Can we plan for climate change? Covid suggests not.

Let’s be blunt: Omicron is going to infect huge numbers of Australians. Some of us may not even know we’ve had it while others certainly will. A small number of us may suffer longer-term health impacts, or die.

There are now various online guides, informed by infectious disease experts, to tell us what we need to do if (or when) a member of our household tests positive, requiring all in the home to isolate for seven days. The to-do list is truly sobering.

In a nutshell, we’re advised to act as if everyone is infected. Limit visitors, wear a mask in shared areas, wash hands often, and keep sleeping and bathroom usage separate. Where a bathroom is shared (as applies to most of us), wipe down with disinfectant between each use. Seal gaps around internal doors while opening windows to maximise air flow.

The virus will inevitably get around some or most of these defences, for the simple reason that we’re not robots but living, breathing, irrational, fallible humans. 

As are those who govern us. Premier Peter Gutwein, with other state and territory leaders, was persuaded by prime minister Scott Morrison and NSW premier Dominic Perrottet that to keep borders closed would kill the economy. Their choice to open up for Christmas appealed to a few, but to most of us it was foolish, crazy even – and all too human.

The drama of Omicron has supplanted climate change as the topic of the moment. But like creeping old age – or a hidden Covid spread – gradual shifts in the state of the planet can take unexpected dramatic turns. Sea level is a case in point.

Current attention of sea level scientists is on one of the world’s largest ice streams, Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. A five year research project by top-level US and UK government agencies reported in November that cracks in the floating ice shelf holding back the glacier’s flow indicated the ice shelf may be gone in five years.

That would not cause a sudden jump in sea level, currently rising an average of 3.6 mm a year, because only the loss of land-based ice affects sea levels. But its breakup will allow Thwaites to flow more rapidly, and because nearly all the West Antarctic ice sheet sits on rocks below sea level, warming seas can melt it from below.

This raises the possibility that very large parts of the ice sheet will break off and float away, causing much faster sea level rise – the worst possible nightmare for coastal cities and communities everywhere.

Repeated incidents of coastal inundation and erosion are evidence that sea level rise is already in play. For low-lying communities on oceanic islands or river deltas it’s a matter of life and death; in Australia it’s measured in money.

In mid-November the Insurance Council of Australia released a report estimating the 50-year cost of adequate coastal protection and adaptation projects at $30 billion. A growing number of exposed properties in Australia, says the report, will become uninhabitable. 

With no insurance backup, property owners will put local authorities under increasing pressure to invest in protection infrastructure. But, say the insurers, any kind of help will become untenable as the pace of sea level rise grows. 

Clever online tools like CoastAdapt and Smartline have helped to build a picture of the challenge, but that work is stalled from lack of funding. This is despite decades of advice from scientists and insurers of the dangers rising seas pose to coastal plains, home of most of the world’s people and a major source of food.

Dealing with sea level rise requires rolling out well-considered plans over decades, anathema to today’s leaders who focus a limited attention span on staying in power. Pre-Covid, they routinely let it be known that they were strong, capable, knowing. But the contagion laid bare their hubris. It is now glaringly obvious, day after day, that they make it up as they go along.

The Covid-climate double whammy calls for a new democratic compact that recognises the failure of neoliberal capitalism while understanding that strength in leadership comes from candour, openness and cooperation. We need leaders to admit that they need help. For egos the size of theirs, this will be really tough. It probably won’t happen.

In media briefings about Covid, Victorian health minister Martin Foley presents as an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances – candid, open, receptive, diffident, uncharismatic – just the kind of consultative style we need. May the ordinary folk, the Martin Foleys, emerge to take their place in history.

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