BARRY JONES. From COVID-19 to Climate Change? Hoping for a miracle.

Apr 29, 2020

Australia handled the COVID-19 pandemic exceptionally well. Our success gives us confidence that our political leaders and institutions are capable of addressing other serious issues, such as climate change, the refugee crisis, redefining work, and setting a high international standard.

On 27 April the best estimate of those infected by coronavirus was 3 million worldwide.

One million were in the United States, the world’s richest nation, with more Nobel Prize winners in Medicine than any other, but where the response was both tragic and ludicrous, abjectly unprepared, although some states, California in particular, did well.

In Great Britain, the National Health Service, grossly underfunded and stretched to its limits, was slow to respond, with 157,000 cases and 21,000 deaths –  a mortality rate of 13.3%.

Sweden, with 40% of Australia’s population, thought it had done rather well by practising a ‘herd immunity’ strategy, resulting in 19,000 cases and 2274 deaths.

Australia had 6720 cases and 83 deaths. If it had not been for the wretched cruise ships and some serious problems in aged care facilities the mortality rate would have been even lower.

New Zealand, where Jacinda Ardern decided to ‘go early, go hard’ in imposing a lockdown, also did well, with 1469 cases and 19 deaths.

Scott Morrison grew on the job in responding to COVID-10 (and I write this with gritted teeth). However, he started on a low base after his refusal to take serious action on climate serious and his humiliating performance during the bushfire crisis.

But Morrison sought expert advice and, despite some stumbles and confusion in the translation, stuck to it and kept explaining it, at almost Whitlamian length. But he grasped the need to get the evidence and explain, explain, explain, often telling people what they did not want to hear, and there he was correct.

Prof Brendan Murphy was exemplary in his role as Chief Medical Officer. Morrison’s reliance on him must have forced him to rethink the implications of his wretched speech to the IPA (18 August 2018) in which he relegated the role of the public service to simply do what Ministers told them, and not offer independent, expert advice.

The State Premiers were excellent, decisive, open to persuasion, seeking the best evidence, and put their cases with conviction. Dan Andrews  and Mark McGowan were the most effective, followed by Gladys Berejiklian. The Commonwealth Parliament, already teetering on the brink of irrelevance, nearly fell off the cliff. It came as a shock to many voters to realize that their House of Representatives holds the Gold Medal for the brevity of its sessions – an average of 67 days each year, less than half of the British House of Commons or the Congress in the United States.

Comparison of the Australian Government’s approach to tackling coronavirus and its failure to act decisively to mitigate the nation’s contribution to climate change has been very striking.

COVID-19 was recognized as immediate, personal and local, and that exposure today or tomorrow could be life-threatening, while climate change was medium to long term, global and systemic.

The routine excuses for failure to address climate change have not been adopted:

  • ‘the science is not settled’,
  • ‘this is not the time’,
  • ‘our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ (i.e. not dealing with causes).

It is not clear what role, if any, is being played by lobbyists. However, radio shock-jocks and some newspaper columnists claimed the same omniscience on coronavirus as they have for climate change and complained of an ‘overreaction.’

The last serious debate in the Australian Parliament about some aspects of climate change was in 2009 when the original Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was defeated in the Senate. Even then, the primary emphasis then was not on the science but on the economics, politics and personalities.

In the following decade, the climate change issue became toxic and infantilised. Neither of the major parties fully understood the science and Australia’s role as a world outlier in carbon dioxide emissions.

There has been no discussion in the Parliament or the media  of the 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) proposing a ‘carbon dioxide budget’, which would require cumulative global CO2 emissions between now and 2030 to be less than  420 billion tonnes (420 GtC: gigatonnes of CO2) to have a 66% chance of limiting mean global temperatures rises to 1.5° C.

Australia’s mean surface temperature has already increased by 1.5° C since 1900, long before the rest of the world. The European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, the Vatican have already declared a ‘climate emergency.’  Will Australia, more threatened than most other nations, follow their example?

There was no serious debate about climate change in the 2019 election because Labor, for reasons I could never understand, refused to talk about the science that was the basis for taking action.

Melissa Price, Minister for Environment, was kept out of sight during the 2019 campaign because of fear that she might be interviewed.

Bill Shorten proposed significant increases in emissions reductions without explaining adequately why a Labor government would be doing it.  The ALP failed to involve millions in the community who engage directly with the issue (gardeners, farmers, bushwalkers, anglers, bird watchers, whale watchers, beekeepers, skiers, vignerons).  Their lived experience and direct observation should have been harnessed, but was not.

Shorten never talked about the science, and he rejected my advice to emphasize that each tonne of coal burnt produces 3.67 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which hangs around for decades in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Burning coal is the biggest single contributor to increased levels of CO2, accounting for 46% of the total. Abundance and cheapness of coal exacerbate the problem.

It is not ‘demonizing’ coal to point this out. And he never referred to cement, cows and cities, all three presenting central difficulties in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Part of the problem is that science is not embedded in our political culture – in stark contrast to medical science/ health, where we can see the immediate beneficiaries by looking out the window or at a mirror.

Expenditure on National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grants rose from  $168.7 million in 2000 to $861.9 million in 2018, with increases each year except in 2013, 2016 and 2017, a total of $11.3 billion for 2000-18.

Expenditure on other research areas through the Australia Research Council (ARC) are harder to track down but have been in decline since the election of the Abbott Government in 2013.

CSIRO’s  Budget has been cut and many scientists have been ‘released’. The current CEO, Dr Larry Marshall, formerly a venture capitalist in the U.S., slashed expenditure on climate change research after describing it as ‘more like religion than science.’

Once the National Party was zealous in its support for science, and especially for CSIRO, and David Thomson was a committed Minister for Science. Now the National Party (both the Joyce and McCormack wings) is firmly in the anti-science camp as it moves away from farmers, with their concerns about climate and soil health, and towards mining and some special interest groups such as the cotton lobby which reject scientific concerns about taking water away from the environment.

The Nationals stopped Turnbull from acting decisively on climate change and wrecked the National Energy Guarantee, together with Tony Abbott and Andrew Robb.

There is no effective pro-science lobby – but a very powerful and strategically placed anti-science lobby, both inside and outside Cabinet.

If  Morrison wants to be regarded as a great national leader he must apply the same modus operandi to climate change – and refugees – that he did with COVID-19, and work with the States (already well ahead of him in setting lower emissions targets) and seek cooperation with the Opposition.

He says he believes in miracles. He should work on producing some.

Barry Jones was Minister for Science 1983-90 and is a Fellow of four of Australia’s five learned academies. His Sleepers, Wake NOW! will be published by Scribe in 2020

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