Here’s the good news. Prime minister Scott Morrison is not, it turns out, against listening to the experts and taking heed of their advice. It’s what he says he is doing each time he fronts the media when discussing his action on Covid-19, or the Coronavirus, even if some argue that he’s taking an each-way bet on the economy and the nation’s health.
The threat of a run-away escalation of the Coronavirus in Australia, and the scramble of government policy trying to head it off at the pass, has become the all-consuming theme of this past week.
Whatever happens, this short but crucial period will go down in history as The Critical Week during which state and federal governments did or did not act firmly enough and early enough to avoid a devastating health crisis.
For many, it’s a strikingly familiar scenario. It is a study, in miniature, of Australia’s response to the climate emergency.
This Critical Week for the containment of Covid-19 Australia – we’ve all seen that J-curve that the government says is important to flatten – is the Critical Decade for climate policy, the small window when we had our best chance of limiting dangerous global warming to around 1.5°C.
The debate over when to shut down schools and enforce strict isolation measures in order to prevent an infection rate that would undoubtedly overwhelm Australia’s health system could be the debate over when to shut down coal power in time to replace it with renewables and storage.
People choosing to self-isolate, or pulling their kids out of school ahead of orders from on high, could be households and businesses going it alone on solar and batteries – doubtless the right decision for them but potentially disruptive to the system as a whole.
Coronavirus and climate change are even attracting the same brand of denial, and from the same trusty sources, with 2GB Radio shock-jock Alan Jones earlier this week describing COVID-19 as just “the health version of global warming.”
In each case, what is sorely needed is united and decisive political leadership, informed by science.
Speaking from experience gleaned from outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus, World Health Organisation executive director Michael Ryan put the importance of this leadership very plainly.
“You need to act quickly… You need to stop the chains of transmission. You need to engage with communities very deeply; community acceptance is hugely important. You need to be coordinated, you need to be coherent, you need to look at the other sectoral impacts.
“The lessons I’ve learned after so many Ebola outbreaks in my career are, be fast. Have no regrets. You must be the first mover. …If you need to be right before you move, you will never win,” Dr Ryan said.
“Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection. And the problem we have in society at the moment is that everyone is afraid of making a mistake. Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error. But the greatest error is not to move.”
And while he was talking about the containment of infectious diseases, Dr Ryan might just as well have been talking about the mitigation of climate change. And so far, we have seen none of the above from Australia’s national political leaders.
In the context of the climate emergency, the federal Coalition government’s lack of action “is the defining leadership failure of the past decade,” as a scathing Climate Council report put it last year.
Now it is 2020 and any political momentum gained over Australia’s devastating summer of unprecedented bushfires – back when surgical masks were being used to stop us inhaling dangerous smoke, and not germs – is in danger of being lost.
Major renewable energy and carbon market events have been cancelled and the presentation to federal Parliament of Zali Steggall’s climate bill, which seeks to lock Australia into net-zero emissions by 2050, has been postponed.
Even this week’s much-anticipated meeting of the COAG Energy Council has shifted its focus from urgent reform to electricity market design and regulation, to keeping the system running through a health crisis and giving consumers relief from bills.
Outside of Australia, the United Nations will not be holding any face-to-face climate change talks until at least the end of April, according to Climate Change News, and an EU-China climate summit due to take place at the end of the month has also been postponed – events described as essential ahead of the UN’s so-called “last chance” conference scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November.
This is all well and good and appropriate for right now. But what about when the crisis is over? Will Scott Morrison stand at a podium and firmly order the Australian people to “stop it” with the climate denial and get cracking on making meaningful action to lower emissions and keep that other curve under control? Unlikely.
Will we build on the gains the world has made on emissions reduction – China’s clean air! Venice’s clear canals! – in the name of virus containment, and recognise that this can be done on the regular, but without the hoarding and bringing whole economies to a halt? Perhaps.
Not only can this be done, but according to International Energy Agency chief Fatih Birol, now is the perfect time to do it.
“I am talking with several governments and international financial institutions leaders because they are all busy designing stimulus programmes for the economy – the plans they will put together will be extremely important,” Birol told Climate Home News on Tuesday.
“This is the reason I am telling them that we can use the current situation to step up our ambition to tackle climate change.”
Birol said he had urged political and global financial leaders to design “sustainable stimulus packages” that focus on investing in clean energy technologies and accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.
“This is a historic opportunity for the world to, on one hand, create packages to recover the economy, but on the other hand, to reduce dirty investments and accelerate the energy transition,” he said.
Why now? Well, because there is no time to lose. A new study published in Nature Communications this week has warned that tipping points – irreversible changes to vital ecosystems like forests and coral reefs – may happen sooner than previously thought.
And the World Meteorological Organisation revealed new statistics showing that about 22 million people were displaced by extreme weather in 2019, up from 17.2 million the year before.
And in Australia, where there is no long-term emissions target and no current federal policy guiding renewable energy development or driving the uptake of electric vehicles, we are in grave danger of going even further backwards if we don’t keep the pressure up.
“Along with the urgent task of land and climate repair at hand before Covid-19, we now will have an urgent task of economic repair in its aftermath. It’s crucial Australia integrates all three,” said John Connor, the CEO of the Carbon Market Institute.
“It is now even more crucial that we give clearer policy direction for investors in clean technology and biological, industrial and geological sequestration with a transition from a reliance on taxpayer funds as climate policy centrepiece,” Connor told RenewEconomy in an email.
“We can evolve our policies with a clearer direction for our safeguard baselines that can gives clear value to carbon reduction initiatives in industrial processes and carbon reduction offsets or credits. We can send a clear signal of intent to the global community with a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 and no use of Kyoto carryover.
“And we can give confidence to the community as well as investors and the global community of our direction with more robust independent advice and transparency through a refurbished Climate Change Authority or Climate Commission as proposed by Zali Steggall MP.
“We can and must do all of the above with smart policy managing emissions intensive companies trade exposure and a package to support affected workers and communities. Integrating land, climate and economic repair in policies that depend less on public funding commitments likely to be under considerable review after Covid-19 must be an urgent priority.”
Even 2GB’s Jones backtracked on his virus hoax line, presumably after being presented with some salient facts in his eyrie in the Southern Highlands. If only he and others on the conservative side would do the same on climate.
Anything less than urgent action, and we risk being left with the Sir Humphrey approach to perhaps the most important and urgent issue humanity has faced.
‘Yes Minister’ has a perfect summary of most Western countries response to the coronavirus outbreak 😷 pic.twitter.com/meuMCqkiAK
— Javier Blas (@JavierBlas) March 10, 2020