The warming goes on, and on

The virus has contained emissions for now, but the planet continues to heat up

“The future is grim but the sunrise is beautiful,” US environmental writer William DeBuys once said, explaining to an interviewer that while the evidence about future climate made him pessimistic, he was hard-wired to feel cheerful.

Those words of DeBuys keep coming back to me. On clear mornings early in this Hobart winter it’s been impossible not to feel cheerful. Which is just as well, because the state of our climate is anything but.

There is no better illustration of our parlous situation than this year’s global temperature maps, which show an ominous warming region across a huge swathe of Siberia and central Asia.

For all of this century the Arctic has been warming more than twice as quickly as the world overall, but this year has seen a major break-out. The May mean for some Siberian centres was 10C above their average – on top of steady warming across all of Siberia over the first five months of this year, nearly 6C above normal.

On one day in May, the temperature in the Siberian town of Khatanga climbed above 24C – over 25C above normal and 12C higher than the previous record. Then a fortnight ago Nizhnyaya Pesha, northeast of Moscow, sweltered in 30C temperatures – 17C above normal. Both centres are within the Arctic Circle – in the case of Khatanga 500 km north of it.

A full analysis of this unheard-of warming is yet to come, but a lot of it is likely to be down to the fact that the volume of ice covering the Arctic Ocean has dropped by half over just 40 years. The change has been most dramatic north of Siberia, which is now routinely ice-free all summer.

Less sea ice and reduced Arctic snow cover means both sea and land surfaces are darker-coloured, enabling the ocean and the land to absorb far more solar heat than normal. In heatwave conditions last summer, with permafrost melting at a record rate, peat fires fuelled by released methane broke out. Those that were not extinguished last summer are now flaring up again.

The Siberian experience is just one driver –albeit a big one – of high temperatures globally. Four major global temperature reviews, by the European agency Copernicus, NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the privately-funded Berkeley Earth, have concluded that for Earth as a whole, last month was the warmest May ever recorded.

An El Nino event made 2016 the warmest year on record. There is no such event this year, yet both Berkeley Earth and NASA calculate 2020 will break the record again. This when Earth is at its maximum distance from the sun and solar energy reaching us is at its lowest in the 11-year cycle – proof, if anyone needs it any more, of the dominant climate impact of greenhouse warming.

In mid-March the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organisation warned that 2020 would be a pivotal year, in which the world’s ever-rising emissions would have to begin coming down if we were to avoid a catastrophic climate future.

Their timing was exquisite, if accidental. A week or two later, with COVID-19 forcing economies everywhere to shut down, emissions suddenly started dropping. A Nature study published last month found that this year will see global emissions down by at least 4 per cent and probably more.

Leaders everywhere are doing their utmost to get economies moving again, so the downward curve may be short-lived. We do need functioning economies to develop the technologies and systems to reach zero carbon emissions and ultimately to lower carbon levels in the air. What we definitely don’t need is a return to business as usual.

But with a few scattered exceptions (Europe and New Zealand come to mind), in preparing their national recovery plans leaders are not including any effective emissions-reducing measures, let alone the ones we need most – those that will have an immediate impact.

It’s possible that COVID-19 and other destabilising factors will turn today’s recession into a multi-year depression – tragic for humanity but a welcome breather for the natural environment. That would keep emissions relatively low, but it’s no way to secure a safe climate future.

But it’s never too late. “Thriving Tasmania” is an event aiming to draw Tasmanians into a virtual conversation to reflect on how we can shape a stronger future community in the wake of COVID-19. Two identical events – next Monday and on July 9 – will explore the actions we can take to help our state thrive again. Register at www.tasmanianway.org/thrivingtasmania

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When ugly things happen, unity is everything

Political tribalism is fuelling social unrest when that’s the last thing we need

There was never a more telling instance of internet power. Just days after video was posted showing a policeman kneeling on a black man’s neck, and in the face of pandemic lockdowns, mass protests erupted in cities round the world.

The video was evidence of a crime, fully justifying the arrests that eventually followed and the scrutiny that confronted people and governments everywhere, including in Australia, about racism embedded in laws, policies, procedures and customs.

It brings to mind a couple of other recent videos that got a mass audience. One featured three people fighting over toilet paper in the aisles of a Sydney supermarket in March. The other was about a woman in New York’s Central Park three weeks ago who, asked by an African American man to put her dog on a lead, phoned police. Stupid, racist – and all too human.

Against a backdrop of the pandemic and various other events, both the shoppers and the dog-walker were targets of public ridicule. The shoppers have faced court; the dog-walker – notwithstanding an apology – lost both her dog and her job.

But I can’t find it in me to condemn them. The videos didn’t leave me amused or outraged, just sad. Whatever personal shortcomings were on display, the people involved were at breaking point. And they broke.

The power of social media to expose injustice also makes it easy to stoke division and ridicule people. Those small disagreements seem trivial compared to the sufferings of millions through famine, war and displacement, but what lies behind them is anything but trivial.

We are encouraged to see security as soldiers defending the nation and police catching criminals, but that’s mostly politics. So-called security policies that use heavy-handed policing, punitive justice and an unresponsive bureaucracy to divide people actually undermine the real, inner security we all need.

Divisive politics now extends to every corner of society. Behind the robodebt fiasco that drove thousands of low-income Australians to despair is the implication that welfare recipients are cheats who steal from the public purse. The spectre of terrorism is used to target certain ethnic groups, to justify secret court hearings and to bypass other democratic and legal principles.

And then there’s race. School histories never admit it, but Australia was founded on racism. Earlier governments rated our land’s first people so low in the scheme of things that they didn’t even register as human. That attitude remains in different forms, such as political indifference to the disproportionate numbers of Aborigines in prison.

