The climate emergency after the pandemic

In an excess of zeal, I’m planning an Australia-specific book (working title, Australia after the Apocalypse: rebuilding a livable future) which will deal with the social, cultural and economic implications of the bushfire and pandemic catastrophes. This will complement The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic which will be global in its scope, but more narrow in its focus on economic issues. Over the fold, the opening section of a chapter on the climate emergency

Among the many lessons drawn by ‘hard-headed’ observers from the 2019 election, the most important was that climate change had to be put into the ‘too hard’ basket. Our experience since then has shown this lesson to be radically mistaken.

First, the bushfire catastrophe made it obvious that catastrophic global warming is not a potential problem for future generations: it is a reality right here and now. We may be lucky for the next year or two, but apocalyptic fire seasons like that of 2019-20 are here to stay, in Australia and around the world. The most we can

Second, the scale of our necessary response to the pandemic has been massively larger than the effort needed to manage the transition to a carbon-free economy. The pandemic is (we hope) a short-term emergency while decarbonization will take several decades, but a modest commitment of resources every year involves far less disruption than a similar commitment made in a very short period.

Finally, it is time to ignore, indeed to ‘cancel’, the voices of those who, whether for financial gain or in the pursuit of a vindictive culture war, use dishonest talking points to deny the obvious reality of rising global temperatures and smear the thousands of scientists and other researchers. Most of these deniers showed their true colours in the course of the pandemic, first arguing that we should accept thousands of deaths rather than damage the economy, then turning on governments (at least those with Labor premiers) when it turned out that restrictions had been inadequate.

A program to decarbonize our economy, beginning with electricity, then moving on to heavy industry and transport will involve substantial investment and restructuring. But it will yield many benefits, including net increases in employment in the energy sector. The problem is to manage the transition fairly, protecting those currently employed in industries like coal mining, which must be phased out. This will be one of the most challenging tasks recent Australian governments have faced, but the resources required are tiny compared to those we have mobilised to fight the pandemic.

17 thoughts on “The climate emergency after the pandemic

  1. John, I like this.

    I will post further reflections about the logical consequences of this tomorrow.

  2. John,

    1. We do not know for sure yet if there will be an “after the pandemic” era. COVID-19 outbreaks could remain endemic indefinitely.
    2. There will likely be more zoonotic disease pandemics in rapid succession from now on. We have probably crossed a zoonotic pandemic tipping point. I can refer books and articles for you, if you wish, on the reasons why this statement is very likely correct.
    3. The climate emergency is now and it will be continuous until the end of the century at least.

    The above is why thinking in terms of “The climate emergency after the pandemic” is very arguably wrong. The working title of the book needs work. I would argue for one of (for the first part):

    (a) “Australia in the Anthropocene:”; or
    (b) “Australia in the Anthropocalypse:”.

    And I would argue for one of (for the second part):

    (i) “rebuilding a livable future” (i.e. keep this the same);
    (ii) ” building a livable future; or even
    (iii) “salvaging a livable future”.


    “Anthropocalypse : Change or Die!”
    ” (It’s your choice)”

    I can keep “brainstorming” if you wish for I would argue that we are now in an endless emergency. There will no “after” the emergencies we face for at least the rest of this century. It is way past the time to soft-soaping it to people to appear reasonable and non-alarmist. There are indeed times when great alarm is the correct reaction. In teh first chapters you need to convey, I believe, the same feeling a person would get upon seeing they are two steps from treading on a 2 metre-long eastern brown snake.

    The intro needs to say there is great danger and great hope and that’s what the book is about. In keeping with that, promise hope but first scare the living sh*t out of people with worst-case and mid-case scenarios in the first two chapters. But then start to add hope. “We can still prevent this IF etc. etc.”

    Make it sound exciting. Welcome to a world with no boredom where we all work together and save our lives, our family and the very planet’s future! This beats the hell out of, “Oh gee, what shall I get? Chocolate chip or fudge ice-cream?” This will be a tremendously exciting, stimulating and revolutionary time when we will have to fight together like hell to survive!

