Bob Carr: Beneath the virus lurks a bigger emergency
With the world’s eyes focused on the impacts of COVID-19, the urgency of the climate threat is being overlooked. As published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
What did our battered old planet do to bring this run of wretchedly bad luck? Just before the 2008 Wall Street disaster, Washington was about to force emitters to pay for the privilege of dumping carbon waste in the upper atmosphere. Congress approved a cap and trade scheme so its economy could trade its way to a low carbon future. In a similar spirit the Rudd government was legislating its own carbon trading model.
Then the financial crisis knocked everyone sideways. The carbon lobby in both countries was able to talk job losses and higher taxes. The propaganda was a pushover. Legislation died in the US and Australian senates. And the world kept warming.
Last month the temperature on the Antarctic peninsular hit 65 degrees Fahrenheit, beating all previous records. For the globe, 2019 was the second hottest year on record, and the hottest without the contribution of a big El Nino.
The coming decade may be our last chance to contain the chaos driven by humankind’s craziest experiment: the idea that carbon can be stored in the thin filigree of air around the planet. The Paris Agreement provides a road map and the falling price of renewables a market impulse.
But again the economic cycle intrudes with a recession driven by a pandemic that Bill Gates had prophesied but no nations had prepared for (by stockpiling testing kits and ventilators, for example).
In the middle of the coronavirus crisis, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, to their credit, still find space to record the conclusion of leading reef scientist, Terry Hughes, that there is a third major bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef now under way. This follows the bleachings of 2016 and 2017. This is every bit a climate event as were the mega fires over Christmas.
Yet the irrevocable loss of healthy coral may not galvanise the way fires did. For many the reef is a memory of a holiday, a spray of subaqueous radiance they may never have expected to see again anyway. Its loss is not going to be a personal trauma like months of smoke-filled air, a house abandoned to flames, a night waiting evacuation on a beach with the sound of crashing trees.
Meanwhile, the pandemic emergency may kill off the Glasgow conference on climate planned for November. The UN event is aimed at averting runaway climate change by keeping the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. It’s being hosted by a British government with strong climate credentials that wants to ban petrol-powered vehicles by 2035 and brooks no argument about net-zero emissions in 2050 – which it has entrenched in legislation.
But who will bring together 40,000 international delegates if the virus is lurking and we’re still waiting for the save-all vaccine? If the world’s poorest countries are in a struggle for economic survival, none may have the resources to save the last rainforest cover on the planet.
A pandemic-caused economic crash may be considered a Black Swan. Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the expression for his 2007 book about unforeseen events of huge consequence. History, he reminds us, is not always incremental. It can take the form of a fracture in events. On climate one might imagine, for example, a savage acceleration in the retreat of Arctic ice. Every summer hits us with alarming evidence of its growing fragility. What if the process gets steroids?
Likewise, if the breaking up of permafrost in the Arctic circle assumes an extra ferocity. That would release plumes of methane, 30 times more lethal at trapping heat than carbon, but on a scale to blow apart every calibration of how fast climate is shifting.
For Australia, Black Swan climate events could include a cyclone beyond what we have seen before, hitting the Queensland coast. Experts say there is still enough unburnt bush to give us a fire season as bad as the last, even next season – if we suffer the same malevolent mix of heat, low humidity and strong wind.
After all, it was only this month we were surprised by something I don’t recall any expert predicting: a quick fall into recession or worse, produced by a new version of the flu. A rupture in the narrative, a Black Swan.
Beneath news of virus and slump there simmers an even bigger story. The planet keeps warming. And there’s no guarantee the rate may not pick up alarmingly.
Bob Carr, a former NSW premier and Australian foreign affairs minister, is a professor of business and climate at UTS.