Pandemic opens door to fresh thinking

Our new premier has shown a refreshing capacity to treat situations on their merits and draw on professional advice – just what’s needed to manage the climate challenge

In 2020, a new Peter Gutwein has come to light.

Gone is the enforcer, a persona he carried all through his career as Will Hodgman’s treasurer. The new premier’s empathy, grit and grasp of the facts through these challenging times mark him as a leader of quality.

With the coronavirus fading (though not yet gone) as a direct health issue, a further huge challenge for our island will remain: to find a way through the wreckage of the old economy, to envision a new, post-pandemic one and then to get it moving.

One thing is clear: even if we wanted to, it will not be possible simply to revert to what we had before. The economy that we understood up to this time of calamity – which takes in drought and fire as well as pandemic – has gone forever, and its replacement will be a very different beast.

The first task of Tasmania’s recovery effort will be to work out how public and private wealth and wellbeing can be lifted out of its present hole. This seems to have been the premier’s thinking in announcing his “Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council” last week.

Business and finance are represented by five of the council’s nine members, six if you include the chair, former treasury secretary Don Challen. Others are UTAS vice-chancellor Rufus Black, whose background includes marketing; former TasCOSS chief executive Kym Goodes, a strong advocate for vulnerable people; and Leanne McLean, children’s commissioner and a social policy expert.

Gutwein charged the council with working out how Tasmania can achieve “sustainable economic growth” while mitigating COVID-19’s social impacts, developing “a competitive and brand advantage”, and investigating job opportunities and “sustainable social initiatives”.

In these carbon-constrained times the premier should be questioning and qualifying the notion of sustainable growth. That aside, his “Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council” looks equipped to handle that limited range of demands.

But deeper questions hang heavy in the air. The premier touched on this by calling on the council to find ways to “support and enable Tasmanians to take advantage of a different way of life and work and business, or to reinvent themselves in new and emerging industries”.

He left it open to the council to determine what life, work and business will look like in the new Tasmania, which will mean identifying the main long-term pressures, in addition to the pandemic, on today’s way of life.

Many such pressures pre-date COVID-19: poverty, homelessness, inequality, unemployment, under-employment, a casualised workforce, long supply chains, lack of local manufacturing to name a few. All of these will need to be addressed.

But the big one, looming over all, is nature’s response to human excesses – in short, climate change and the many things that hang off it, including natural disasters, the health of natural environments and ecosystems, our capacity to produce food and our total dependence on imported fossil fuel.

There is some comfort in knowing that the present economic shutdown has dramatically reduced global carbon emissions to a degree unimaginable at the start of this year. The International Energy Agency estimates that CO2 emissions will drop by eight per cent just this year.

We can expect that to continue well into next year and maybe beyond. That would be about the level of decline needed over most of the next decade to get down to “safe” limits, but it is exactly the opposite what every business and political leader is advocating.

This will be the challenge for the premier’s recovery council. The impact of climate change, already being felt in our economic and social life, will only grow over time. The council will have to reckon with that, yet it lacks anyone who can help it understand the nature and depth of that challenge.

This should not stop it from consulting scientific expertise and exploring existing proposals addressing such climate challenges as transitioning away from fossil fuels, supporting more climate-friendly agriculture, and addressing our notoriously high levels of waste.

The coronavirus, which evidence shows originated in nature and not a laboratory as some politicians have claimed, has succeeded in knocking out the global economy and causing general chaos. Climate change is another force of nature. Accelerated by carbon emissions from regrowing economies, it will deliver the same, and much more.

Peter Gutwein has shown he is able to abandon partisan mindsets and treat a situation on its merits alone, drawing on the best professional advice – exactly the kind of mental agility and resilience we will need at the top as the climate challenge rolls over the top of the post-pandemic recovery.

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Climate lessons from COVID-19

A few essential principles have informed Scott Morrison’s response to the coronavirus; now he must apply that same logic to climate change.

Heed the science. Go early, go hard. Flatten the curve. Health first, economy second. These are the broad principles that underlie our COVID-19 response.

Australians accept those principles and actions arising – staying home, washing hands – because we know they are needed to eliminate the coronavirus and because we’re prepared to put up with the economic pain for as long as it takes.

Success brings accolades. Despite some missteps and mistakes, Australia has managed to keep the virus at bay more successfully than almost any comparable country.

Decades ago, long before the onset of COVID-19, governments around the world were being urged by scientists to act decisively to flatten another curve, against another threat – not just to our own species but to every living thing on the planet.

This advice was ignored. While they no longer attempt to contradict greenhouse science, some of the same leaders who acted so promptly against COVID-19 – including prime minister Scott Morrison – continue downplaying the threat and opposing decisive action.

This is no surprise. Ignoring a rapidly spreading threat to the health of every individual voter would end a political career. But in the absence of a climate-related disaster, voters can be relied on to overlook a gradual, multi-year rise in greenhouse gas levels and focus on more pressing matters.

Added to which is persistent, well-funded advocacy on behalf of coal, oil and gas sectors, highly motivated and very focused on survival. Expect those mining and export industries to be even more active given chronic problems in the coal and gas markets and a disastrous crash in the oil price.

Amid the COVID-19 babel you may have missed this year’s World Meteorological Organisation report on the parlous state of our climate – the environment that determines the well-being of everything to do with life on this planet, including our good selves and the viruses that infect us.

Every year, to get a handle on where we’re at, the WMO draws together threads from all its member organisations including our own Bureau of Meteorology. Every year the news gets worse.

