The earth is breathing easier. Can it beyond COVID-19?

COVID-19 is doing a lot of the work environmentalists could only dream of.

Major cities and their birds are breathing easier. Across China, smog has given way to the colour blue. Even the snow-capped Himalayas are visible from parts of Northern India for the first time in local’s memories.

Here in Australia, bike sales are up and with fewer cars on the road fewer wild birds and animals are being injured.

Seismologists are reporting that the upper crust of the Earth is quieter. Less transport means much less pollution. Global emissions are now predicted will fall by 2.6 billion metric tons in 2020, the largest fall in history.

At home, many of us are returning to our gardens. There’s a shortage of seedlings at Bunnings. Even apartment dwellers are starting balcony gardens and “grow your own” food clubs.

Might some of the changes wrought by coronavirus last? There are reasons to feel some optimism:

1. In this instance the prime minister has acted on the science. Rather than talking about the cost of his measures, he is prioritising human lives with evidence-based policy.

2. The national cabinet of the prime minister and chief ministers and premiers is working so well (ructions over schools, notwithstanding) that it might continue, ideally inclusive of the Federal Opposition. It should. It would have the potential to drive the changes needed to deliver a low carbon future and other aspects of a national rebuilding program. Like with the pandemic, this is ultimately about good risk management in the context of ongoing drought across parts of Australian and concern about trade and supply chains.

3. We've been reminded that global events, including how we treat animals, have local impacts and visa versa; a realisation that will be needed to help get a greater handle on climate change.

4. With talk of new economic stimuli to support job creation, governments can and should be encouraged to embrace a green recovery that simultaneously addresses climate change and the recession. Amsterdam is showing the way, leveraging the pandemic with a breakthrough alternative to growth economics.

5. The pandemic has allowed (forced) many of us to live life more slowly, an experience that will help us rethink things. As former Greens leader Christine Milne told me, we have shown we can adapt: “We can continue to work, we can continue to do the things we want to do, albeit in a different mode, and I think what this is going to show is that we don't need to fly as much, that we can use Zoom, we can work from home a lot more”.

6. With public work on climate change less pressing (this year’s international conference has been postponed -- it’ll be in London next year), behind the scenes fresh thinking is emerging. When public attention returns to the topic, positions will have loosened.

7. In that spirit, a national body called the Women’s Climate Congress has been developed in Canberra with the aim of working towards life-nurturing solutions through mediation. Initiator, Dr Janet Salisbury told me, “If we can recognise with COVID-19 that there are personal sacrifices and a loss of freedom for the greater good, then we can do it for the climate emergency also.”

Dealing with the threat of the virus might turn out to have been a dress rehearsal for dealing with the threat of climate change, as well as threat of future coronaviruses. In both cases the costs of acting quickly are far lower than the costs of waiting and seeing how things develop.

In the very least, this public health crisis has offered both experience and language to talk about and promote climate health (People in the climate movement have often talked about global warming in terms of the Earth having a fever, not unlike the experience for virus sufferers).

Both threats require an agile public service, one prepared to reimagine what’s normal.

That’s not to deny the usual battles being fought by old industry. Some businesses are ramping up pressure on the federal government to reduce red or green tape so developments are fast tracked. Environmental laws could be weakened. It doesn't help that the Prime Minister's choice to lead the Covid Commission (a task force to drive the economic rebuild) is Nev Power, the former Fortescue Metals chief executive. Many on the Commission, advising the government are from the gas and mining sectors who want their industries bankrolled by taxpayers.

The cabinet should resist. Our consciousness has been changed. Surely, we cannot put the genie back in the bottle.


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