Australia’s acclaimed multicultural policies of the last century involved managing a complex interplay between different races, religions and traditions. That was until the Tampa incident gave conservative politicians a green light to express prejudice and xenophobia for electoral gain, all but wrecking the multiculturalism they claim to defend.

None of these things – cynical politics, wealth disparity, racial inequity, heavy-handed authority, ethnic division, judicial missteps – are unique to Australia. We can see daily the same sorts of issues popping up everywhere, and nowhere are they more starkly evident than in the United States.

Donald Trump is an appallingly ignorant, self-obsessed president who puts electioneering ahead of the national interest, rejects expertise and experience and promotes narrow nationalism and internal division. His administration is now a train-wreck of lies, accusations and general confusion.

Like all Americans, the hapless Central Park dog-walker has a lot to contend with. While she had no reason to be afraid of the calmly spoken black man who requested she comply with park rules and leash her dog, she almost certainly felt fearful during their encounter. She is a case in point that in her country, feelings of insecurity are expressed in more dangerous ways.

But insecurity is global. Chronic racial division, employment uncertainty, poverty, income inequality, a public health crisis and a destabilised climate – even without the devastation of war – add up to the greatest challenges to governments and peoples since at least World War II.

Fighting over toilet paper and making false claims to police are foolish, and it’s bad tactics to protest in public streets when there’s a pandemic. But people do irrational things when deep-seated fears and anxieties affecting whole populations are left to fester for years, or decades.

Like the rest of us, politicians will never agree on everything, but the crises we are living through call for them to abandon empty political point-scoring, acknowledge the truth of evidence and stop attacking messengers.

We need them to recognise that the big challenges we face demand unity of purpose and action, between individuals, communities, governments and ultimately nations. If we don’t achieve that, the ride ahead is going to get even rougher.

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Harsh lessons for fair-weather leaders

Demagogues everywhere are paying a price for hoodwinking their people.

In these harsh, fraught, testing times we are being asked to look into our lives and our hearts as never before.

The thousands of Indigenous Australians who crowded into city streets and parks at the weekend, joined by Australians of all colours and creeds, broke social distancing rules not because they’re irresponsible, as finance minister Mathias Cormann alleges, but because they are angry.

Rightly so. Like all black Americans they have endured racism for centuries. Hundreds of them have died in police custody in the 29 years since an official inquiry found gaping flaws in the way the law treats them. Who has the right to condemn their response, pandemic or no pandemic?

Those of us of European stock are in no position to decry a crowd’s removal of a slave-trader’s statue in England, or a US state’s plan to remove a statue of a slave owners’ champion. Such statues should have disappeared long ago. They should never have gone up in the first place.

COVID-19 is teaching us things, too. In hibernation we see things in a different light. Political posturing, partisanship, the endless daily chatter about growth and surpluses and corporate profits, all now seem more than a little frivolous and pointless, if not ridiculous.

We are seeing governments tested in fundamental ways, and found wanting. In China, where the virus first emerged, the delayed response of president Xi Jinping led to a lot of pain for those at the epicentre, Wuhan, and ultimately a lot of damage to this powerhouse economy.

While each of Europe’s four biggest countries – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – has been severely hit, efficient testing by the Germans under Angela Merkel has held deaths to a fraction of those in each of the other three, all led by men.

But for ineptitude, none of those countries mentioned above holds a candle to the island nation that in 2016 voted to leave Europe. A would-be Great Britain started with much lower pandemic numbers than the others; now its toll in both infections and deaths exceeds them all.

Except when ill with the virus Boris Johnson has led the UK’s incoherent pandemic response. At first he embraced the idea of herd immunity, then switched to lockdowns and social distancing and eventually closed borders before – against medical advice – allowing people to return to work.

A pandemic demands honesty and openness in government. Johnson won power by other means entirely, by sowing division, bigotry, fear and distrust. But as a demagogue, he’s small fry compared to two leaders across the Atlantic.

When he hasn’t ignored it altogether, Brazil’s strongman Jair Bolsonaro has treated the virus as a joke. Spreading like an Amazon wildfire across his vast country it has left hospitals in disarray and health workers in despair, and forced mass burials on a vast scale.

In the United States, for the most part, severe cases have not completely engulfed the system. But in every other respect the US, fast closing on two million cases and 120,000 deaths, leads the world.

Put that down to demagogue-in-chief Donald Trump, who until recently has been able to enjoy his golf with minimal distraction. For three years the stock market has kept rising and the economy, while not in the China league, has managed to stay in the black.

The pandemic caught him utterly unprepared. That was true everywhere, but Trump has proven especially inept in managing its special demands, along with Johnson, Bolsonaro and fair-weather leaders everywhere (including Russia’s Vladimir Putin).

The angry street protests over George Floyd’s death in the hands of Minneapolis police set up a perfect storm for Trump, whose prejudices blind him to the dangers of racism just as his know-it-all attitude to scientific advice leaves him floundering in the face of the pandemic.

Needing a small miracle to win in November the president is opting for a narrative about law-and-order (or as he put it on Twitter, LAW & ORDER), in which the villains will be those against troops on US streets. When people need to come together he’s busy dividing them – an ominous prospect as the campaign ramps up.

Who can explain why, faced with the same pandemic, our own prime minister didn’t follow a similar path? Perhaps it was memory of a nagging mum telling young Scott to wash his hands and listen to the doctor. Or maybe he learned something from the hostility of fire victims last summer.

Whatever it was, Scott Morrison heeded the experts, and responded. That has been his finest hour.

•POSTSCRIPT: After writing this I came across a little ray of sunshine, a wonderful story about life under lockdown in Detroit, posted in weekly episodes. Find it by googling “humantouch”.

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