Looking back on this year of wonders

The exceptional experience of living through 2020

Our memories of this remarkable year will depend entirely on our circumstances.

It has been a horrible year for people confronted by summer’s monster fires, or laid low by COVID-19, or damaged by the lockdowns. But to those who’ve been able to avoid the worst outcomes the pandemic has offered a chance to reflect.

That has been a godsend for writers like Delia Falconer, whose natural inclination to isolation saw her relieved at the pause in human activity, “taking pleasure in a world temporarily stilled”. With 24 other Australians, Falconer wrote about her 2020 experience in a new essay collection edited by leading non-fiction writer Sophie Cunningham, called Fire, flood, plague.

There is much in this little gem of a book from which we can take comfort. Not least is a host of examples of people rising to the occasion, setting aside differences and making the effort to come together (subject of course to social distancing) in a spirit of cooperation and mutual support.

Fire, flood, plague is a unique snapshot of personal experiences in this year of wonders, drawing together many strands of thinking and feeling from a wide array of backgrounds and experiences – professional scientists, historians and journalists alongside activists, novelists, poets and all manner of other writers.

“Wonders” seems almost inadequate to describe a year in which those “natural” events of the title, fire, flood and plague, are just some of the string of surprises that have regularly intruded into our news feeds. What about last week’s official finding about our most celebrated soldiers? Or the assault on democracy in the United States?

Or what about Black Lives Matter, including the way it was interpreted in our own country? One of the book’s contributors, Brenda Walker, touches on this in contemplating the strangeness of a 2020 Anzac Day without its Dawn Service in Kings Park, Perth.

Kings Park, she points out, “has been an Indigenous dreaming place for tens of thousands of years. The war memorial lies above the meeting of wide rivers: a place of sky and water. There is a memorial to the Boer War, but no memorial to the Frontier Wars…”

Indeed, not here and not in any Australian city, though each of them has its war memorial. And in a year in which an iconic Australian mining company deliberately destroyed an ancient Pilbara rock art gallery, it behoves us to reflect deeply, with several contributors to this book, on why Australian history has for so long been deemed not to have begun until 1788.

It goes without saying that a book featuring last summer’s fires will have much to say about climate change, specifically what is in store for us in Australia. Pointing out that climate change was the main driver of the fires, ANU climatologist Joëlle Gergis is especially forthright:

“We are being forced to come to terms with the fact that we are the generation that is likely to witness the destruction of our Earth. We have arrived at a point in human history that I think of as the ‘great unravelling’. I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse unfolding.”

One Fire, flood, plague contributor deserves special mention. Perth-born, UK-based Rebecca Giggs is the author of Fathoms: The world in the whale, about this remarkable creature and its ocean habitat, published recently to global acclaim.

Giggs begins her 2020 narrative in January. After sitting in her London flat watching shocking video of Australia’s bushfires, she considers the fate of fire-ravaged ecosystems in her native land, where plants needing absent insects to spread their pollen, slow-budding re-seeders like banksias and birds with specific diets will struggle: “The new bush will not sound like the old one.”

People suddenly hearing songbirds in locked-down London, says Giggs, were looking to nature for solace: “The pandemic might ravage the hospitals, but there would remain woodlands, berries agleam in the hedges and things to flutter and soar.”

After watching birds from the roof of her flat as they faded with the twilight, she began to notice lights of living rooms and kitchens. “In the darkness I saw how many of my neighbours stood at their windows, listening with me, for what moved in the air between us.”

In the end, this is what it all comes down to. Company. After generations of treating the rest of life on Earth as if it doesn’t matter, when things fall apart that’s where we turn. And coronavirus or not, we’ve never needed those other myriad species more than now.

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The dangerous folly of ignoring carbon emissions

Scott Morrison’s climate policy paralysis sets a dishonourable example for the world

Joel Fitzgibbon has fumed for years over Labor’s pursuit of stronger carbon abatement – anathema to the coal industry. So it was no surprise to see him quit the shadow cabinet last week.

No coal mine in Fitzgibbon’s seat of Hunter has a long-term future. And where coal is headed, oil and gas cannot be far behind. The International Energy Agency, the World Bank and virtually every climate scientist in the world say the sooner we stop extracting geologically stable carbon and burning it, the better. The coal industry has to be terminated. End of story.

Most MPs, federal and state, would baulk at that statement. Instead of developing alternative job opportunities for coal workers and staring down industry bullies, they continue to peddle the line that fossil fuels will remain essential to our economy for decades. It’s a line fed to them day after day, week after week by mining lobbyists who are well paid to ensure this happens.

So let me recommend to all those misguided politicians three current references showing why this is dangerous propaganda.

The first is the UNEP’s current Emissions Gap Report, released just before COVID-19, which found a growing gap between actual emissions and what the world’s governments have pledged to do to reverse the trend. It found that national commitments need to be at least three times stronger to keep warming below 2C and more than five times stronger to achieve the much safer 1.5C goal.

In its 2020 World Energy Outlook, released last month, the IEA said that unsubsidised growth of solar and wind energy would not be enough to put us on a sustainable emissions path. Without strong government support of renewables and curbs on fossil fuel use, it said, international climate goals would be pushed out of reach.

The IEA said that a target of net zero emissions by 2050 required “dramatic additional actions” to ensure that three-quarters of global energy comes from renewable sources by 2030 (currently at 19 per cent) and that electric car sales worldwide in 2030 make up 75 per cent of all car sales (currently 2.5 per cent). This is the level of ambition needed for a reasonable shot at a safe climate.

