Pandemic lessons for us and our government

In the wake of the pandemic, business-as-usual is not an option

No-one needs reminding of lives and incomes lost and disrupted by the viral pandemic and the lockdowns. But amid the chaos and anxiety there are signs that something of value can still be achieved after the virus has been put in its place.

It is remarkable how people have stepped up to support others. We’ve taken to looking up neighbours in need and shopping for them, feeding hungry people, passing on essential information, thanking front-line workers, posting art or performances or funny videos online.

We’re discerning what’s essential in life and what isn’t. We have rediscovered how great pleasure can be got from the smallest things: conversing with neighbours, greeting walkers and their children and their dogs, exploring local byways, hearing birds, feeling a breeze and the sun’s warmth.

We have revived activities from our distant past, like doing puzzles, repairing clothes, trying new recipes, writing actual letters to people. We are learning to slow down, to lower our sights, to live in the moment. And to appreciate that in the face of all that’s bad about the virus, these things alone can bring us pleasure and make our lives worth living.

And we have learned that staying alive and well and happy doesn’t need half as much stuff as we might have thought. Everywhere we see signs that the idea of stewardship is catching on, a sense of personal responsibility to our world and its inhabitants near and far, locally and globally.

Facing disastrous consequences of our over-consumption in the form of a destabilised climate, these things are our ticket to survival. If and when that is understood by current or potential leaders we might start to find a way out of the gloom.

But that is way out there. An awful lot would have to happen first, and it’s impossible to avoid the sense that this will necessarily involve large-scale economic, social and political disruption over a long period of time, imposed by the pandemic itself but by much more above and beyond that.

The experience of COVID-19 in modern economies like our own – we like to call them “advanced” – is exposing gaping flaws in the way nations and corporations do business, both at the macro level of global commerce and closer to home.

Every generation produces people with the urge to take charge. Early in the Industrial Revolution, with democracy raising its head, many of these would-be leaders spurned government as a path to power and took the simpler option of acquiring productive assets, like land, factories, offices and homes, or someone else’s business, and making money from them, thereby influencing government.

Using that simple model, called capitalism, those captains of industry invented the enticing narrative that every individual can become a big wheel by accumulating wealth. That narrative is as powerful today as ever. Capitalism is not going away any time soon.

But in weakening the capitalist economy the pandemic has dramatically undermined capitalism’s message that being rich is all that matters. COVID-19 raises the powerful alternative idea that while it may not be nice being poor, it’s arguably better than being dead.

People’s experience of those shut-downs is raising radical questions about a host of things they really care about: health, aged care, doing business, work and play, raising kids, education, welfare and a roof over one’s head (or its absence). Questions are also resurfacing about strong action to address the real and abiding threat from climate change.

Having seen the door opened to such radical analysis, how will governments respond? Will they accept that things have changed and venture along new pathways? Or, to redeploy a phrase from Scott Morrison, will they hide under the doona of old, discredited ways?

Alas, I fear the latter. The Morrison government is refusing to extend financial aid in the wake of its $60 billion Jobkeeper error revealed last week. And after months of following doctor’s orders, it demands reopened state borders despite warnings from state medical authorities that the NSW and Victorian situations remain unsafe.

A further sign is the government’s energy-climate “roadmap”. It offers hundreds of largely untested technologies for cutting emissions but spurns the only proven method of doing so: changing behaviour by pricing carbon pollution across all economic sectors.

The cost of failing to address people’s well-founded anxiety about the future will be immeasurable, far beyond the billions the government is spending (or thought it was spending) on the lockdowns. Yet just as we’re starting to see what’s wrong with business-as-usual, it wants to lead us back there. How dumb is that?

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Don’t think of what we used to have – think of what we could have

The Morrison government wants us to recover our past, but that’s the last thing we need.

Remember when you last dined out with friends? Or went to a musical event or a play or watched live sport or caught a flight somewhere?

That past may be only months old, yet it seems impossibly distant, and though we know those times weren’t perfect, they seem so. Stuck at home, we’re prime candidates for nostalgia, which is what government and business are now relying on as they try to get people back into the streets.

Listen to the language of the reopen movement. It’s all about going back to old times: recovering, returning, bouncing back, snapping back, U-shaped and V-shaped curves. All the talk implies that we will one day be living the life we were, that the past is recoverable.

But it isn’t. Economists – and our common sense – tell us there’s a fair chance those U or V shapes will be more like an L, with the horizontal bit extending who knows how long into the future.

Consider this scenario: recovery in some sectors like hospitality and entertainment offset by others slipping into recession, like construction. Demand suppressed by prolonged travel and immigration restrictions, government spending cuts and lower unemployment benefits from September.

These difficult months make the old normal seem appealing, but how good was it, really? Drought, fire, struggling economy, no sense of national purpose. Now, gathering wits and resources to plan an economic recovery, the government is trying to convince us that the old days are worth retrieving.

That was the message from Nev Power, former chief executive of Fortescue Metals, who Prime Minister Scott Morrison has put in charge of the National COVID Coordination Commission (NCCC). He thinks business can be up and running again as soon as restrictions are eased.

On being appointed, Power told the ABC’s The Business that so far as energy was concerned his key focus would be on keeping costs “competitive” for manufacturing. He skirted around questions about supporting renewable energy, saying any energy was acceptable so long as it was cheap.

His focus on costs is no surprise. It may resonate with most members of his NCCC team, whose representation heavily favours business (including minerals and energy). But it sends a bad message out to the world: that we’re not serious about suppressing carbon emissions.