  3. Insightful take, Professor. Does the rule of law come into it?

    The establishment of parliamentary government through the Revolution of 1688 set down the form of the rule of law. This created a level playing field for the contest between monarchy and democracy in the UK, which democracy won in the 19th century.

    It’s arguably because the rule of law has been corrupted in the last few decades (through factors such as offshore tax haven money washing back into the UK, the USA and Australia since the 1970s?) that democracy is also struggling now.

    Greenpeace Australia claims that our PM’s office is filled with coal and oil company people. Therefore, getting climate change action is impossible despite the bushfires, until the courts re-assert the rule of law over the Executive.

  4. It’s important, it’s timely, but my mind boggles trying to think about it.

    I am quite sure that many things important to me can never be the same. Our national parks devastated: wildlife populations exterminated, Barrier Reef bleached, brumbies in Koskiusko trampling native plants, snow-free snowfields, glaciers disappearing, quiet corners of the world loved to death. Can’t see them returning to what they were. The bushfires and the pandemic are just tipping points where people start to realise they are frogs in a frying pan that is slowly and inexorably heating up.

  5. Sadly a book can not provide the short term victories that lead to the long term result. A string of victories in the near future is acutally crucial if victory is to be achieved. If those victories are to have a effect towards achieving a positive result those victories have to be already be concieved by those who have the capability to carry them out and have the preperations for these victories larely completed by this time.
    If no one has done this work by now then really all that we can do is make jokes about whether a case with 24 bottles or 25 bottles is bettre. OK yes a book can be written. it will pass the time. It might even earn some income. But it will have no effect upon the outcome. It is to late for that.
    If the Cornonavirus is real and people are really dying from it and not just with it, there is no reason for hope. But if the Corona virus crisis is a hoax that means that the at least part of the instittuions that are designed to prevent a revolution have been corrupted. Or the hoax would not have been possible.
    If people want hope they better being praying, or at least hoping that the coronavirus crisis is a hoax.
    Machavelli would let the masses know that.

  6. My mistake is that because I understand juest how ernst the climate emergency is I NEED to believe that there are people in important positions of responsibilty that are doing something behind the scenes about it. But most people have not reached that point of dispair therefore they (most people) are nowwhere near the point of recognizing that hope is lost. No need to try to reasure people who do not need reassuring. They still need scaring or is it scaring I mean that they need to be scared so bad that it scars them.

  7. “Behind the pandemic: the climate emergency” which deals with iko’s point about not counting pandemic chickens. Allusion to Horace: post equitem sedet atra cura.
    My thoughts on costs in the other thread.

  8. In another thread, I wondered whether Scott Morrison’s LNP government have contingency plans for a bush-fire crisis in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic. Some linked questions to consider are;

    (1) How could people be safely placed at emergency evacuation centers at all?
    (2) Would these centers become corona-virus clusters in some cases?
    (3) Will other countries send firefighters?
    (4) Could New Zealand risk its firefighters getting corona-virus?
    (5) Could Australia accept firefighters from the US for example?
    (6) Would most firefighters from overseas pose a COVID-19 importation risk?

    The potential interaction of these two crises illustrates the ramifying problems which can occur when multiple crises intersect. Our future will consist of many simultaneous crises intersecting and magnifying each other. Imagine waves crossing each other in a wave pool and making double peaks. It will take concerted and continuous coordination to deal with all this. When will a government be honest enough to create the “Climate Emergencies” Portfolio?

  9. Ikon: I suspect that arriving on a fire scene and being isolated would not be a huge issue – we generally bring in whole teams anyway, so they’d likely be able to work while staying in quarantine. It’s only when firefighters come back from their “loan” complete with virus that there’s a problem. Which means lenders have to allow for a two week quarantine period on top of the fire.