The third item on my MP reading list is the most important because it’s about us – Australia – compiled by our two leading climate science bodies, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO. Late last week they released the 2020 edition of their two-yearly series, the “State of the Climate”.

SOTC 2020 reports a surge in extreme heat events last year. Days on which the national average maximum was 40C or above totalled just 24 from 1960 to 2018, mostly in more recent years. But last year alone, 33 days reached that unhappy milestone.

The report expects that by the time the global mean temperature reaches the 1.5C “safe” level of warming, the heat we experienced in 2019, our hottest year on record, will be seen as just average.

Southern Australia in recent decades has experienced markedly lower winter rainfall and stream flows, and longer and more dangerous fire seasons. The report sees this trend continuing in coming decades, with drier winters, more drought, more bad fire weather and more intense rain events.

So could the government be guided by its pandemic success? Could it accept scientific projections as to our future climate and allow its response to be determined by climate experts, who are calling for vastly stronger measures to cut fossil fuel emissions?

Not a bit of it. On Friday, Scott Morrison interpreted a finding of the royal commission into last summer’s bushfires, that climate impacts were “locked in” for decades, to mean that the government had to focus not on mitigating the impacts, but on dealing with their consequences.

Australia has held the pandemic in check because governments heeded scientific advice to focus on blocking the spread of the virus. The public health catastrophe now unfolding in the US underscores the perils of the alternative – just treating symptoms while hoping for an effective vaccine.

Yet the Morrison government is doing exactly that – tackling symptoms but not the drivers of the problem – in pursuing its non-policy on climate. Faced with science’s advice that urgent global action is needed to avoid massive and deadly consequences, it does nothing.

That inaction is founded on a lie. With fossil-fuel emissions steadily rising, the government uses accounting trickery to suggest that they’re not. If enough nations follow this dishonourable example, the world will be in an endless game of catch-up, in which everyone will be losers.

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Australia will feel heat from Biden’s win

Democracy was a winner last week. But the US election result will put pressure on climate laggards, and that includes us.

Joe Biden’s election victory last week was momentous because Donald Trump challenged US democracy. However we might feel about this complicated nation, a challenge to American democracy is a challenge to democracy everywhere.

The Morrison government would have joined other leaders in a sigh of relief at the outcome. But on at least one front, climate action, it won’t be feeling so relaxed. As one of the world’s climate laggards, we will feel the heat from Biden’s win more keenly than most US allies.

Trump won office four years ago because he stood out from the pack of political conformists, a maverick with a whiff of danger about him, and for years many Americans enjoyed the ride. His winning narrative was that he alone could save America from shadowy forces sucking its lifeblood. People wanted to believe that, and they did.

That is, until the virus. Consider this: Australia followed expert public health advice on COVID-19; it has so far suffered 36 deaths for every million of its population. The US did not; there the equivalent figure is 727. The Australian case total for the whole pandemic is exceeded in the US each day – by nearly five times. A day ago, the US total passed 10 million.

As the virus worked its way through the population, Americans began paying greater heed to the word of science. The president ignored the pandemic disaster and tried to hide it, but it became starkly obvious to Americans that their anointed leader was the wrong person for the job.

No-one should underestimate the power of Trump’s charismatic, utterly self-obsessed leadership; nor the sycophancy of dependent politicians; nor the willingness of many to believe his conspiracy theories. After four years in which he ruthlessly exploited and worsened his country’s divisions, in his remaining 10 weeks as president – and beyond – he can continue to do a lot of damage.

But under Biden there will at least be an effort at the top to begin the healing process. And as the pandemic so clearly showed, a necessary part of that must be the resurrection of scientific knowledge as a key informant of government action.

America’s pandemic trauma will be Biden’s launching pad for what will ultimately be the biggest science-based focus of his administration, climate change. That issue more than any other defines the ideological shift that the election will deliver.

Trump has never accepted any part of the now-overwhelming body of evidence that humans, by burning coal, oil and gas, can and are causing global warming and destabilising weather. He has even speculated that the greenhouse warming story was a hoax perpetrated by (of course) China.

A day after the election, Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the 2015 Paris Agreement took formal effect. Biden will bring his country back into that community of 189 nations, including Australia, which seeks to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

That’s the easy part. Biden’s $2 trillion climate agenda – mostly aimed at net zero emissions by 2050 through huge investments in clean technologies, including support for developing countries to build their own resilience – was jolted by the Democrat failure to win a Senate majority, although that may be remedied after runoff elections in January.

The president will need Senate support to secure the legislative backbone his climate program will ultimately need. But it should be possible for a seasoned negotiator like Biden to win that support by tying low-carbon reforms to wider social and economic recovery programs. With an ounce of luck, that might include a tax on carbon pollution.

Touting a long personal history of support for climate action, Biden pledged during his presidential campaign to lead “a diplomatic initiative to get every nation to go beyond their initial commitment”. He has indicated that a Biden administration will look to penalise countries that refuse to do anything to lower their carbon emissions.

Australia enjoyed zero pressure from a Trump-led US to ramp up abatement. Noisy fossil-fuel advocates in the Coalition have backed Scott Morrison’s continued refusal to acknowledge the importance of climate action even after our climate-induced Black Summer, and the government has consistently refused to raise 2030 and 2050 Paris targets.

Pressure from across the Pacific will now resume, stronger than ever. Biden’s win owes a lot to climate activists, and the new administration can expect to be held to account on its ambitious plans. From next January, whenever Morrison and energy minister Angus Taylor meet with their US counterparts they can expect awkward questions about beefing up our climate commitment.

Watch this space.

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