We’re in powerful company. In US political circles, mired in deep division fed by a shockingly inept federal pandemic response, climate change is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Far from addressing rising carbon emissions, Donald Trump is relaxing US pollution standards.

In Europe it’s a different story. Facing another long, hot summer, EU finance ministers are now discussing a “Green Deal” as the basis of their effort to strengthen the post-pandemic European economy while also decarbonising and increasing resilience.

They are considering government-led investment to increase the market share of renewables, mainly wind and solar, and to continue building storage capacity, retrofitting old buildings to improve energy efficiency, and developing a Europe-wide circular (waste-free) economy.

All this comes after governments responded to the pandemic by enforcing economy-crippling laws to get their people through the crisis. Just as we did in Australia, federally and in each state and territory.

Pandemic figures tell the story. Countries whose governments intervened swiftly, limiting travel and enforcing social distancing and home confinement, have contained rates of infection and death. Those which didn’t – the US, Brazil and Russia come to mind – are still-developing horror stories.

Tasmania’s Gutwein government has been among the strongest responders to the COVID-19 crisis. Its intervention came at huge financial cost, but no-one could reasonably argue against it. Last week it released an ambitious, technology-heavy energy plan which energy minister Guy Barnett says will help Tasmania recover from the pandemic.

The plan is capital-intensive and contains untested ideas and glaring omissions (like ignoring our dependence on imported oil for virtually all transport energy). But at least it’s treating the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to focus on climate policy. It is a pointer to how the Morrison government can build carbon-free energy into its own recovery plan.

We should be setting our sights forward, not back. The federal government has earned credit for its rapid response to the pandemic, in which it elected to follow scientific advice and act decisively. Now it needs to apply the same common sense to the biggest issue of our age, global warming.

Its job now is to acknowledge the climate challenge, reject the notion that our long-term energy mix is simply a matter for the market determine, and start building an economy for the long-term future.

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A lament for the trees that made us

A Tasmanian-led team is watching trees in their death throes, and grieving.

Trees are better than poetry any day, wrote US poet Joyce Kilmer a few years before dying in battle in World War I. “Poems are made by fools like me,” he ended his hymn of praise, “but only God can make a tree”.

Amen to that. While I don’t have Kilmer’s religious faith, living on a mountain’s heavily-forested slopes I too feel a deep devotion to these marvels of creation. Deep inside us I’m sure all of us do. As descendants of tree-dwelling primates it’s probably in our DNA.

Besides lifting our spirits, trees matter to us in countless ways – shelter, carbon store, soil health, home for wildlife are just a start. Every land-dwelling species on Earth needs them, including us. Without them we wouldn’t be here. Without them, our future would be bleak indeed.

Tim Brodribb’s dedication to trees has taken him to new places in science and the human experience, to the point where he and his fellow-scientists can actually see a tree’s death throes as its water supply system collapses under the stresses of drought and extreme heat.

Brodribb, a plant physiologist at the University of Tasmania, led an international team of biologists whose paper on forests and climate was recently published in the US journal Science. The paper concludes that human-induced climate change raises the prospect of a world without forests.

Titled “Hanging by a thread? Forests and drought”, the paper notes that heat and drought have already begun the process of forest decline and set in motion further unavoidable changes in forest ecology and structure. If we can’t get greenhouse gas emissions significantly below their present (pre-pandemic) rate, forests will be an early casualty.

Brodribb and UTAS technicians have developed advanced optical technology that enables him to pinpoint the moments when extreme soil dryness leads to a tension in the tiny threads of water being drawn up a tree’s trunk, pulling in minute bubbles of air that cut off the supply of water to the tree’s leaves.

Brodribb and his co-authors also note the failure of another life-sustaining mechanism, the tiny openings in a plants’ leaves, called stomata. They used gas analysers to “see” how sustained hot weather forces the stomata to leak precious moisture into the atmosphere, causing the leaves to die.

We have heard much of the impact of fire on trees, through both deliberate acts of deforestation for farming and cropping and devastating wildfire, most tellingly across Australia last summer. That is in itself a tragedy, for the forests and their wildlife and also for the human communities that depend on them.

But fire is a small part of the story. Prolonged drought and periods of extreme heat pose a much more widespread, and ultimately deadlier, threat to the future viability of our forests. The Brodribb paper indicates that threat is already playing out, here and around the world.

The implications of unmitigated climate change are dire for trees on our own island. Last landfall on the edge of the circumpolar Southern Ocean, Tasmania is home to many plant species found nowhere else, including those wilderness icons, pencil pine and King Billy pine.

You’ve seen images of gnarled old specimens (they can live for over 1000 years), standing proud on a misty plateau, perhaps alongside an alpine tarn. Evolving over 150 million years ago during the breakup of the supercontinent of Pangaea, they lived through the breakup of another one, Gondwana.

Thirty years ago my wife and I planted pencil and King Billy seedlings in our mountain garden. For 15 years they grew well, but repeated bursts of summer heat and dryness are now killing them. For these cool climate species, 500 metres up is no longer high enough.

At our pre-pandemic emission rate Earth’s surface will warm by 3C within half a century. By then much of the planet (including most of Australia) will be unliveable for humans, but at least we can move. With nowhere to go, those two iconic conifer species will be early victims of that heating.

But even trees well-adapted to today’s hot, dry conditions will struggle to survive the level of heat that we are headed for. If humanity is not prepared to countenance drastic emissions cuts, it must prepare for a world without forests.

Tim Brodribb and his colleagues used to feel alarmed at our failure to curb emissions. Now, seeing things play out, they are grieving over our prospective loss, and so should we all. The prospect of living without forests is beyond tragic. It is unthinkable.

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