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COVID-19 a sign of things to come if we fail on climate

While the impacts of COVID-19 have been devastating, they will be immaterial compared to climate change unless we take meaningful action.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant upheaval to the lives of people all around the world. Whether it’s through relatively minor disruptions to everyday life or the pandemic’s more devastating effects, such as the loss of a job or a loved one, COVID-19 has had a collective global impact the likes of which hasn’t been seen for close to 70 years.

While it would be easy to dismiss the pandemic as a black swan event that we can quickly bounce back from, doing so would be incredibly short-sighted when another, even bigger crisis looms over the horizon. Despite all the horrific effects of COVID-19, perhaps the most terrifying thing about it is the fact that when compared to the potential impacts of climate change, it virtually pales into insignificance.

Much of the harm caused by COVID-19 is likely to bear a striking resemblance to the challenges we will face from climate change if we continue our current trajectory.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the lockdown restrictions that have confined millions of people to their homes. However, if we fail to keep temperatures well below the threshold of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, being confined to our homes will become a far more regular occurrence.

Many Australians experienced this pre-COVID-19 when they were forced to stay indoors to avoid the adverse health effects of the choking smoke from the Black Summer bushfires. The warming climate will also force us indoors more often during the summer months, with the number of extreme heat days (days with a temperature above 35°C) expected to increase significantly in every Australian capital over the next three decades.

Sign of things to come

The increasing effects of extreme heat and poor air quality will cause significant health impacts for many people, and similar to COVID-19 these will be most severe for the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions. In the Australian Government’s most recent State of the Environment report, the number of heat-related deaths is projected to more than double across most Australian capital cities between 2020 and 2050, while the smoke that blanketed much of south-east Australia during the past summer’s bushfires was linked to more than 400 deaths and 3,000 hospitalisations.

The other considerable impact of COVID-19 is the damage the pandemic has done to the global economy. While the full extent of the economic damage caused by the pandemic won’t be known for several years, it has been estimated that the cost to Australian economy will be at least $170 billion between now and 2025. While this is an enormous sum, it is dwarfed by the economic impact that climate change could have on Australia over the next 30 years.

Estimates by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute have put the total cost of climate change to the Australian economy at a staggering $2.7 trillion between now and 2050. This is largely due to the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, infrastructure damage, agricultural and labour productivity loss and losses in biodiversity and human health caused by climate change.

A will for climate action

While many similarities can be drawn between the impact of the pandemic and climate change, there is a significant difference when it comes to the response to the two issues.

When it comes to COVID-19, governments around the world have taken swift and decisive action to protect people’s lives and livelihoods. In many cases, this has involved governments casting aside previously unshakeable ideological positions to spend billions of dollars on income support and economic stimulus. Australia is no exception, with the federal government embarking on the biggest spending program in history to ease the impact of the pandemic. In the process, it set aside its relentless pursuit of a budget surplus that has underpinned its economic policies for the past 25 years.

The response to climate change could barely be more different. International efforts to confront the looming crisis have been bogged down by bickering and bureaucracy, which has resulted in international agreements taking years to be ratified and governments frequently missing their targets.

In Australia, climate change policy has been a fraught issue for both sides of politics, causing the downfall of multiple prime ministers. This has left the country without any form of meaningful emissions reduction policy, meaning we are now lagging well behind our climate targets and at risk of becoming an international pariah.

Clean energy the cure

While complete recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be possible until a vaccine is found, we already have a cure for climate change. Renewable energy is the fastest and most economical way for the world to reduce the impacts of climate change. Thankfully, a growing number of governments have recognised this, and have put renewable energy at the forefront of their COVID-19 recovery plans.

With the October Federal Budget just around the corner, Australia has an enormous opportunity to follow suit by responding to both the pandemic and the climate crisis at the same time.

By delivering a budget that makes it clear that Australia is ready to embrace the transition to a clean energy future, the federal government will create thousands of new jobs, inject billions of dollars of investment into the Australian economy and make significant strides towards meeting our international climate change commitments.

Over the past six months, the government has shown it’s more than capable of dealing with a global emergency. Now it’s time to step up again to prevent us from facing an even more devastating crisis than the one we’ve just been through.