    I have a real feeling that any evacuation would have to be to quarantine. More accurately, all but the first, because you just know that Scotty from Marketing is going to “compassionately” allow the virus to spread unchecked the first time this happens.

  10. Moz of Yarramulla,

    I’ve noticed that Scotty from Marketing pushed for premature opening to “get the economy going” and then closed Federal Parliament for pandemic safety reasons. Polite words fail me about the hypocrisy and inconsistency of this: not to mention his taking of every opportunity to govern by executive decree and avoid parliamentary scrutiny.

    Also, we are almost at the next fire season and there seem to be many victims from last year who still have had little to nothing done for them. What does this presage for the future. To me it says Australia simply cannot stand up to the near-annual onslaught of catastrophic bush-fires. We won’t have repaired all the damage before the next one hits. That suggest a reduction of Australia to a burnt wasteland outside of what we might think are bush-fire proof zones, and those will be less extensive than many people think.

    I also saw something on ABC TV which suggested that pine plantations are a significant part of our problem. An ecologist claimed they burn far worse than many native dry sclerophyll forests and wallums and are feeding the super-fires as well as the higher temperatures. Is that correct?

  11. Ikonoclast : I don’t think so. Plantation pine burns really fast, really hot, then stops. There’s no hardwood and not a lot of roots, so while the fire travels fast it doesn’t burn at the same intensity. AFAIK, anyway. Also, plantations are by definition accessible… if they’re not how are you going to log them?

    The reason they matter is money – when worthless bush and scrub burn no-one loses anything that matters, but when a major investment goes up in smoke that affects GDP.

    You could look at the pine fire in Nelson/Tasman, New Zealand last year for a comparison. I grew up there and am used to small fires in the plantations on a regular basis. By Australian standards it’s small and easily contained… but it happened a few degrees south of Australia. They are looking to the pine forests here and feeling concerned. We should probably panic.

  12. Siberia is having a record heat wave and forest fires right now and this after the 2019 Siberia forest fires. We should be panicking right now. I am planning to have a diesel pump, fire hose and multiple (rain) water tanks by this summer. My initial fill of my large rain water tanks may have to be with town water. Clearly I will pay for that. And I have just an acre and a half block on the edge of North East Brisbane suburbia, with state forests to the south-west, south and south-east of me.

    I have a road, a grassy acreage across the road, then some riverine scrub and the usually empty and gravelly South Pine River between me and the real forest. That’s at least 400 m of somewhat compromised buffer. It won’t matter a damn with a catastrophic bush-fire. I keep my block mown and free of all dead-wood, undergrowth and litter. That won’t matter a damn either. My house is wooden and I have a lot of gum trees on my block. I need to able to plan a fight or flee-on-foot strategy. I will send all other house occupants away early (with loaded cars) and stay to fight. If see and hear the “freight train” coming I will jump the back fence and the next (both acreages too) and then enter suburbia and run / walk to safety in the middle of that suburb. Someone will have a pool I can jump into if I have to.

    We are so ****ed at so may levels. I don’t think most people realize that yet.

  13. We should be panicking right now.

    I’m kind of all panicked out. Sold my bush block in … 1998 … because I didn’t think it was defensible. That was the upper West Coast of Te Wai Pounamu, which in a drought year might see as little as a metre of rain. I don’t think it will burn, but there is a list of risks that could make the place uninhabitable and I couldn’t remediate. Now it’s part of the Kahurangi National Park.

    My journey has ended up back where I started… bothering MPs to get political change, and helping NGOs out for the same reason. The good news is that a bunch of stuff I used to bother them about has become irrelevant (homosexuality is no longer criminal! Nuclear weapons not such a problem now), but the flip side is that we still have groups of powerful people determined to end technological society. Sigh.

  14. Moz,

    Alter that to “we still have groups of powerful people determined to end all society and send homo sapiens extinct” and I will completely agree with you.

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