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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