The five years from 2015 to 2019, says the report, were the warmest on record, of which 2019 was second-warmest. But unlike 2016, which broke all records, last year was not influenced by an extreme El Nino event, and there’s only one possible cause: human-induced climate change.

There is uncertainty about how this warming will proceed. It may not be as bad as projected, but it may be worse. The record warming of recent years is suggesting the latter.

The end of 2019 saw record levels of greenhouse gases. Atmospheric concentrations measured at key locations around the world, including Tasmania’s Cape Grim, are undeniable evidence that pollution is continuing to rise – at an accelerating rate.

The most common of these gases, carbon dioxide, is now 47 per cent above stable levels before we began to industrialise 200 years ago. Much more powerful methane, a significant pollutant from extracting and using oil, coal and, especially, gas, is 59 per cent above pre-industrial levels.

So after all the huff and puff of those solemn 2015 Paris pledges to cut emissions, this is where we are at: hopelessly hooked on ever-growing economies and the substances that fuel them. Governments, our own included, continue to do all they can to avoid facing that fact.

At least, this was the case at the end of last year. Then along came the coronavirus.

The view of the economic and political establishment seems to be that we should aim to “bounce back” – “snap-back” was Scott Morrison’s term – to a “normal” economic situation, which presumably means an economy getting up enough head of steam to have everyone back in work.

Employment is important for many reasons, not least people’s sense of self-worth. But there are many ways to be employed. You could argue that getting government money to stay at home and look after the kids and the neighbours is a form of employment, albeit not the one we’re used to.

The virus has opened up all sorts of possibilities at a time when finding an alternative to our old high-polluting economy is of the utmost importance. The pandemic’s impact will be small compared to what awaits us if we cannot halve global carbon emissions within a decade.

COVID-19 has taught the federal government to heed the science, go early and go hard, flatten the curve and put health ahead of the economy. Now, the country must make it plain that our response to climate change, with the health of all living things at stake, demands nothing less.

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Neighbourliness is next to godliness

As the pandemic wears on, people are learning the value of good neighbours.

Many years ago, living in row of terraces in inner-suburban Sydney, my partner and I were troubled by noisy, nocturnal gatherings of a family renting next door.

For a while the parties were happening every fortnight, coinciding with the family’s welfare payments. Once we called the police, but that intervention did nothing to improve things. With our first child on the way we saw little hope of a change any time soon.

Late one night, with a good deal of trepidation, I decided to confront them. I knocked on the door and was met by the man of the house, a big, burly fellow named Albert. I stated my case, and was surprised when Albert readily agreed to get his rowdy companions to tone things down.

Over the next few weeks, seeing them from time to time in their tiny front garden, we gradually made the acquaintance of Albert and his wife, Joyce. They still had the odd noisy party, but that small amount of friendly chat somehow made things better. We didn’t call the police again.

That was one of my first lessons in neighbourliness. It’s a cumbersome word for something that in this pandemic year turns out to be a much bigger part of our lives than we might have imagined.

Neighbourhoods tend to be of a kind – affluent, poor, professional, trade and so on – but living next door to someone is no guarantee that you can easily connect with them. Social pleasantries and small-talk can seem burdensome, especially if you’re irritated by something your neighbour did or didn’t do.

Since 2003 Relationships Australia has sponsored “Neighbour Day”, on the last Sunday in March every year. This year it got lost in the noise around COVID-19 – ironically just when neighbours are pretty much the only people we get to see in the flesh.

Someone who tries hard to be a good neighbour is Lynda Cheshire, a sociology professor at the University of Queensland. One of her specialities is “un-neighbourliness”, when people don’t get on with their neighbours – or don’t even know who they are.

A strong economic factor is in play here. Cheshire’s research has shown that while more affluent people with neighbour problems tend to use third-party systems like police or council, people in disadvantaged communities, with a 30 per cent greater chance of getting into disputes over the fence, are much less inclined to seek outside help. That may explain why Albert responded better when police weren’t involved.

Research has shown that these days most Australians rarely if ever engage with neighbours, yet they are the people we are most likely to rely on for help when disaster strikes. Home confinement in these pandemic times is an opportunity to reflect and maybe to act on that.

Many are acting, now. An online support movement founded in the UK, #ViralKindness, is galvanising local residents to contact self-isolating households offering to pick up shopping or urgent supplies, post mail or just chat on the phone. Like the virus, kindness is contagious. The movement’s reach extends here.

We may feel we have little in common with our neighbours, but we share more than we might think. Our neighbourhood, the place we call home – its roads, buildings, animals, plants, landforms and weather, and the doings of its people – plays a pivotal role in shaping us.

When this is all over – starting now, in fact – governments would do well to acknowledge the central role of neighbourliness in a healthy society. Just as managers need to acknowledge the value of those in their workplace with a talent for engaging with colleagues and oiling social cogs.

Such people tend to be overlooked because kind words and good neighbours are not readily measured, don’t fit into bar graphs and don’t have a dollar value. But they can be the difference between a functional and a dysfunctional society, or between sickness and health, even life and death.

As jobs disappear and people feel the pain of rejection, stories from the Great Depression are beginning to resonate. The best of them are about friends and strangers coming together in a common cause. When times are tough and people are down, you help them, no questions asked.

No-one likes a nosey neighbour, which is the common pretext for the easy option of turning away and ignoring people. A good neighbour has grasped the fine art of keeping in touch without interfering, knowing all the while that it’s a two way street. We need each other.

There are many ways to be civilised, but none better than neighbourliness.

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