As Australian governments scramble to formulate the appropriate response to the newly declared pandemic proportions of the Coronavirus, a new report from the Climate Council has reminded of the burningly urgent need to address that other global crisis, climate change.
The report, titled Summer of Crisis, says – unequivocally – that Australia’s devastating and unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfire season was fuelled by the climate impacts that are, in turn, being fuelled by the burning of coal, oil and gas.
The Climate Council says the horror bushfire season, which in some parts of Australia started in winter, not only cost lives, wiped out livelihoods and decimated Australia’s native animal, bird and insect populations, but will also leave a serious dent in the economy.
The tourism sector alone, the report says, is set to lose at least $4.5 billion because of the bushfires, and is estimated to have led to a 10-20 per cent drop in international visitors booking holidays to Australia.
The smoke that blanketed Sydney, meanwhile, is estimated to have cost that city $12-50 million per day, while more than 23,000 bushfire-related insurance claims lodged nation-wide have been totted up to an estimated total value of $1.9 billion.
As for the carbon budget, that was blown out of the water with the fires estimated to have spewed between 650 million and 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – equivalent to the annual emissions from commercial aircraft worldwide and far higher than Australia’s annual emissions of around 531 million tonnes.
In light of all this, the report says, Australia’s continued shirking of its international responsibility to take actual action to drive down its greenhouse gas emissions is morally and economically reprehensible – particularly as the world braces for a new hit from the novel Coronavirus.
“Australia urgently needs a plan to cut our domestic greenhouse gas emissions to net zero and to phase out fossil fuel exports, because we are one of the world’s largest polluters,” the report says.
“We are the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally and emit more per person than any other developed country.
“We are also the third largest exporter of fossil fuels … Clearly, what Australia does matters and the longer we delay, the harder the problem will be to solve.
“We cannot call on other countries to take action if we fail to do so. We simply cannot leave this mess for our children to try to fix.”
The report is particularly scathing about the federal Coalition government, which it says has ignored repeated warnings from scientists over at least a decade, and more recently from fire and emergency experts about impending bushfire disaster.
“Simplistic arguments about arson, hazard reduction and ‘green tape’ do not stand up to scrutiny, and are not responsible for what was clearly a series of weather-driven disasters,” the report says.
“Worsening extreme weather is clearly driven by a warming climate. Further denial and delay in taking action on emissions guarantees a worsening of disasters into the future.
“Taking action now will provide a chance to stabilise, then eventually reduce disaster risks for future generations.”
This week, the public and policy focus is almost entirely trained upon the spread of COVID-19, and how to keep this at bay, without bringing the economy to its knees.
As we wait for further advice from health minister Greg Hunt – who in his previous role as environment minister gave the green light to the Adani Group’s massive Carmichael coal mine in northern Queensland – we must not forget about one of the biggest threats to the health of humankind.
While we humans obsessively check our body temperatures, scientists have been checking the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and waters for decades now, and warning that these are rising to levels that will not support life.
As the Bureau of Meteorology has told us, 2019 was the hottest year on record across Australia with mean temperature 1.52°C above average and mean maximum temperature 2.09°C above average. It was also the driest year on record, with rainfall 40 per cent below average.
Setting a clear pathway to end fossil fuel production and generation, and a more ambitious and longer-term target for emissions reduction, is the least Australia can do.