COVID-19 is eclipsing the world's climate crisis, which we ignore at great cost

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Young protesters attend the Global Climate Strike in London on March 15, 2019 (Image by Garry Knight / Flickr)

Like the response to COVID-19, we need to focus on protecting people and that starts with protecting our environment, writes Dr Graeme McLeay.

THERE CAN be no sugar coating the present COVID-19 crisis and the global death toll may ultimately be in the tens of millions. Many deaths from the virus will go unrecorded and the figures may not tell the true story.

There is another global crisis that is every bit as horrific and for which death certificates mostly do not tell the story — climate change.

Climate change is already in our midst. We see it in extreme weather events: heat, starvation and suicide following crop failure due to drought. And in climate-related infectious disease: forced migrations, starvation or renal failure secondary to heat.

Australia has just experienced it as a major contributor to horrendous bushfires resulting in the devastation of the natural and built environment from which it will take years to recover.

The World Health Organisation has warned that an extra 250,000 will die each year between 2030 and 2050 from just some of these climate impacts. If you are a Bangladeshi farmer, the inundation of your land from rising sea levels is every bit as significant as coronavirus.

Major drivers of global warming are the burning of coal, gas and oil. Seven million people die as a result of air pollution every year — about half of which is associated with the burning of fossil fuels.

Australia finds itself in an extraordinary position. The management of the pandemic has been good, bar some early mistakes, and PM Scott Morrison – the man who took a lump of coal into parliament – has demonstrated a willingness to take advice from experts in the current crisis. 

However, the coronavirus is so sudden, frightening and dramatic that governments have been moved to extreme actions and the economic fallout has led to a huge loosening of government purse-strings. 

Consequently, young people will bear the brunt of that spending for a lifetime. They have a right to know how it will be spent. Will the economy work for the common good or in the interests of a few? Above all, will we have a sustainable, clean energy system which lessens the deepening environmental crisis of climate change? Or will the old 20th Century energy system prevail? 

The tremendous suffering and disruption the world is experiencing have been compared to the Great Depression which followed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 by a decade. 

In 1929 the stock market collapsed and with it the world economy, putting millions out of work. In 1932 one in three adult Australian men was unemployed.

As the economic crisis deepened in the United States, an environmental cataclysm struck with drought throughout the Great Plains of America, culminating in the infamous “Dust Bowl”. A combination of drought, high winds and poor agricultural land management saw valuable topsoil carried away as dust, leaving farmers destitute and driving them off their land, as vividly captured in John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath

At the height of these twin crises, a new president was elected. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was wealthy and privileged. By the time of his inauguration in 1933, he had been disabled for over a decade as a result of polio.

Once in office, FDR lost no time in establishing his "New Deal". Over three billion dollars – a stupendous sum at the time – was allocated to public works. Government spending and intervention occurred on a scale never seen before.

Roosevelt was detested by the privileged, propertied class, most of the newspaper proprietors and much of big business. He was denounced as a socialist, yet he was elected another three times and has since been praised not just for saving democracy but capitalism itself. 

“The only sure bulwark of continued liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government.”
~ Franklin Delano Roosevelt 

We have a huge opportunity in renewable energy. We have unlimited resources of both wind and solar, already meeting a sizeable proportion of our energy needs. Much more needs to be done: in urgently electrifying transport; in distributed energy; demand management; in building efficiency and in soil carbon and blue carbon initiatives

Australia cannot depend on coal and gas – the exports of both fuel the climate crisis – and two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain unused if we are to avoid climate catastrophe. We must instead have the ambition to be the green energy powerhouse of South East Asia so clearly described in Ross Garnaut’s book, Superpower

This week over 30 environment ministers from across the world – including from Germany and the United Kingdom – are gathering online for the Petersberg Climate Dialogue XI. They will discuss how to organise a green economic recovery and come to an agreement on ambitious carbon reduction goals. The UK, as host of the next climate change conference COP26, will chair the meeting.   

The Green New Deal movement calls for a rapid shift away from fossil fuel dependence and government intervention to bring about a renewable energy-powered and sustainable economy.

Fossil fuel industries should have no more influence than the thousands of kids who will gather online in May as part of the ongoing actions by School Strike for Climate. Our youth are looking for this Green New Deal, not business as usual.

It often takes a crisis to bring about change, yet the climate crisis is failing to move governments sufficiently to avoid climate breakdown. 

Like the response to COVID-19, we need to focus on protecting people and that starts with protecting our environment.

Dr Graeme McLeay is a retired anaesthetist and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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