent on the planet now. We therefore stand to be hit hardest and earliest. Something's happening, it's very big and it's irresponsible not to act.
TARA BROWN: What to do is the megabillion-dollar question. There are alternatives to powering our world without the carbon fallout of coal and oil but all have their negatives. The great hope was to replace fossil fuels with biofuels like palm oil but the plantations are so vast in places like Indonesia entire jungles are being wiped out as are the precious orang-utans who live in them.
LIAM BARTLETT: Trouble is, the forest is getting harder and harder to find and it's not surprising when you take a look at this.
TARA BROWN: Then there's wind power. It might make us feel good but there's just not enough puff in it.
DR JAMES LOVELOCK: At the best, wind power cannot provide more than a tiny fraction of the energy needs of civilisation. I think it's one of those things politicians like because it can be seen that they're doing something.
TARA BROWN: And nuclear power may be embraced by France and Finland as a green and efficient energy source but who could ever forget Richard Carleton in the remnants of the Chernobyl reactor.
RICHARD CARLETON: A man sitting at one of these panels here pushed one of these buttons and set off the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen.
TARA BROWN: In Australia, the spectre of a nuclear melt-down is politically too hot to handle. Is that no to nuclear power?
PM KEVIN RUDD: Well our attitude is that this country has enormous energy sources, both traditional carbon-based energy as well as renewable in the forms of solar, wind, geothermal. And on coal we have a particular responsibility to pioneer and, if we can, perfect and if possible apply at commercially meaningful levels clean coal technology.
TARA BROWN: If we can clean up coal we can save a $25 billion energy industry and 30 000 jobs. But that technology is still probably five years away and so, more immediately our Prime Minister wants to cut emissions by putting a cost on carbon. Mr Rudd calls it a carbon pollution reduction scheme. Big emitters will have to buy permits to pollute. It is hoped this will act as an incentive to make them cleaner, but of course they'll pass the costs on to us, and we'll end up paying more for everything. In the short term, the Government will compensate some industry and some householders, but ultimately our whole way of life will change. Is it going to wreck our economy?
PM KEVIN RUDD: The key thing is, how do you bring carbon pollution down in an economically responsible fashion? And having looked at all the detail this is the best way forward.
TARA BROWN: But if you believe the sceptics, and carbon dioxide isn't to blame for global warming then we face massive change for no good reason.
DAVID EVANS: Isn't it a bit dopey to wreck the economy for a purely theoretical reason when the alleged symptom, warming, stopped six years ago.
TARA BROWN: They perhaps would use the word prudent as opposed to dopey, that the risk of not doing something is too great?
DAVID EVANS: I urge them to look at the modern science, the evidence isn't there. There is no evidence that carbon emissions cause a significant amount of global warming.
PM KEVIN RUDD: I am not, myself, a qualified scientist. I'm elected as Prime Minister of Australia to act on the basis of the considered scientific advice.
TARA BROWN: But it's never too late to continue the debate is it?
PM KEVIN RUDD: Look at your kids in the eye tonight and ask yourself this question - "If we have this much evidence available to us now "on climate change and just refuse to act, "then what are the consequences for them?" The alternative, however, is to just stick your head in the sand and hope it all goes away.